In the NBA good general managers are like Eminem fans at a Mariah Carey concert. Hard to find.
Which is what makes the following five GMs so valuable. They do what few others can: consistently make good decisions and put their teams in a position to win on a regular basis. Their efforts are not well-publicized, but, behind the scenes, these five GMs are responsible for some of the most successful/up-and-coming teams in the league.
Here, in my opinion, are the five most reliable GMs in the NBA:
1. R.C. Buford – San Antonio Spurs
The gold standard of NBA general managers as far as I’m concerned. Buford has contributed to four titles in ten seasons in the Spurs’ front office, including three as general manager.
After serving as the Spurs’ Director of Scouting for two years, Buford was moved to Vice President/Assistant General Manager in 1999, then promoted to General Manager in 2002. Since then, he has been responsible for signing cagey vets like Robert Horry (’03), Brent Barry (’04), and Michael Finley (’05), and re-signing San Antonio’s core – Tim Duncan (’03), Tony Parker (’04), and Manu Ginobili (’04) – to reasonable extensions. These moves directly led to championship runs in 2003, 2005, and 2007.
Buford isn’t the splashiest GM, but his decisions are effective and practical. Under his watch, the Spurs have captured five division titles and three NBA championships. Yes, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are big reasons for that success, but Buford has done a great job of picking rookies and veteran players to complement The Big Fundamental and Pop. Few teams in the league share the management-coach-player cohesion that the Spurs enjoy.
Which is why it’s a rare year that San Antonio is not considered a title contender. They work well together from top to bottom.
Buford recently acquired swingman Richard Jefferson from the Milwaukee Bucks for, essentially, a pack of Reese’s Pieces, making the Spurs a legitimate threat once again in 2009-10. Buford’s prowess as GM continues to grow with deals like the Jefferson trade and draft picks like George Hill (’08) and DeJuan Blair (’09). His legacy also lives on in proteges like Sam Presti and Kevin Pritchard.
Under Buford’s watch, the Spurs will continue to be competitive for years to come.
2. Sam Presti – Oklahoma City Thunder
Presti, a Buford disciple, has been GM of the Thunder since June 2007. In that short time, he has elevated the Thunder from the laughingstock of the NBA to the league’s most dangerous sleeper. Presti has built a solid young core in Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, while maintaining enough cap space to make a run at significant free agents in 2010.
Though he initially made a mistake by hiring P.J. Carlesimo (a colossal disappointment) as head coach in 2007, Presti redeemed himself by replacing Carlesimo with Scotty Brooks last season. Brooks immediately connected with Durant and Westbrook and inspired the team to improve in the second half of the season.
Brooks is now considered one of the best young coaches in the league.
Presti’s team-building strategy is simple. Draft well and focus on team chemistry (evidence of which can be found in Durant’s visit to Summer League this year and the bond that Thunder players share on Twitter). It’s a strategy that works for Buford in San Antonio and appears to be having similar results in Oklahoma City. With Durant coming into his own as a superstar-caliber player, the Thunder will be a playoff contender sooner than you think.
3. Kevin Pritchard – Portland Trailblazers
Pritchard, also a disciple of Spurs GM R.C. Buford (I’m sensing a pattern here), is one of the most respected/reviled executives in the league. He is famous for pulling off one-sided trades in favor of the Blazers and infamous for threatening teams in pursuit of Darius Miles last season.
As a former NBA player and scout, Pritchard has a keen nose for talent. Promoted to Assistant GM in 2006 by the Blazers, Pritchard teamed with then-GM John Nash to essentially turn straw into gold on Draft Day 2006. Pritchard and Nash scored one of the best draft hauls in recent history, using Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract, Tyrus Thomas, Randy Foye, and cash as bait to pick up Brandon Roy (who went on to win Rookie of the Year), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Sergio Rodriguez.
After being promoted to GM in 2007, Pritchard sent Zach Randolph (long known as a team cancer) to New York and scored another one-sided trade in acquiring the rights to Rudy Fernandez from Phoenix for cash considerations. These moves further endeared him to the Blazers’ fanbase, if the not the league at wide, and inspired a Pritchard-themed nickname for one-sided NBA trades, the “Pritch slap”.
Though Pritchard has “struck out” lately in negotiations with Hedo Turkoglu and Paul Millsap (not to mention negotiations with Brandon Roy on a contract extension), the environment surrounding those negotiations was convoluted (who would’ve thought Hedo’s wifey would interfere and Utah would matched Portland’s offer for Millsap at its own financial detriment?).
