The trade deadline is a few short weeks away. And whether you’re the Warriors or the Nets, what comes with the trade deadline is an opportunity to make roster changes.
Coming into the deadline, which teams are in the best hands as they face future changing decisions? The worst hands? This article will rank all 30 NBA GM situations.
In ranking the GM’s the following factors have been considered:
Knowledge of the CBA: The critical nature of this factor is obvious. Is your GM clearly well versed in the CBA, and is he finding loopholes and creative ways to make the team better? Or is his approach rather vanilla and standard?
Talent Evaluation: This is unavoidably a factor. Some tend to believe it is not fair to judge GM’s on draft hits and misses, but the bottom line is that as a GM it is your job to import good talent. When you choose worse talent over better talent, you have to be judged for that.
How Modern Your Approach to the Game is: Is your GM innovative? Is he considering critical, new age metrics (or at least newer metrics, as none of this is brand new) like points per possession, net rating, the ability to shoot the corner 3, and other advanced metrics, or is he building based on the way the NBA was built in 1995.
The Ability to Shift Gears: Sometimes the best laid plans go to waste. How good is your GM at shifting gears when a plan does not go well. Is he malleable? Or is he insistent on making things work with the former plan or free agent signing, to prove it was a good decision?
The Strength of Relationships: Some missed this during the failures of Sam Hinkie, but it cannot just be assumed that once he “decided to spend,” players would simply line up and accept his money. This is a relationship based business. GM’s and owners, and GM’s and players, interact all the time, and develop impressions of one another. Does your GM have a reputation of being candid, easy to work with, and does he present as selling success? Or is he someone others cannot trust; if so, why would free agents pick his program when they can make similar money someplace else.
The Ability to Sell a Program: One part of the GM job is selling yourself, and the program you have to offer. At the end of the day, if a free agent sees 15 teams with cap space, and meets with 5, it means he sees all five as competent. Who gets that free agent to sign may be as simple as who takes their fine vision – when all pitchmen have a fine vision – and best packages it to the free agent.
The Ability to Manage Front Office and Other Egos: This is a huge, underrated factor. Some owners are tyrants, or at least are overly meddlesome in management based affairs. Some other individuals in management similarly have large egos. The ability to keep these personalities in check, and be a facilitator of both organizational harmony, and of keeping ownership in check. Take a look for example at how Bob Myers manages huge Warriors front office egos like Jerry West, or how Phil Jackson has kept Dolan’s meddling in check.
The Willingness to Remain in the Background so the Work of Others Can Shine: Nobody likes a spotlight hog. And in a business where you want elite coaches to stay a while, and you want players to give you their prime years, being liked is important. Is your GM willing to delegate and let others shine?
The rankings have one caveat: the context between jobs and what they ask you to do are so incredibly different, in light of the state of the roster on arrival and jobs they have been asked to do. In many cases, we do not know how good a GM would be in a different situation.
With that, on to the rankings, from top to bottom, and in tiers:
TIER 1: THE GOLD STANDARD
1) R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs: The gold standard of team building. Where do you begin? He created the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker champions, sure, but it’s not just that. When the league was reliant on playing bigger, he built the Duncan-Robinson teams. When it shifted to guard play, he built teams around guards that play faster. And almost as incredibly, we all thought Duncan Parker and Ginobili would age out of contention, but the reload with Leonard (the Hill-Leonard trade was controversial at the time, and some wondered if Parker would be the piece on the move) and Aldridge has been fantastic.
TIER 2: BONAFIDE GREAT GM’S
2) Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors: Myers has done a tremendous job in Golden State. He spearheaded their unreal 2012, where they traded Monta for Bogut, and drafted Draymond, Barnes, and Ezeli. He saw a contention window and made the Iguodala trade at the right time, and also did not let the Mark Jackson firing be impulsive: it was made for clear reasons on the offensive end, with a clear plan in place. And while the Warriors are seen as a modicum of stability, between Jerry West (an assertive presence), an owner with a win now itch, the fact the owner’s son is in the front office, and a poor overall franchise history, there are the ingredients in place for the Warriors to be Kings or Nets like in their combustibility. Myers’s easy to work with, firm when need be personality doesn’t allow that to happen.
