Basketball Insiders continues to revisit the last decade of NBA drafts by taking a look back at which players were selected sixth overall. The sixth pick has been a mixed bag over the last decade, with superstar guard Damian Lillard headlining the group. There are certainly a couple of picks teams would love to have back, especially considering that many of the league’s current star players were left on the board beyond the sixth pick over the last decade. With that said, let’s take a look at the last decade of the sixth overall pick.
Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers – 2012
There is no real debate here. Damian Lillard is the best player to be drafted sixth overall in any draft over the last decade. Lillard was an absolute steal for the Portland Trail Blazers, who acquired the right to select Lillard sixth overall in 2012 by trading Gerald Wallace to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a larger deal that proved costly for Brooklyn.
Lillard is arguably the best overall point guard in the league right now (as long as you don’t count players like James Harden or LeBron James as point guards), at least until Stephen Curry shows he is fully recovered from the hand injury he suffered earlier this season and shakes off any lingering rust. Through 58 games this season, Lillard is averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three-point range…on 9.9 three-point attempts per game!
Lillard has placed the struggling Trail Blazers on his back this season and has kept them in striking range of the eighth seed.
Marcus Smart – Boston Celtics – 2014
Marcus Smart has always been a defensive ace and has improved his offensive game throughout his six seasons in the NBA. Smart has the size, strength and tenacity to guard the league’s most explosive guards, dynamic wings and physical big men. Smart isn’t going to be tasked with guarding Joel Embiid in the post but, in an emergency situation, he probably has as good of a shot at stopping Embiid as any guard in the league.
Through 53 games this season, Smart is averaging 13.5 points, 4.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. Smart’s value to Boston cannot be accurately captured in traditional or even advanced metrics, but he is truly a game-changing player for the Celtics.
Buddy Hield – New Orleans Pelicans – 2016
The 2016 draft featured several quality players who are each working their way up the NBA’s totem pole. Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, Pascal Siakam and Malcolm Brogdon are some of the most prominent players to come out of this draft, along with Buddy Hield.
Hield played four years of college ball, so there was concern that he had limited upside. However, Hield proved himself to be a lethal shooter and big-time performer in college and entered the NBA with high expectations. Hield did not last long with the New Orleans Pelicans, as he was a featured piece in the trade that landed DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans in 2017. Hield has performed well for the Sacramento Kings, though he has faced some tough stretches at times. He will never be a lockdown defender, but when he is in rhythm, he can be one of the most explosive scorers in the league. Through 64 games this season, Hield is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range (on 9.7 three-point attempts per game).
Jonny Flynn – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2009
Here is the thing about Jonny Flynn: He was drafted sixth overall in the 2009 draft, ahead of other players like Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll, Wayne Ellington and so on. Here’s the other thing: Flynn was drafted sixth overall by the Timberwolves right after they had drafted Ricky Rubio, another point guard, with the fifth overall pick in the draft. There were issues regarding when Rubio would leave Spain and come play in the NBA, so drafting another point guard wasn’t a crazy idea, but passing on Curry in favor of Flynn was questionable at the time and turned out to be a historically disastrous decision.
To be fair to Flynn, he was a highly rated prospect as we approached the 2009 draft and it’s not his fault the Timberwolves decided to take him — even after selecting Rubio one pick ahead of him. It’s also not his fault Curry was drafted after him and turned into one of the best point guards of all time. Flynn would only play in 163 total NBA games in his career and just 18 in the 2011-12 season. Injuries derailed Flynn’s career unfortunately, and the rest is history. Were it not for injuries, Flynn could have developed into a solid point guard. But between the injuries, the early end to his career and with several players drafted after him (Curry most notably) putting together excellent careers, Flynn definitely has to be considered a “miss” in this series.
Ekpe Udoh – Golden State Warriors – 2010
If you gave the Golden State Warriors the chance to go back and do the 2010 draft over, they would probably pass so as to not risk changing history. When you have a dominant run with a historically great group of players, there’s little reason to look back a decade and worry about a missed draft pick. However, if you take away the dynastic run, then Golden State would definitely take the chance to go back and take someone other than Ekpe Udoh with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 draft.
