The 5 Most Reliable GMs in the NBA

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.)

Topics: #1, Best NBA GMs, Daryl Morey, Dork Elvis, Eminem, In The League, Kevin Pritchard, Mariah Carey, NBA, Otis Smith, R.C. Buford, Sam Presti

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  • http://fullyclips.com Short White Boy

    Yeah, I think Smith is controversial. Or rather, a poor choice. You give him kudos for re-signing Ariza, but then don’t mention the obvious: he then traded him away for Brian frickin’ Cook. Also, just ‘cuz Rashard Lewis was key for the Magic’s success doesn’t mean that he’s worth that contract, it just means he’s a good player. One could argue (quite reasonably) that had the Magic paid him less, they would’ve been able to keep Hedo this year. I mean literally the Magic could’ve offered ‘Shard $62 million instead of $115 & it still probably would’ve been his best offer, and that remaining $53 million is what Hedo got from Toronto. Even some of his good choices, like hiring Stan the Van have a questionable aspect to ‘em ‘cuz he only offered SVG the job after offering a huge amount of $ to Billy Donovan (despite the fact that every college coach who’s come to the NBA in the last 10-15 years has sucked incredibly). Or like Hedo blew up under Otis’ watch, but he initially wasn’t great as Grant Hill’s backup. Only after Otis was unable to convince Grant to stay did Turk explode. Kind of hard to give Smith credit for stuff like that. Or that Dwight & Jameer, two players drafted before Smith was GM, blew up into next-level stars. To me the only truly good choices he’s made are: 1. drafting Courtney Lee (altho’ he’s since traded Lee away so that kinda negates that…); 2.Signing Pietrus; and 3.getting Alston for Cook. But everything else more than negates against that, since not only did he lose Hedo, he also paid pretty much that same $53 million to Gortat & Bass to be back-ups that may see what, 13 minutes/gm each?

    So who would I have put? Well, probably honestly it should be a 4-person list. If I had to put a fifth guy, I might actually go with Mitch Kupchak. Besides Kobe, Mitch acquired every player on that team. He drafted Bynum, Walton, Sasha, Farmar; traded for Pau, Ariza, Odom & even bit-player Shannon Brown.

  • http://detroit4lyfe.com Bob

    Joe Dumars

  • http://davissportsdeli.com/wordpress/ Patrick

    @Short White Boy, Kupchak deserves to be on the list, but Otis Smith doesn’t? Walton was a good draft pick for a second-rounder, but Sasha and J. Farmar have both underperformed, Gasol fell into Kupchack’s lap, and the Bynum extension was a HORRIBLE decision. Kupchak is even with Smith at best.

    You’re probably right about making it a four-GM list, but you’re off-base on the Kupchak suggestion.

    @Bob, Dumars is responsible for the Darko pick and the AI-Billups trade. (Need I say more?) He belongs nowhere near this list.

  • http://twitter.com/NBAKays NBA Kays

    Can we really include Sam Presti since he’s only been GM for 2 years? And all he’s really accomplished in that short time is picking at the top of the lottery.

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  • http://sircharlesincharge.com Drew

    I think Bob and NBA Kays are drinking the same Joe Dumars Kool-Aid.

    However, I do agree with NBA Kays about Presti. Definitely way too early to put the Boy Wonder on a Top 5 list. Let’s wait until the team wins more than 30 games, shall we?

  • http://twitter.com/NBAKays NBA Kays

    Hey, hey, I didn’t say I thought Dumars should be on the list (even though he should).

    But then again, it depends on what we’re saying the word “reliable” means.

  • http://businessreleases.blogspot.com/ Business101

    Billy King and Isiah Thomas say they’re gonna sue. Mitch Kupchak should have been on here, though.

  • Andrew Ungvari

    Buford definitely deserves to be on top but I’m not so sure about any of the other guys being top five.

    Presti hasn’t done anything other than acquire draft picks and use the lottery picks his own team got because they sucked.

    The true test for Presti will be what he does with the money his team has. Can he lure top-tier free agents to OKC? I’m betting no.

    Pritchard would be number one on my list of most overrated GMs. I love Roy but the jury is still out on Aldridge, Oden, Webster, and Batum. They all become increasingly overrated by the day and their poor performance in last year’s playoffs was a testament to that. Again, a GM who lucked out getting high lottery picks because the team he inherited/put together sucked.