Pritchard’s recent string of bad luck doesn’t change the fact that he is a brilliant GM. (Portland made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003.) In Roy, Aldridge, Fernandez, and Greg Oden, he has created a core of players in Portland that will compete for the Western Conference title this season, but won’t break the bank.
Even after signing veteran point guard Andre Miller this offseason, the Blazers are well below the luxury tax threshold.
4. Daryl Morey – Houston Rockets
Morey is the first non-Buford disciple on my list. Unlike Pritchard and Presti, Morey’s approach to evaluating talent is based on statistical analysis rather than traditional scouting. He is the reigning king of basketball algorithms, a distinction that has made Morey very popular in the M.I.T. set and inspired Bill Simmons to dub him “Dork Elvis”.
Like his management approach, Morey’s ascension to the role of GM was non-traditional.
After graduating from Northwestern with a B.S. in computer science and from M.I.T. with an Masters in business, Morey was named Senior Vice President of Operations and Information for the Boston Celtics. With Boston he used statistical analysis to inform personnel decisions (a la Billy Beane in Moneyball) and was effective enough at it to score a gig as Assistant GM in Houston in 2006.
After a year under Carroll Dawson, Morey was promoted to GM of the Rockets and created the NBA’s most-publicized stat-based front office. (Other front offices in the NBA may use statistical analysis, but no team does it more publicly than the Rockets.)
Morey’s tactics are as effective as they are well-publicized. Since taking over as GM in 2007, Morey has promoted Aaron Brooks from the D-League, re-signed Chuck Hayes and Dikembe Mutombo, traded for Carl Landry, hired Rick Adelman, traded table scraps for Ron Artest, championed Shane Battier and signed NBA Finals hero Trevor Ariza to a three-year mid-level deal (a steal by many accounts).
Because of a Despite a season-ending injury to Tracy McGrady, the Rockets made it to the second round of the playoffs last season and managed to take the Lakers to seven games in that series, despite a crippling injury to Yao Ming. It was the first time in the Yao Era that Houston has advanced to the second round.
Like Pritchard, Morey has had a string of bad luck lately, including a devastating season-ending injury to Yao (who likely will not play in 2009-10). But that doesn’t take away from Morey’s accomplishments. In two years as Rockets GM, he has been both fiscally responsible (Houston has only $35.4 million committed in 2010) and success oriented (the Rockets are 108-56 under his watch).
With Morey at the helm, the Rockets are in good hands.
5. Otis Smith – Orlando Magic
Smith is the most controversial GM on my list. His moves are often criticized, but you can’t argue with the results. The Magic are 151-95 under Smith’s direction (he took over as GM in May, 2006), have improved each season since 2006, and made an unexpected trip to the NBA Finals last season.
Like Daryl Morey in Houston, Smith is unconventional.
He rarely makes the expected move.
In 2007, for instance, Smith signed free agent Rashard Lewis to a $115 million max contract, a move that earned him no small amount of criticism. (Critics pointed out that Lewis’ market value was tens of millions of dollars less than what Smith paid for him.) But Lewis was a key contributor to Orlando’s run to the Finals last season. His ability to play the perimeter as a 6’10″ power forward caused no end of match-up problems for the Celtics and Cavs.
Other notable moves by Smith include: re-signing Trevor Ariza (in ’07), hiring Stan Van Gundy, drafting Courtney Lee, signing Mickael Pietrus, and turning Brian Cook into Rafer Alston at the trade deadline when Jameer Nelson got injured. (Not exactly a Buford-like track record, but solid nonetheless.)
Recently, Smith has come under fire for trading for aging star Vince Carter, “over-paying” for Brandon Bass, matching a lucrative offer sheet for Marcin Gortat, and letting Hedo Turkoglu walk. But if I’ve learned anything in the past three years about criticizing Otis Smith, it’s this: he’s usually right. (And his critics are usually wrong.)
At the moment, the Vinsanity, Bass, and Gortat moves seem crazy. But Smith’s the rare poker player who can bluff his way into the pot on a regular basis. His style is wild, but effective. He’s earned the benefit of a doubt.
(Patrick Crawley is a featured blogger for Sir Charles In Charge as well as the managing editor for Basketball Fiend.)