The players the Warriors passed on include: Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe, Ed Davis, Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe and so on. George and Hayward are the obvious missed opportunities here, but, as we said, Golden State isn’t losing sleep over how things worked out. Notably, Udoh never put up major stats, but he was in the league as recently as the 2018-19 season with the Utah Jazz and proved to be a fringe role player at times throughout his career. That’s not what you’re looking for with the sixth overall pick, but Udoh didn’t completely flame out.
Jan Vesely – Washington Wizards – 2011
Jan Vesely’s NBA career didn’t pan out the way he or many analysts expected. But it wasn’t for lack of confidence. Before coming to the NBA, Vesely was compared to Blake Griffin because of his athleticism and highlight-worthy dunks. When asked about being called the “European Blake Griffin” during an interview, Vesely responded “I don’t know. I think Blake Griffin is the American Jan Vesely.”
Again, Vesely never lacked confidence. Unfortunately, that confidence and his overall skillset never translated into much production in his short stint in the NBA. Over three seasons (162 total games), Vesely averaged 3.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 15.2 minutes per game. Vesely signed a contract with Turkish club Fenerbahçe in 2014 and signed a three-year extension with the same club last year. He has found more success since leaving the NBA, including winning 2018-19 Euroleague MVP.
The Middle of the Road
Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic – 2017
Jonathan Isaac hasn’t necessarily become a household name in his time in the NBA, but he was having somewhat of a breakout season until injuries sidelined him earlier this year. Most of Isaac’s per-game averages were up but more importantly, he was becoming a major difference-maker on the defensive end. Through 32 games, Isaac averaged 12 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.
At 6-foot-11, Isaac has the length, speed and athleticism to guard smaller players on the perimeter, bigger players in the post and act as an effective weakside shot blocker. Isaac has been contributing all over the court the Magic, a team that features several other lengthy and athletic forwards and big men. As Isaac continues to develop and carve out a more defined role on the Magic, it is likely he will continue to climb his way up the NBA totem pole and establish himself as a unique big man who can cause havoc on the defensive end.
Jarrett Culver – Minnesota Timberwolves – 2019
Culver is in the middle of his rookie season, which is currently on hiatus. So the jury is still out on Culver but, for the time being, we are putting him in the “Middle of the Road” category. Culver has shown some defensive ability in his rookie season, but it is clear his offensive game is a work in progress.
Culver is shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range (on 3.5 attempts per game) this season. While Culver is a capable passer and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, he has often been hesitant this season and made unforced errors. However, this is Culver’s rookie season and he’s only played in 63 NBA games overall so far, so it’s too early to come to any long-term assessments of the young prospect.
Mohamed Bamba – Orlando Magic – 2018
Mo Bamba has the size, length and developing skill set to one day be an impact player in the NBA. He likely won’t punish teams in the post on a nightly basis, but he has skill around the basket and can shoot from three-point range. However, if Bamba is ever to be a major difference-maker, it will likely be on the defensive end.
Bamba wasn’t the obvious pick for the Magic on draft night, especially since Orlando already had Jonathan Isaac on the roster. Bamba and Isaac aren’t completely duplicative players, but they overlap in some key areas and aren’t a great fit (at least so far) on the court. But if Bamba and Isaac develop more chemistry and come anywhere close to reaching their respective potential, they could make for a dynamic frontcourt duo.
Notably, in picking Bamba, the Magic left players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the board. To be fair, however, Gilgeous-Alexander was not projected to be picked so early in the draft and had made his desire to go to the Los Angeles Clippers known. The jury is still out for most of the other notable players selected after Bamba, so it’s not as if the Magic made an obvious mistake in selecting Bamba. This is especially true considering that Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were off the board by the time Orlando was up to pick.
In 60 games this season, Bamba averaged 5.5 points, five rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range.
The Role Players
Nerlens Noel – New Orleans Pelicans – 2013
Nerlens Noel was drafted sixth overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded Noel on draft night, along with a 2014 first-round draft pick, to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been a fixture for the Pelicans ever since, so the deal certainly worked out well for New Orleans. Noel spent several seasons with the 76ers, struggling with injuries and eventually being nudged out by a logjam of centers, including Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.