    Finding a taker for Zach Randolph was great. But he drafted Oden when there were already concerns about his long-term health. He could have had Durant.

    What has Morey really done considering the talent his team’s had? He’s supposed to be a numbers guy who should know something about chemistry but many picked his Rockets to win the Western Conference last year and they finished 5th.

    Sure they had injuries, but none of those players didn’t already have an injury-riddled history. The team he currently has will be lucky to finished 10th in the Western Conference.

    Otis Smith was a joke up until this year. Drafted Fran Vazquez and JJ Redick, traded Trevor Ariza for Brian Cook, traded the pick that became Rodney Stuckey for Darko Milicic, and gave Rashard Lewis a contract that pays him $24 million in 2013. He gets credit for the Jameer Nelson contract but don’t forget people were saying his job was in jeopardy last year.

    Pat Riley deserves to be on this list because at least you know that he knows what he’s doing. How many GMs would trade two great young players on an up-and-coming team for a 34-year-old Shaq and pair him with a second-year guard like Wade?

    He also rescued Udonis Haslem and pulled off the Eddie Jones for Antoine Walker, James Posey, and Jason Williams and got Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning to play for almost nothing.

    Sure the Jermaine O’Neal trade didn’t work out but his eyes have been on 2010 and that plan hasn’t changed.

    Mark Warkentien is pretty good in Denver. Got J.R. Smith from Chicago for Howard Eisley, traded A.I. for Chauncey. Got Arron Afflalo for nothing, brought Chris Andersen back to Denver for the minimum. Gave up Camby for nothing on ownership’s orders and the team still made the WCF.

    Jeff Bower in New Orleans is pretty good too. Drafted Chris Paul, traded P.J. Brown and J.R. Smith for Tyson Chandler, convinced Byron Scott, Peja, Jannero Pargo, Morris Peterson, and Bobby Jackson to come to New Orleans when nobody else would have. Signed James Posey when he was getting offers from a few other teams. Signed David West and Rasual Butler for way under market value. I also like Hilton Armstrong and Julian Wright.

    Whatever cost-cutting moves he’s done were due to stingy penny-pinching owners.

    As for Kupchak, I won’t say where he deserves to be. I’ll just mention that he also drafted Ronny Turiaf. He gave Bynum too much money but getting him to sign for only three years with a team option for a fourth year was brilliant. He’s 21. They’ll have no problem trading. Check out how many years his 2005 Draft contemporaries get signed for.

    Gasol didn’t necessarily just fall in his lap. He had the presence of mind to give Kwame Brown a three year deal soleley with the purpose of trading him. Because Brown was the top pick in the draft he could give him $9 million a year with the plan to trade him for a big contract. He struck out on Baron Davis and Ron Artest because the team didn’t have one. It wasn’t a secret that Gasol wanted out. Kupchak also had the presence of mind to use the not-yet-retired Aaron McKie’s contract to help the deal get done.

    The Ariza deal was great. Neither Vujacic, Farmar, Walton or Turiaf have “underperformed” considering where they were drafted. Vujacic was 27th, Farmar 26th, Walton 32nd, and Turiaf 37th. He didn’t have the top picks in the draft like Presti, Pritchard, Smith, and Morey.

  • http://davissportsdeli.com/wordpress/ Patrick

    @Andrew, good points on Warkentien. His credentials are probably better than Morey’s and Presti’s at the moment. He should have been on the list.

    Can’t say I agree on Riley past your point about the Shaq trade. He hasn’t done anything substantial this offseason when it’s absolutely crucial to get talent around D-Wade so he doesn’t leave. If Wade bolts town that team is screwed.

    You can make the same argument about Kupchak and the attraction of L.A. and Buss’ money in the free agency game that you’ve made about Presti and Pritchard and the draft. What’s so difficult about attracting quality talent to L.A. when the beach, weather, and legacy are terrific and the owner doesn’t mind spending? Who wouldn’t want to go there?

    Jeff Bower deserves to be nowhere near this list. He acquired a dud in Peja, let Pargo walk when the team desperately needed Pargo, signed James Posey a year too late, and has yet to find a solid backcourt guy to play beside CP3. Also, he should have convinced Shinn to orchestrate a buy-out for Byron Scott this offseason but failed to do so. Scott is no longer a good fit for the team and it’s obvious to everyone except Shinn.