3) Neil Olshey, Portland Trail Blazers: Olshey does not get anything close to the credit he deserves, likely because he has not won a title. But he is tremendous. He found nice youngsters with the Clippers like Eric Bledsoe and Al Farouq Aminu and Eric Gordon outside the top six of the draft. He consolidated multiple of those pieces into Chris Paul, and did so without dealing Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, or Bledsoe. The once ultimate laughingstock in the Clippers became a routine 55 win team. That is his doing. Now in Portland, he’s been as potent. He engineered the acquisition of a lottery pick for Gerald Wallace that became Damian Lillard. Also impressive, while building a clear title contender around Aldridge and Lillard (they won 50-57 games a year, and were clearly a contender despite not winning a title), he kept his future flexible. He understood that with Aldridge in house, it made sense to have quality veteran talent around them to contend, but that if Aldridge left, it made sense to go young around Lillard. The “defection” of Matthews, Lopez, and Batum is a misleading term: Olshey did not want them because Aldridge left, and he shifted to acquiring young talent around the league to grow with Lillard. By doing so, he accelerated the rebuild by a year.
4) Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics: Ainge of course completed a master stroke in 2007 with the KG acquisition, and the addition of Ray Allen was huge as well as finding Rondo at 21 in the draft. But he also deserves huge kudos for his gear shifting ability. When he saw he would not contend around Pierce and KG going forward, sure he was aided by Brooklyn’s desperation, but he made the right decision to move on nonetheless. He has a stable of young players who are competitive, and all eminently tradeable. Ainge hasn’t been able to take step 2, toward contention, but that will require a star coming along, and Ainge has done all he can to date to position himself to get one (perhaps with the Nets’ lottery pick). Ainge also is affable, others like him, and he has one underrated trait: he constantly helps facilitate other deals, as the third team facilitator. That builds good will; now agents and teams will come to you to get deals done instead of someone else.
5) Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks: Nelson has been the Mavericks’ GM for years, and has done an exceptional job building the team. He has presided over a team that has consistently contended, or been reasonable competitive. He has also done an excellent job of shifting gears when plans go awry. After winning in the 2000s, when Steve Nash left, he merely shifted gears and got different players to play point. He found talent, as he always has, late in the draft, as well. When recent plans to spend big on max players fell through, he shifted gears and built a team more traditionally. The Mavericks have created one of the league’s great cultures, and have the aura of a consistent winner. Cuban may talk a lot, but he delegates management to Nelson and does not meddle despite his verbosity: it has worked.
6) Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder: Presti has nailed the draft, it cannot be disputed. And that has made the Thunder an annual contender, for the foreseeable future. However, there are dings on his resume that have to be noted. He paid Enes Kanter a ton of money after the Reggie Jackson fiasco. He let Jeremy Lamb go for nothing and committed to a lesser Dion Waiters. And some of his draft picking success does come down to fortune: Kevin Durant fell into his lap. While the Harden deal was awful, he was put into a box by ownership, so that is not something to blame him for.
7) Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors: Ujiri is a master of his craft. Clearly, he handled the fact that Carmelo Anthony decided to leave Denver before he arrived extremely well, turning Melo into such a major haul and really seeing the Nuggets not miss a beat – they were as good or better from 2011-2013 when he left, as they were from 2003-2009 with Melo. He has been equally impressive in Toronto. He got Lowry to stay at a super affordable number ($12 million for Lowry in light of today’s cap is just ridiculous), and has built a former punch line into a 28-15 team and perennial eastern contender. Ujiri has shown the ability to build contenders and deal with the dark times of a rebuild while protecting assets. He does lose some credit for the fact that he inherited two organizations with good asset pictures, rather than building from the ashes.
8) Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers: Kevin Pritchard is the GM, but Bird is president of basketball operations (which means he runs basketball operations). Bird has been extremely valuable to the Pacers in this role. While some former great players or coaches excel as GM’s at the big stuff (big name signings), but not the small stuff (cap, asset, and draft management), Bird has done it all. He found players like Paul George and Roy Hibbert in the draft. He excelled selling the program to free agents like David West and CJ Miles. Impressively, he was bold enough this summer to see the league has evolved, and shift gears into small ball, and the Pacers are taking baby steps towards building a new contender around George’s skills.
9) Pat Riley, Miami Heat: Riley obviously pulled off the heist of heists in 2010 and his ability to sell himself, and to keep organizational harmony and keep everyone in line, is extremely valuable. But when you consider that LBJ, Wade, and Bosh simply decided to play together in the one place they could, how much of that was Riley? When you consider Riley tried at one point to overpay Elton Brand (the Clippers matched his terrible offer sheet), allowed the team to crumble when Shaq declined (but was saved by his heist), and recently overpaid for Goran Dragic (both in dealing two firsts, and shelling out $90 million), there is some concern that Riley struggles with the details of the jobs. Still, his big picture vision is excellent and has obviously worked in Miami.
