Top 5 NBA General Managers
Former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause use to get all sorts of bent out of shape when his star player Michael Jordan wouldn’t give him any credit for those six championships the Bulls won in the 1990s. Whenever he talked to the press, Krause would sneak in sly comments suggesting that the organization won those titles, not Jordan.
You can imagine how well Jordan dealt with these kinds of comments from Krause (hint: poorly), but the fact of the matter is that there really is some truth in what Chicago’s old GM was trying to say.
General managers and team presidents are the people responsible for putting together a basketball team that can contend for a ring, and if an organization falls drastically short it’s usually because they didn’t have the talent in place to compete. That’s not necessarily the talent’s fault; it’s the person who assembled that lack of talent’s fault.
It’s not an easy thing to build a great NBA team, but the guys on the following list (at the least the guys in the top five) have done that. Krause’s name is obviously absent, but you’ll recognize most of these guys’ names because, let’s face it, they’re really, really good at what they do.
Here they are, the top currently-employed GMs in the NBA:
Masai Ujiri, Denver Nuggets – It’s time to start including Ujiri’s name among the NBA’s most talented GMs, even though his sample size of work is still relatively small. The notable strategy for Ujiri has been making sure he keeps his assets in case he’s able to trade them later. He didn’t let Nene leave via free agency a year ago, for example, although it seemed like a strong possibility that he’d do exactly that (and even though the team looked much too young to have a player of his age locked down long-term). Before the end of that first season, however, he had moved Nene for a better fit and younger player in JaVale McGee, who he also was able to extend at a fairly reasonable price.
He also somehow turned Arron Afflalo (another asset he refused to let walk in free agency) and Al Harrington (another veteran with no long-term future on a young team) into all-star and Olympian Andre Iguodala, which was one of the smoother GM moves of the summer. Clearly, Ujiri is one of the league’s hottest new GMs in the league right now.
Ernie Grunfeld, Washington Wizards – While it’s easy to look at last year’s dismal record and write off a guy like Grunfeld, the man’s complete body of work (including what he did just in the last several months) is pretty impressive. This is the man who signed Gilbert Arenas to play alongside Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. This is also the man who, after it became clear Arenas would never live up to his huge contract extension, found a way to trade that contract for Rashard Lewis. Despite the fact that the Lewis deal was equally bad, he managed to switch that out for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor this summer—two guys much more likely to earn their paychecks than Rashard. In just the last year, he’s cleared the team of Nick Young, JaVale McGee, and Andray Blatche, leaving behind a really interesting core that combines promising youth with talented veterans. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see last year’s second-worst team make the playoffs in 2013, and Grunfeld is a huge part of that.
Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks – While Nelson has only been the GM of the Mavericks since 2008, he’s been with the team for much longer than that. But even his body of work over the last handful of seasons is enough to get him some love as one of the top GMs in the league. It was Nelson who brought in Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, and Caron Butler just in time to win the 2011 NBA championship, and this past offseason, when the Mavs missed out on Deron Williams, Steve Nash, and even Jason Kidd, Nelson was able to salvage free agency by hijacking Darren Collison away from Indiana while also signing O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman and making a winning bid for Elton Brand off of amnesty waivers. He even had a say in the draft-day trade that shipped off Robert Traylor for Dirk Nowitzki.
On the one hand, it’s easy to bring in great players when you’ve got an owner like Mark Cuban bankrolling you, but simply having money to spend doesn’t always equate to championship success. That’s what Nelson has brought to the Mavericks in very short order, however, and that’s why he’s on this list.
Danny Ferry, Atlanta Hawks – He dumped Joe Johnson’s contract, which is the basketball equivalent of pigs flying, so he gets a mention here for that reason and that reason alone. Ferry’s got a history of stripping things clean, but not necessarily for building them back up properly. We’ll have to see how the Hawks look a few years from now to really judge Ferry, but getting rid of that JJ deal was an excellent way to usher in a new era in Atlanta basketball.
The Top Five:
#5 – Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics – Just a few years before we said, “that’s not fair,” in regards to Miami’s Big Three, we said the same thing about Boston’s Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The difference was that Ainge had to trade for two of his guys, and he did it without really giving up anybody that would make Boston regret it. That team of course won the title in 2008, but even this past summer when the team lost Ray Allen to the HEAT, Ainge reloaded with Jason Terry and Courtney Lee to replace him at shooting guard. That, plus drafting Jared Sullinger in the 20′s and managing to hold on to Jeff Green makes 2012-13’s team look even better than the one that made the Conference Finals this past spring. Ainge hasn’t been perfect as a GM, but he’s certainly made championship-caliber moves and has kept this current C’s team breathing when they just as easily could’ve died this past summer.
#4 – Mitch Kupchak, L.A. Lakers – Kupckah has been an integral part of the Lakers’ front office for over 25 years. The moves he’s overseen, however, have included trading for Pau Gasol for what seemed like pennies on the dollar at the time, winning two championships, then acquiring Steve Nash for cruddy draft picks and Dwight Howard for an inferior player in Andrew Bynum. He’s kept the team competitive around Kobe Bryant, while also setting them up for success in the future with Howard. All savvy stuff, and worthy of mention on this list.
#3 – Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder – Four years was all it took to take the Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics from one of the worst teams in the league to the NBA Finals. Four years, folks. That’s it. He started his tenure by saying goodbye to Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but then drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka, all of whom have quickly developed into the kinds of players other teams would kill for. He also shipped off Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins and saved cap space at times when pundits clamored for him to spend it. Even giving Ibaka his extension now while putting off dealing with Harden until next summer was shrewd, and assuming the Thunder participate in the Western Conference Finals in each of the next 8-10 seasons, it’s hard to see a single major mistake Presti has made since taking over four years ago.
#2 – R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs – The San Antonio Spurs have won three championships since Buford took over GM duties in 1999, and since then he and his team have been the gold standard for how the rest of the league builds a roster. Finding all-stars like Tony Parker (28th pick in 2011) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick in 1999) late in the draft is one thing, but chasing down all those gem role players year after year is more than coincidence. Most recently, those guys included players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter, but the list over the course of the last decade-and-a-half is seriously ridiculous. Getting Tim Duncan was lucky, and he’s been a huge part of the team’s success, but Buford’s talent for finding diamonds in the rough has meant a lot for the Spurs, too.
#1 – Pat Riley, Miami HEAT – Maybe it was a foregone conclusion that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh would end up on the same team, but there’s no question that Riley put the exclamation point on whatever vague plans those three guys may have had to play together. Now he adds clearance rack buys in Allen and Lewis on the heels of an NBA championship, and we’re supposed to call him anything but the best? Guys want to win, and nobody sells winning like Riley. That’s why he top dog in the GM game right now.
These are the guys who have made the most out of their opportunities to run an NBA team, but there are plenty of rising stars in this profession making their way up the ranks, too. Who’d I miss? Who else deserves to be mentioned as an elite NBA general manager? Hit up the comments with any additions!