  • Andrew Ungvari

    What free agents did Kupchak attract? The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Vlade Divac, Aaron McKie, Vladimir Radmanovic, Josh Powell, and Ron Artest. He doesn’t get any credit for Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Powell, Mbenga, and Fisher are the only guys on the championship team that were free agent signees.

    You’re talking about reliable GMs and four of the GMs on the list preside over teams that made it past the first round a combined once before this year and now that number is twice.

    Riley hasn’t done anything this off-season because he knows that he can offer Wade $30 million more than any other team can. He’s not going to make a move just for the sake of making a move. That’s what good GMs do. How’s that different from what Presti is doing? Presti, unlike Riley, has cap space and he’s refrained from using.

    If Wade bolts he isn’t necessarily screwed since Riley have $50 million in cap space with which to fill a team with in one of the league’s most desirable markets.

    The team that Bower inherited went 18-64. That’s the team he lured Peja, Byron Scott, and Bobby Jackson to. His first year the team was up to 38-44 despite the franchise uprooting to OKC. The next year they were 39-43. The next year they were 56-26. This past season they went down to 49-33 despite all the injuries to Chandler and West and the distraction of a rescinded trade.

    The moves (or non-moves) that you cite which were bad moves weren’t his decisions outside of Posey and I wouldn’t call that a bad move. He’s not going to convince Shinn to re-sign Pargo or fire Scott when Scott has a year left on his deal. He’s not going to accept a buy-out when if they fire him he’s owed the remainder of his contract. If you can change the culture of a team from one that was 18-64 to that of a winning team then in my opinion you’re reliable.

  • http://davissportsdeli.com/wordpress/ Patrick

    @Andrew, going back to your argument about Presti, you say he’s not a particularly good GM because all he’s done is use lottery picks to improve the team.

    Well, how is that different from what Jeff Bower did with Chris Paul? Nothing has changed the culture in New Orleans/Charlotte like CP3 has. And Bower got CP3 in the lottery much the same way Presti got Durant.

    Sure Bower has restrictions – and its probably too much for me to ask for him to convince Shinn to dump Byron Scott – but he’s also dropped the ball on getting Chris Paul a bona fide shooting guard. Rasual Butler isn’t cutting it.

    Bower’s success coincides with Chris Paul coming to town. I think you’ll see Presti attain the same level of success with Durant in the next few seasons.

    I should have picked Warkentien over Presti/Otis Smith. I’ll admit that. In fact, I’m admitting it publicly in my next article on Basketball Fiend. But I can’t in good conscience put Bower in the same class as Warkentien.

  • Dominic

    This is a joke. Any top 5 GM list that doesn’t contain Joe Dumars doesn’t even deserve credence

  • Andrew Ungvari

    @Patrick – Bower didn’t draft Chris Paul. Alan Bristow did just before Bower took over as GM. He was with the team but he wasn’t the GM.

    You have a guy who presides over a team that has never had a winning record listed as the second most reliable GM in the NBA—second only to a GM who has presided over four championship teams.

    What has Presti done to make him the second most reliable GM in the NBA? Right now his résumé has nothing on it other than drafting well with high picks. He’s put all of his eggs in the 2010 free agent market. Let’s see if that pays off.

    He’s done well in getting guys like Sefolosha for nothing. But he gave Nenad Krstic a three-year deal with a player option for next season at $5.8 million. Why would he buy out Earl Watson when he could have at least got back something for his expiring contract?

    He traded Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis when a team with Allen, Lewis, and Durant would have been a playoff team. I get what he’s trying to do. I just won’t anoint him the second most reliable GM until he actually executes it with results.

  • http://with-malice.com Don (with malice)

    Gotta say I agree with Mitch Kupchak needing to be on this list, and Dumars too.

    Presti could be a damn good GM, but we won’t really know until a few more years down the track. Including him now is premature.
    I do lean towards Pritchard being at least slightly overrated too. In an off-season where many have made massive inroads to bettering their rosters, Portland’s been a bit ‘meh’. I’m not at all convinced that Andre Miller’s the right fit for them.
    I guess we’ll know in about… say… 9 months.