TIER 3: BONAFIDE GOOD GM’S
10) Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets: Morey has obviously done a great job in Houston turning a formerly consistently mediocre organization into a Harden-Howard led contender, although their slippage this year is noticeable. Morey’s deep attention to analytics and superior CBA knowledge are enormous assets in Houston: Still Morey has one critical weakness: he struggles with the human element to the job, and sometimes fails to capture the human, non-statistical aspects of the job. Morey has consistently allowed critical pieces to enter and exit in recent seasons on the belief they were not superstars and thus should not be paid. There is a penchant in Houston for making players feel more like assets than people, and that has been disruptive to team chemistry.
11) Jerry Colangelo, Philadelphia 76ers: In calling a spade a spade, this is not Sam Hinkie’s job. Colangelo has a proven history of building winners, as he did during his many years in Phoenix: the Suns are one of the league’s most successful organizations despite the lack of hardware, with a history chock full of 50-60 win seasons. Immediately, Colangelo saw that sometimes, you must do something sub-optimal if it has other implications: Ish Smith isn’t worth a second rounder on paper but he has done wonders for the play and morale of Philly’s most critical pieces. Colangelo should help the Sixers sign significant free agents, and Hinkie should not get that credit – nobody liked him because of his human element issues, and those things matter when asking a person to commit years of their life to you.
12) Gar Forman, Chicago Bulls: Forman has done well as Bulls GM since his 2009 hire, and drafting Jimmy Butler 30th was huge. Still, it should be noted that much of the Bulls’ success from 2010-2015 was under Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, whom he did not draft, and Tom Thibodeau, a coach he was not fond of. Forman did pluck good pieces to put around Rose and Thibodeau over the years to continue having success, and surely Rose shredding his knee is not his fault. He has virtues as a GM. Still, he let personal feelings get in the way in deciding to fire Thibodeau in a move that hurts the franchise.
13) Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles Lakers: Kupchak became GM of the Lakers after their three peat and did a good job, when circumstances beyond his control required Shaq to be traded and the team to be torn down, of keeping the Lakers pseudo competitive, and flexible enough to make a big strike if a chance presented itself. He did so with the Pau Gasol trade, and build a contender around Kobe, Gasol, and Lamar Odom (who was acquired for Shaq). Still, he did have the good fortune of inheriting a consistent top 5 player, and how well he can do rebuilding this current situation remains to be seen. Of note, given Jim Buss’s bizarre ownership reign, coupled with the mandate to do anything and everything for Kobe (which crippled the Lakers the past 4 years), much of what has happened to the Lakers of late cannot be blamed on Mitch.
14) Chris Wallace, Memphis Grizzlies: If there is an example out there that a GM needs time because moves often do not have their full effect until years down the line, it is Chris Wallace. Wallace was a maligned GM once upon a time, for dealing Pau Gasol, paying Zach Randolph, and paying Mike Conley. As time passed, all of those moves worked out. Ironically, the Grizzlies essentially put him on paid leave (he was GM in title only) when Robert Pera (a huge red flag as an owner who has not been seen as such as yet due to inheriting a great team) brought in Jason Levien, but Wallace got the job back after Levien’s ouster. He built an elite contender in Memphis and it is good to see him bac in the league.
TIER 4: GM’S WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE, BUT WHO HAVE SHOWN THEY MAY BE GOOD
15) Rob Hennigan, Orlando Magic: Hennigan, like Ujiri, stepped into a brutal situation with the Dwightmare in full effect, but was superb in finding the best return possible. In fact, every team in that deal has regretted it, except Orlando, who still builds around Vucevic and other remnants of the deal. Hennigan also found Tobias Harris for a departing JJ Redick, and has built a fine young core around a study coach in Scott Skiles. The next step will be tougher, but Hennigan has turned ash into a potential bright future.
16) Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons: Van Gundy early in his tenure has done a very good job. He was able to add a nucleus player in Reggie Jackson, now the #2 piece on an above .500 group, without giving up a whole lot, and while preserving future cap space. He undid much of the bad work done by Joe Dumars. When he saw Drummond and Monroe would not work as a tandem, he let Monroe walk, so he can find a better fit, and did so tactfully (which is important: you deal with these agents, these players, and their respective friends who they talk to about your work, again and again).