It’s not great when you are one of the 14 players drafted ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that hasn’t really been held against Nerlens Noel during his NBA career. However, Noel’s inability to live up to expectations and his off-court issues have been. Though it seems that Noel has been in the NBA for a long time, he’s still just 26 years old and has plenty of time to stabilize his career and try to recoup some of the money he lost when he turned down a four-year, $70 million contract from the Dallas Mavericks and opted instead for a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer.
When Noel is healthy and focused, he is a mobile big man who can guard wings on the perimeter, switch effectively and serve as a solid rim protector. Noel’s offensive game is limited but he generally takes high percentage shots and doesn’t demand to be a focal point on offense. In 55 games this season, Noel is averaging 7.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, one assist and 1.5 blocks in 18.4 minutes per game.
Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings – 2015
Leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Kristaps Porzingis, were the prized prospects that many believed would have star potential. After that, it was a mixed bag of players who had talent but it was unclear who was the best of the rest. To drive home this point, after those four players came off the board, the next five picks were Mario Hezonja, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay, Stanley Johnson and Frank Kaminsky. So it’s not as if the Sacramento Kings left an obvious future star on the board when they picked Cauley-Stein (unless you are one of the people that knew Devin Booker was destined to become a star).
While Cauley-Stein has not developed into a top-level center, he has had some pretty explosive performances in his career and is a nice option as a backup. Like Noel, Cauley-Stein has solid athleticism and the ability to be a difference-maker defensively when he is healthy, focused and put in a position to succeed. Cauley-Stein will probably never live up to early expectations but he can be a quality rotation player on a good team.
The last decade has provided us with a wide range of outcomes with the sixth overall pick. We have a superstar in Lillard, an elite defender in Smart, intriguing prospects like Isaac and Bamba and busts like Flynn and Vesely. Sometimes bad picks are made to look even worse when future star players are still on the board, with arguably no greater example than the case of Jonny Flynn. But the draft is tough to get right, even with a pick as high as the sixth overall pick.
NBA PM: The Bright Future Watch – Eastern Conference
Matt John looks at the Eastern Conference’s brightest futures.
“They’ve got a bright future!” Has there ever been a more vague statement in the NBA? Not to mention, something pretty cliche on top of it? The future could mean anything because, well, it depends on what is meant by the ominous ‘future’. Like next year’s future or the far-future five-to-seven years from now?
These days, more NBA teams than not have a bright future. whether it’s immediate or distant, because teams are generally run better now. Teams aren’t spending money just for the sake of spending money like they did five years ago. The best franchises are hiring personnel that actually might be the first steps towards changing their fortunes for the better. And, perhaps best of all, they’re actually treating patience like a virtue.
Take Detroit, for example. The Pistons have predictably been one of the worst teams in the league this season and, to add insult to injury, they’re paying Blake Griffin over $60 million to not play for them. Yet, the newly added Jerami Grant has been stupendous and they’re going to get a high lottery pick in a loaded draft. No one likes to be among the worst of the worst, but they have to feel good about themselves long-term.
The same goes for New York. The Knicks have been mocked for years over incompetent management, but they’re living proof that all they needed was the right guy to flip the switch. Tom Thibodeau changed everything. They now have an elite defense. Julius Randle earned his all-star nod. RJ Barrett looks like a potential franchise player. This is the longest they’ve stayed in the playoff race since 2013. Making the postseason remains in question, but it won’t matter if they reach it or not.
Both of them have promising futures, but we may not see them reach their ceilings for some time. Today, we’re taking a look at the Eastern Conference and teams that project to make an extended run if they play their cards right.
The Time Is Now
Fun fact about Brooklyn: James Harden or not, they were contenders already. They already had a fair shot at the title with the core they had surrounding two of the league’s best scorers of their generation. Then they added a third. One could have called it overkill in the beginning but, in light of Kevin Durant’s injuries this season, the trade prevented what could have been a major turn for the worse. Even if Durant managed to stay on the court, it’s still a no-brainer to acquire Harden, duh.
Now the Nets are at the top of the conference and they’re only now starting to get back to full health. They brought in some stellar reinforcements to round out the edges with Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. Maybe their defense won’t be good enough to be considered the overall favorites right now, but their offense should be legendary enough to compensate.
Brooklyn’s loaded for this season and beyond. Unless their three-headed monster suddenly disbands, it’s going to be like this for the next few years.
