September 23, 2009
OK, we know the first decade of the 21st century doesn't really end until 2011. We think. But we also know there have been 10 full NBA seasons played since the phrase "Y2K" was on all of our lips (1999-2000), and here at Ball Don't Lie we've decided to use this as an offseason excuse to rank some of the best and not-so-brightest of the 10 campaigns in question. The result? Why, top 10 lists!
Hey, I don't care if it's the Clippers' war room — a war room is a war room. That's a Yeats paraphrase, I believe.
We've done this before, and though a lot has changed since 2007, the difficulty in ranking GMs stays the same.
After all, while everyone wants to win, teams have different ways of going about it. Some need to lose, for a few years, to win. Some need to stay mediocre, for a few years, to win. Some teams have $120 million to work with, after luxury taxes, some teams have half of that, some teams have a third of that.
Different value systems, different eras (is Sam Presti worse at his job right now than the GMs of the last two title-winning teams? You can't go on winning percentage, alone), different sets of rules. Stuck in a particular era, looking forward to 2009-10, with an eye (and heavy emphasis) on the last decade — here are our top 10 GMs.
10. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
Admittedly, Morey's presence on this list is due to one hot start, and a whole lot of optimism as his band of obscure role players head into 2009-10 without the services of Yao Ming(notes) and Tracy McGrady(notes). There's a feeling about this team. It has Morey's stamp all over it, and it could weather the crap-storm it's had to deal with as Yao and T-Mac consistently pull up lame. And his 2008-09 turn wasn't all that bad, either.
9. Mark Warkentien, Denver Nuggets
He didn't finish the job, but the Nuggets' core was created by Kiki Vandeweghe, who saw fit to (finally) lay waste to former Denver prez Dan Issel's obsession with creating a .500-team back in 2001-02. Vandeweghe rebuilt and picked up Carmelo Anthony(notes), Kenyon Martin(notes) and Andre Miller(notes) in the process, while getting Denver back to the playoffs. And it should be noted that, after Vandeweghe was let go, Warkentien has had help — most notably from Rex Chapman and Bret Bearup — in the Denver front office.
Doesn't matter. Mark's fantastic at his gig. And a deserved winner of the 2009 Executive of the Year award.
8. Pat Riley, Miami Heat
Riley has made quite a few iffy moves, his Heat are always near the top of the league in payroll, he's obsessed with big names (who may not always be boasting big games at the point in their career that Riles acquires them), and he often seems a half-step away from returning to the coaching sidelines. Again.
But he's also rebuilt his Heat a few times, he's been in the playoffs seven times during the last decade, and while his moves during the summer of 2005 may have been pound-foolish, it won the man and his superstar (Dwyane Wade(notes)) a ring. Something you can't say for LeBron James'(notes) general manager.
7. Kevin Pritchard, Portland Trail Blazers
I can't say I'm as smitten with Pritchard as most. He has the luxury of dealing with Paul Allen's ("give ‘em $3 million and they'll give us Fernandez") money, but he also concocted a series of draft-day trades that could put his Trail Blazers into the NBA Finals as early as this season.
A good chunk of these deals were created by Pritchard while he served as the No. 2 behind the insufferable Steve Patterson, and while we're a little dubious as to how Portland used Raef LaFrentz'(notes) expiring contract and eventual cap-space hole (only Andre Miller? No trades? That's it?) you can't argue with a team this young and this good. Great, actually.
6. Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles Lakers
If we're honest, it looked as if Kupchak didn't really understand what sorts of players fit best inside Phil Jackson's offensive and defensive systems. The guy should have studied at the feet of Jerry Krause, seriously, instead of signing Isaiah Rider.
Now, Mitch was hamstrung by an owner that didn't want to pay the luxury tax, and a top-heavy roster that left little wiggle room once Shaq and Kobe walked off with their cash. Still, it was a rough start, as the role players surrounding the 2001-02 and 2002-03 championship contenders were pretty awful, rebuilding was fitful, and we're two years removed from wondering if Andrew Bynum(notes)-for-Jermaine O'Neal is a good idea.
But smart lower-round draft picks, luck (other teams had better packages in place for Pau Gasol(notes), but Memphis didn't want to deal; by the time Mitch came calling with his package, the Grizzlies were desperate to unload), and the help of Jim Buss (who pushed to draft and then keep Bynum) have had the Lakers in the Finals in consecutive years, with a win in 2009.
5. Otis Smith, Orlando Magic
We're getting at a point in this list where you could easily switch one GM for another, and I'd have a hard time arguing against you.