17) Phil Jackson, New York Knicks: I covered, on this site, how well Phil has done as Knicks GM, in detail. Phil’s three biggest strokes are as follows: picking Porzingis; keeping Melo even if he is not part of the future (you can always shop him); and, most importantly, the ability, from a relationship perspective, to use his unique power of personality to keep James Dolan in check (Dolan has flexed his muscle at times, but it has not been pervasive). The hard part however, comes now: it is much easier to go from a wreck to decent, than to go from decent to good and good to great.
18) Dennis Lindsey, Utah Jazz: Lindsey is relatively new to the position and did benefit some from Kevin O’Connor’s work prior in bringing in Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks. However, Lindsey found Rudy Gobert in the late part of the first round, the type of find that can revitalize a franchise. And he has built a deep team around his new core. Sure, the Jazz are 19-24, but that is in spite of their being ravaged by injuries. Still, the next step always is the toughest.
TIER 5: GM’S WITH GOOD ATTRIBUTES, BUT WHO NEED IMPROVEMENT
19) Ryan McDonough, Phoenix Suns: McDonough has not gotten the publicity Hinkie got as former man in charge in Philly, but he is similar. He is a CBA wizard, and he is extremely, extremely bright. But McDonough, similar to Morey, has struggled with the human element of the job. Simply, the NBA is filled with gigantic egos, so being a personality manager who understands how events will make people feel matters. McDonough misjudged the fact, in adding Isaiah Thomas to Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe due to the pure math given their talent, that all three players would feel slighted at times, as they would be competing for minutes, spotlight, and ball handling responsibilities. It is an ego hit for a point guard to handle the ball less. That he did this after dragging out Bledsoe’s restricted free agency (which only makes a player sour on you) did not help matters, and it ultimately led to Dragic and Thomas wanting, and getting, out (and in Thomas’s case, shining in Boston). Zinging Dragic on his way out did not help matters. Add the Morris situation on top of it (did he not believe Morris would take his brother’s trade personally), and you have this mess. All of this has helped turn the Suns McDonough smartly built in 2014 into today’s mess. Hopefully he learns from it.
20) Ernie Grunfeld, Washington Wizards: Grunfeld is an underrated GM. Despite some ups and downs along the way, and certain clear weaknesses: he does not value end of roster kids, does not value non lottery picks, has presided over some poor teams, and has given some bad contracts out, he built a strong roster under Gilbert Arenas in the mid 2000s, and then built contenders recently under John Wall, while balancing future flexibility as a consideration. Grunfeld did luck out with Wall as a top pick but also drafted Beal, and found Nene for JaVale McGee. Still, Grunfeld’s lack of success on smaller picture roster building items has hampered the ability of the Wizards franchise to contend.
21) Milt Newton, Minnesota Timberwolves: Newton gets an incomplete here, given he only very recently became basketball operations boss upon the unfortunate and sad passing of Flip Saunders. He had worked with Flip since 2013 in Minnesota. If I were to place Newton based on Minnesota’s work since he was hired (more through Flip), this spot would be appropriate, given Flip ultimately made the right call on Towns, and worked the Kevin Love situation to perfection. The team should not have paid some of its veteran talent, however, and would have looked worse after the Love trade had LeBron not taken over as the recipient GM (again, let’s call a spade a spade).
22) Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets: Connelly is well respected but started slow in inheriting Ujiri’s then 57-25 Denver Nuggets. They drafted but traded Rudy Gobert on draft night. They traded Kosta Koufos for Darrell Arthur. They acquired and paid Randy Foye and JJ Hickson. They alienated George Karl and Andre Iguodala. It was all puzzling and led to a downward spiral. Connelly does score points for his recent work in hiring Mike Malone to coach, and drafting Emmanuel Mudiay. Time will tell if he is a good GM, but he has improved.
23) Rich Cho, Charlotte Hornets: Cho is hard to evaluate. An attorney and engineer by trade, he’s clearly brilliant, but he has worked under an inpatient owner in Michael Jordan in Charlotte for most of his GM career, after a brief stint in Portland. The Hornets also went for it this year despite not being in position to, and it is hard to know how much was Cho and how much was Jordan: especially when Cho sacrificed draft considerations for Gerald Wallace during his Portland tenure. Cho’s draft record is also spotty.