The Bucks should feel pretty good about their immediate future. They have the reigning two-time MVP locked in for the next half-decade when many perceived that was not going to be the case last fall. They re-upped Jrue Holiday for the rest of his prime. Khris Middleton’s still as good as ever. They also have no assets left thanks to the Holiday trade, so this is it.
Now that their final form is in plain view, it’s time to see if the Bucks can get over their playoff demons once and for all. Somehow, Giannis Antetokounmpo is not enough. Holiday’s better than any playmaking guard they had last year on both sides of the floor. Whether or not he and Middleton, among others, can help rise past their spotty postseason efforts remains to be seen.
The Window’s Opening
Philadelphia has gained national attention ever since they started cashing in on The Process in 2017 – but combining last season’s disastrous results and this season of redemption, the 76ers now have a much clearer vision of utilizing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Turns out, it’s pretty simple. They needed shooting – and having it now has done a complete 180.
As Embiid and Simmons continue to progress, floor spacing that won’t compromise the defense should be the point of emphasis from here on out. Putting Tobias Harris back at his natural position as a power forward, while inserting Seth Curry and Danny Green as complementary guards, does just that. If the Sixers want The Process to reach its maximum potential, the team they have right now is the template for how to get there.
If the star pairing is given the necessary room to operate, Philly should be right there with the best of them, year in and year out.
Simply put, this was their most exciting year as a franchise since Buzz City actually got a professional basketball team. Then, in what feels like one swift motion, they lose their two best players for an extended period, which might very well kill their playoff chances.
That’s tough cheese to swallow, but Charlotte’s put the league on notice. They are young. They are fun. They’re only going to get better. This was just Year One for LaMelo Ball, the new face of the franchise. Gordon Hayward should have a fair amount of good basketball left in him, provided he stays on the court. Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, PJ Washington, Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham have all made strides as players too. There’s reason to believe that this team has only scratched the surface of its potential.
No matter what happens this season, the Hornets are not going to be a team to take lightly anymore.
Coming into the season, Atlanta had one of the deepest collections of talent in the league. Somehow though, no one was quite sure what to expect. Trae Young and John Collins were a nice, young pair, but, in spite of De’Andre Hunter’s jump this year, the results were mixed. That was until Nate McMillan took over.
The Hawks soon rattled off an eight-game winning streak, then one of four games not too long after that. With players coming back from injury, the pieces started to fit, showing themselves to be a functional operation.
They have young talent coming into their own now and they have veterans who have been there before. As long as they make it their goal to keep Collins, the Hawks could potentially be a powerhouse as soon as next year.
Don’t Count ‘Em Out
This season’s been a mess for Boston. Kemba Walker hasn’t been able to play on back-to-backs. Jayson Tatum has struggled on those very same games. No team has missed more games than Boston has thanks to COVID-19. For a team that has come so close to getting over the Eastern Conference Finals hump, this was about as disastrous of a season as Boston could have endured.
At the same time, they still have the best combination of two-way wings in the league with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Seasons like these help young stars grow when they’re hitting their primes. Plus, the biggest positive is that Robert Williams III has asserted himself as their center of the future.
They definitely have some roster issues to fix when the season’s over, but Boston should be in for a major rebound next season.
Miami’s skeptics screamed from the hilltops that the finals run last season was a fluke. Miami set out to prove them wrong and… they haven’t really done that. The HEAT have been erratic, to say the least. They’ve had extended winning streaks, all evened out by extended losing streaks. Now, they’re just fighting to return to the playoffs.
Even so, the winning streaks they’ve had demonstrates that they’re capable of consistently winning basketball. They still have pretty much everyone from last year’s roster, only with more reinforcements with Victor Oladipo, Trevor Ariza and Nemanja Bjelica. If by chance the HEAT don’t succeed, they honestly don’t have much to fret about.
They lost their Plan A when Giannis Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee, but they’re still going to be heavy players in free agency. Knowing Pat Riley, this season will at worst will only be seen as a momentary setback.
Regardless of where your favorite franchise lands in the current conference hierarchy, there’s plenty of things to like across the board. From up-and-coming rookies to promising draft futures, the Eastern Conference is stronger than ever. While the Nets, Bucks and 76ers appear to be the biggest threat’s to the Lakers’ immediate throne, even the bottom feeders are on their way up in today’s modern NBA landscape.