Smith (and fellow Magic personnel man Dave Twardzik) had a rough start in Orlando, botching a draft (Fran Vasquez), a role-player signing (Keyon Dooling(notes)) and two coaching hires (Brian Hill, Billy Donovan). He then cleared the cupboard to sign Rashard Lewis(notes), and though he was exactly what Orlando needed, you still don't pay $122 million for exactly what you need, unless he's named after a type of steak, shares initials with our 36th president, or has a mother who obviously didn't know how to spell the name "Dwayne." Among one or two others.
But Smith also worked well around the fringes, built around the pieces left for him (the previous administration was awful, but they did acquire Dwight Howard(notes), Jameer Nelson(notes) and Hedo Turkoglu(notes)), and had his team in the 2008 Finals. And, somehow, the 2009-10 version of the Magic looks far, far superior.
4. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
If it seems odd to rank this guy so high, considering he's spent years presiding over some pretty rank teams, I can understand your fears. But this is a decade-long list, and while some of the men at the top of this page may have better futures (and won't have to pay Kevin Garnett(notes) over $21 million in 2011-12), Ainge's drafting acumen and willingness to take chances make him a winner in my book. If not one in the standings, from 2003 until 2007.
3. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
No rings, I concede, but this is a decade-long list. And while I can't count the Shawn Marion(notes)-for-Steve Nash deal that helped turn the Mavericks around in 1998, to say nothing of drafting Dirk Nowitzki(notes) (both deals happened before 1999-00, a point that hurts Sacramento GM Geoff Petrie), I can admire the way Nelson (above, left) has sustained a winner for the bulk of this decade.
Nobody knows, exactly, how Dallas is going to put it all together with their older roster in 2009-10, but they should be a fun watch, an expected winner and the latest in a series of what should be 10 consecutive playoff appearances for Dallas. For someone who watched the team flail through the 1990s, that's still a little mind-boggling.
2. Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
Bum moves, Joe's made a few. But he's been in the front office since 2000 and running things on his own since 2001, and the sheer amount of moves he's made has still left the Pistons in the playoffs for every season he's run things singularly. He's also presided over a title-holder, built solely around his trades and pick-ups.
Dumars started by playing it smart, working with teams in cap hell, leaving things flexible, sometimes acting as if Bird Rights didn't matter and he had an NFL-styled hard cap to work with. The Pistons were in the Eastern Conference finals every year between 2003 and 2008, and it was only the players' fault they didn't win more titles.
He's also screwed up a fair amount. Let the Larry Brown situation linger, let his players walk all over Flip Saunders, drafted Rodney White, drafted Darko Milicic(notes), picked up lower-rung free agents that just didn't work, hired Michael Curry and seemed all too willing to quickly cash in his 2009 cap space for Ben Gordon(notes) and Charlie Villanueva(notes) — two nice players who might not even start for Detroit for spells next season.
Could it have been better? Yes, Detroit's run could have been much, much better. Spurs-like, better. But overall, it was still pretty damn good.
1. R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs
We don't know how much impact Gregg Popovich has had on Buford's wheelings and dealings, and R.C. has had help (current Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti was on his payroll for years). Buford also had nothing to do with the acquisitions of David Robinson (1987) or Tim Duncan(notes) (1997).
But there's no denying Buford's impact on the Spurs' rise to power this decade. Even though he technically wasn't the team's personnel boss (that would be Popovich) when the Spurs drafted Manu Ginobili(notes) (2000) or Tony Parker(notes) (2001), he was the man who recommended the franchise take both future All-Stars.
Buford's also emblematic of an organization that, from the owner on down, works together to sustain a winner, and stay frank and honest with themselves. Not a lot of game-playing in San Antonio, besides the 82 (and many, many extra playoff contests). They work from October until spring. Call it a symbolic choice, rail on me for not picking the lone GM gunslinger, despise the fact that, over 10 years after winning their first championship, the Spurs are still contenders under Duncan.
Do what you want. Organizations do win championships. The players are part of the organization, and the players need help. The executives need help, too, in the form of the expert player. The Spurs get this. Owner Peter Holt gets this, and Buford gets this. Unafraid to ask for help, unafraid to chase down a winner. And the results (the playoffs in every year, four championships overall, three during the decade in question) speak for themselves.
So I'll shut up.
Questions? Comments? Furious and righteous anger at a world, not to mention top 10 list, gone wrong? Swing by later today at about 3 p.m. Eastern for a BDL mini-chat regarding this very list.