TIER 6: UNKNOWN QUANTITY AND WARNING SIGN DIVISION
24) David Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers: Griffin is hard to evaluate. On one hand, LeBron decided to come back to Cleveland, and it can’t be said that Griffin caused that to occur. Same goes for many of the deals made in Cleveland since (and, really, Griffin has not done much else, taking over 11 days before the 2014 trade deadline. Griffin does get points in one area: he is well respected, and has had to manage and balance the demands of LeBron and his camp, and the demands of Dan Gilbert, and has done so with some skill and aplomb. Still, his grade is largely incomplete.
25) Wes Wilcox, Atlanta Hawks: Wilcox took over after Ferry was dismissed, so his grade is in some ways incomplete because he is so new. But the Hawks 2015 summer was unimpressive, in that they lost Carroll, and dumped a mid lottery pick for Tim Hardaway Jr. for seemingly bizarre reasons. Credit can be allotted for seeing that Bazemore can be close to as good as Carroll for much less money and deciding to turn Carroll into another asset up front, but does that only mean they don’t pay Horford next summer?
26) Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers: You wonder how the GM of an elite team can be this low, but then you remember: Olshey brought in Paul and Griffin, and Jordan also predated Rivers. What Rivers has done is undermine that work, and CP3’s title pursuit, with questionable personnel choices. JJ Redick is very good, but did they have to deal Bledsoe to get him in light of his being on the market? Did they have to dump picks to dump Jared Dudley after dumping picks to get him? Why sign Doc’s son? Why believe Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith would help? Doc’s work with the Clippers should make a Clippers fan fearful for when the day comes that they need to rebuild. I understand why the Clippers made him GM: free agent Paul at the time wanted it, and you do what you must to get his contract signature. But he has been bad at the job.
27) Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks: Let’s call a spade a spade. Kidd is clearly making decisions, while John Hammond is being a good man and loyal employee with a title. To that affect, Kidd’s decisions have been questionable, reflective of a young former player who does not understand the CBA, or the need to have a long term vision. Trading a 2017 first for Greivis Vasquez at this stage of a rebuild was a bad choice. Signing Greg Monroe has backfired. The Michael Carter-Williams trade has not worked out, to date. Kidd also failed to see the value in well-fitting role players like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, whom the team misses.
28) Vlade Divac, Sacramento Kings: Divac has shown early in his tenure that there are multiple red flags with him at the helm. He clearly does not grasp the CBA, or basic rules of being a GM (relative to things as simple as a trade call). He was fleeced in the Stauskas trade with Philly. He does not seem to understand basic asset management, of yet. Still, there could be hope under the surface. In adding pieces like Rondo Belinelli and Koufos, Divac did show some flair for attracting talent to his program: he is a personable guy, and that may help him sell talent on Sacramento. In addition, he has performed one very underrated task: he has been the one calm influence managing the potential caustic dynamic between Vivek, George Karl, Rondo, and DeMarcus Cousins. Things have not imploded, and Divac is the reason for that. But can he develop in other necessary areas?
29) Dell Demps, New Orleans Pelicans: Demps has been a poor GM in New Orleans. He is not as bad as some of those below him, but he has made so many questionable moves. He tried to trade Chris Paul for win now veterans which led to the David Stern veto (the veto should not have occurred, but there were reasons for it). Since lucking into Anthony Davis, the team, rather than adding young talent to flank him, bizarrely went into a win now mode through which it has consistently overpaid middling talent, and players that do not fit with Anthony Davis (why commit all this money to Asik and Ajinca when you have Davis and Ryan Anderson). Demps also made a mistake hiring Alvin Gentry, whose affable personality and good fortune of being friends with great people masked his inabilities as a coach.
TIER 7: WOW, JUST WOW
30) Brett Yormark/Dmitry Razumov, Brooklyn Nets: This is the worst run front office in the sport. With Billy King fired, Frank Zanin is the GM in name, but Russia, and CEO Yormark, are calling the shots here. The Nets are the height of dysfunction. Make decisions based on where you lie on the arc of contention? Nope. Having a methodical plan? Nope. Instead, the Nets have run a franchise on the basis of branding, selling tickets, and promoting a practice facility instead of the roster. How can you possibly be 11-33 and believe you are a player or two away from contention. When you look at how sophisticated, and smart, some front office models are, Nets fans need to be very, very concerned about how rudimentary their operation is. The Nets check all the red flag boxes. Dysfunction. Meddlesome ownership. Non basketball people infiltrating basketball decisions. Shortsightedness. They sit dead last here, by a wide margin.