NBA Daily: A Bright Future is Building in Oklahoma City
Tristan Tucker takes an in-depth look at what makes the Oklahoma City Thunder click and which players can emerge as future stars of the league.
34 draft picks from 2021-27.
A staggering treasure chest of assets, something that means nothing if the team that owns those assets can’t draft well.
Thankfully for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise has already shown that it can build a competitive and fun roster no matter the circumstances.
There’s no sugarcoating it, the Thunder is truly awful this season. The team boasts a truly atrocious 104.7 offensive rating, good for 30th in the league while pushing out a less-than-stellar 112.8 defensive rating, good for 22nd in the league. The team is dead last in SRS, a stat that factors point differential and strength of schedule while owning a league-worst -8.1 net rating.
But this team is so much fun to watch. So much so that it’s easy to neglect its horrible rankings and record.
The Young Stars
The team already boasts one of the game’s best young stars in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Gilgeous-Alexander is enjoying career-best numbers of 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. “SGA” is out indefinitely, but the team can rest assured in the development it’s seeing from its other young pieces.
Look no further than the team’s 2020 draft class composed of Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon, two players already making an impact. Entering the season, neither player looked to be significant contributors coming from overseas play and needing time to develop. In fact, “Poku” is the youngest player in the NBA, while Maledon is the sixth-youngest.
Maledon has 30 starts under his belt already at the age of 19, averaging 9.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Maledon’s shooting splits don’t jump off the page but his instincts do. The point guard isn’t the type of player to give up on a play and it’s easy to see the offensive instincts carry over from his time with ASVEL in France.
Meanwhile, Pokusevski is on fire as of late. Since March 11, “Poku” is a full-time starter, averaging 31.4 minutes, 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The Serbian power forward only turned 19 in December and it’s already clear to see his potential is nearly limitless.
Fan-favorite “Poku” has shooting potential, connecting at a 35.9 percent rate from deep on over six attempts per game. He can make plays, rebound, gather blocks and score at all three levels. He isn’t a marksman, he’s far from it at this stage of his career, but there’s no denying the finesse he puts on every shot. Pick-and-rolls featuring Pokusevski and Maledon is something Thunder fans have to look forward to.
The Thunder’s young talent doesn’t end there, the team is already proving it can find gems on a whim.
Two-Way Contract Development
Moses Brown played out last season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers on a two-way contract and was mostly an afterthought. Brown spent most of his rookie season in the G-League before getting an opportunity with the Thunder in training camp, an opportunity he used to pick up another two-way contract opportunity and then a multi-year deal after stellar play.
In a game against the Boston Celtics on March 27, it was clear to see Brown had established himself as a staple of the Thunder’s young corps. In that game, Brown picked up 21 points and 23 rebounds, both of which are career highs. Shortly after, the Thunder converted Brown to a standard deal.
Since March 14, Brown has 12 starts under his belt in 14 games, averaging 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.
Oklahoma City has 10 players on its roster that have three or fewer years of experience, not including Pokusevski, Brown, Maledon or Gilgeous-Alexander.
Shortly after converting Brown, the team moved to sign Jaylen Hoard, who was on a two-way contract opposite of Brown in Portland last year. Like Brown, Hoard spent training camp in 2020 with the Thunder but was ultimately cut, unlike Brown. However, if early signs are any indication, Hoard already looks like another keeper.
In just three games, Hoard is averaging 11.7 points per game while limiting his fouls and playing with his head down.
The other two-way contract slot is held by Josh Hall out of Moravian Prep, a young player that is very raw but has limitless upside. Don’t hold his numbers against him, he has the athleticism to make fans regret that. Watching Hall is always a thrill because there’s always a risk of an explosive play to come. It’s clear to see that the end-of-roster development is just as skilled as the rest of the roster.
Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley became household names for NBA fans in the Orlando bubble last season and have continued their strong play into this season. Dort’s been a full-time starter this season while averaging 12.6 points per game. His shooting is pitiful but he’s a hard worker and he’s made strides as both a playmaker and a scorer. Bazley is also a full-time starter with poor shooting numbers but he’s close to being a nightly double-double. While these two haven’t jumped off the page this year, they’ve both already proven that they can contribute to winning basketball, as seen last season.
Isaiah Roby is another interesting case, he’s a big player that can play the three through the five on a dime. Roby was traded to the Thunder from the Dallas Mavericks for pennies on the dollar — and he’s making Oklahoma City thankful for their doing so. Roby’s averaging 8.9 points on very efficient shooting.
As if the OKC frontcourt wasn’t loaded enough, the team went out and acquired Tony Bradley from the Philadelphia 76ers in a trade that shipped George Hill away. The move looked great at the time and looks even better now, as he’s making the case to be considered a long-term piece.
Bradley is still just 23-years-old and looked like a suitable replacement for Joel Embiid on the 76ers when the MVP candidate went down. The center’s best game came in a win over the Golden State Warriors in which he recorded 18 points and 11 boards.
If that wasn’t enough the team also has Svi Mykhailiuk, Ty Jerome and Kenrich Williams, who have all proven their worth in one way or another. Mykhailiuk and Jerome have the potential to be some of the best shooters in the league while “Kenny Hustle” is exactly that, the ultimate glue guy.
One of the most underrated traits a developing team can have is the ability to negotiate with overseas players and leagues and pick up professional stars. The Thunder is quickly showing its fans that it is more than capable of doing so.
Firstly, the team drafted Vit Krejci in the second round of the 2020 draft. Krejci didn’t come over this season but has the potential to be a good role player for the Thunder if he’s ever brought over. He also got experience playing in the NBA G League earlier this year.
Then, the team recently signed Gabriel Deck, who isn’t super young but is a winning player. Literal hours before the move went down, Deck scored 19 points to lift Real Madrid to the Euroleague playoffs.
The team is also reportedly bringing over Vasilije Micic next season, a star in Euroleague averaging 16.4 points and 5 assists per game in those games. Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to notch assists overseas. Micic isn’t young either, but he’ll bring a lot of professional experience both on the court and in the locker room to aid a young Thunder team.
While Oklahoma City is constantly touted for its future draft picks, its current roster isn’t something to look over either. Combine that with the fact that, despite his massive deal, the team might be able to actually get something of value for Al Horford and has a roster spot to use once Justin Robinson’s current 10-day deal runs up.
In the NBA not many things are certain, but the Thunder’s bright future and strategic front office surely are.
NBA Daily: Executive of the Year Watch
Front offices around the league have had their hands full trying to make the right moves in order to steer their organizations towards a championship. With one month of regular season basketball remaining, Basketball Insiders examines the intense race for the Executive of the Year Award.
There are three main areas where NBA executives face extreme pressure and scrutiny. Free agency, the draft and the trade deadline are all different avenues for teams to improve as they pursue the ultimate goal of a championship. Under ordinary circumstances, there are sleepless nights, make-or-break decisions and countless “what if” scenarios that run through their heads. During two seasons amid a pandemic, things somehow get even more hectic.
With a shortened offseason and limited access to players, executives were given the impossible task of drafting the right player, signing the best free agents and making the perfect trade just before the deadline. Some teams have done well while others — like Danny Ainge in Boston — have struck out looking. With the regular season heading towards the finish line, five contenders have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in terms of winning the Executive of the Year Award.
Sean Marks, Brooklyn Nets
Technically the biggest move of Marks’ career came two seasons ago when he signed Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan and traded for Kevin Durant. This set the table for everything else and, while some view it as Brooklyn simply lucking out, Marks still had to put the team in a position to make the deals work. He began collecting key role players like Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Tyler Johnson and kept Joe Harris with a new contract.
Sean’s next move was to put together a package to acquire James Harden from the Houston Rockets. The deal had been rumored for quite some time but once it became official, Marks had put together arguably the greatest trio of superstars the league has ever seen. The Nets were also able to add Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge via the buyout market to bolster their already impressive roster.
Brooklyn has only had all three of their star players on the court for six games but they have also had the luxury of one or two guys carrying the load while the others get healthy. When you factor in the deals for guys like Nicolas Claxton, Landry Shamet, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Alize Johnson, it is easy to see why Marks is the clear frontrunner to win the award this season.
James Jones, Phoenix Suns
As a player, Jones was always associated with winning teams. Now, the same can be said for his career as an executive. When Jones was able to put the trade together for veteran point guard Chris Paul, he knew exactly what he was doing. The move was successful in three ways. The veteran leadership and talent acquisition is obvious, but it also prevented them from having to overpay Kelly Oubre. The third and probably most important, was proving to Devin Booker that they were serious about winning – and winning now.
With Booker under contact through the 2023-24 season, it removed any potential desire to request a trade in order to play for a winning team. This was becoming more apparent at the end of last season when the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble down in Orlando. The pieces were nearly in place, but Jones still had to work around the edges to make everything stick.
Jones got busy in free agency, signing Jae Crowder, Langston Galloway, Dario Saric and E’Twaun Moore. Crowder provides more playoff experience that their young nucleus can digest. Jones even picked up a talented young player like Torrey Craig for next-to-nothing at the trade deadline. From reclamation projects like Jevon Carter, Cameron Payne and Frank Kaminsky, to the player development of Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, the stars have aligned for Phoenix, who own the second-best record in the league.
Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers
While the award is seemingly a two-horse race between Marks and Jones, Daryl Morey has quietly revamped the 76ers into serious title contenders. It began with drafting Tyrese Maxey, trading for Seth Curry and signing Dwight Howard. His biggest move was shipping out Al Horford and adding Danny Green. Morey, who won this award in 2017-18, has raised the ceiling on their offense by surrounding Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with capable shooters.
Embiid has been one of the top candidates for MVP this season, though his most recent injury may hurt his case. When he plays, he is the most dominant player in the league. Though he and Simmons have both missed time this year, Tobias Harris has been able to step in and lead the team. Morey has his three stars under contract for the foreseeable future and Doc Rivers has this team playing exceptional defense.
Morey was able to acquire George Hill at the trade deadline, giving the team another ball-handler and an outstanding three-point threat. He has addressed their weaknesses and essentially turned them into strengths. By tweaking the roster since his first day in Philly, Morey has put his stamp on this team as they battle with Brooklyn for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have been sliding down the standings as they continue to play without their two superstars. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis still sidelined for weeks to come, the team has had to rely on their bench to fill the void. This is where Pelinka has improved the roster the most from last season’s championship team.
Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol have provided the depth and talent needed to make another title run. They upgraded at nearly every position while retaining key pieces like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris.
Signing Andre Drummond after his buyout should provide dividends in the postseason as they face guys like Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert. This means Davis can play his more natural position at the four spot. Pelinka’s biggest move was signing Davis to a multi-year extension, keeping the big man in a Lakers jersey through at least the 2024-25 season.
Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks
After a brutal exit from the playoffs last season, the Bucks decided to reload their roster. Horst was able to complete a deal to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Much like the Paul trade in Phoenix, this move convinced their franchise player to stay. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his five-year, $228 million supermax extension to stay in Milwaukee.
The failed trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic did not set this team back one bit. Horst signed a couple of key free agents in Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis, who have been solid contributors for the Bucks. The signings of Craig and AJ Augustin didn’t pan out but they did use one of them to acquire PJ Tucker in a deal with Houston.
Tucker is a perfect fit with this group, providing them with another outstanding defender that has led the league in corner three-point shooting each of the last two seasons. The Bucks had been one of the worst three-point shooting teams from that spot. Milwaukee should have no problem in tight games come playoff time. A closing lineup of Holiday, Khris Middleton, Tucker, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez should give opposing offenses nightmares.
The popular pick before the season was Travis Schlenk, who assembled quite the roster in Atlanta. The Hawks stumbled out of the gate, as they navigated through injuries and a lack of on-court chemistry. After firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, Nate McMillan has guided this team to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Other notable names to mention are Tim Connelly of the Denver Nuggets and Dennis Lindsey of the Utah Jazz. Denver lost Jerami Grant in the offseason but the recent trades to acquire Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee have turned Denver’s season around. While the Jazz didn’t make any significant signings before the season, this cast is one that Lindsey assembled and now is thriving with Mike Conley finally settling into their system. Lindsey should get more credit and praise for the Jazz continuing to own the best record in the league.
Winning this award is special, but the ultimate goal for each one of these individuals is to win a championship. Since 1996, only three executives (Ainge, RC Buford, Bob Myers) have won this award and the NBA Finals in the same season.