Behind every good franchise is a good front office. Executives are the backbone, drafting and acquiring the players that lead their respective franchises to greatness. Here are some of the more underrated executives in the league.
Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
Danny Ainge has made two career-defining blockbuster trades as general manager of the Boston Celtics: acquiring Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves back in the summer of 2007 and acquiring a load of draft capital, most notably the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round picks in 2016, 2017 (pick swap) and 2018 NBA drafts.
Beyond that, Ainge has been heavily criticized as an executive. Accused of overvaluing his assets in addition to some poor luck in the draft, Ainge often isn’t given the respect that he deserves. But, the way Ainge has transformed this Celtics squad is nothing short of miraculous. Just four seasons ago, the Celtics were 23-57 and nowhere near playoff caliber. Now, the team sits among the Eastern Conference elite and, with the Brooklyn picks, has the chance to stay there for a long time. Former first round draft picks Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, free agent pickup Al Horford and trade acquisitions Jae Crowder and budding superstar Isaiah Thomas have combined to form a team built on great chemistry, selfless basketball and hard-nosed play. The hiring of Brad Stevens also gives the team one of the more creative coaches in the league and one who is a perennial Coach of the Year candidate.
Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
Last year, the Houston Rockets sat at the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a 41-41 record. After a flurry of offseason moves by GM Daryl Morey, the team is now the conference’s third seed and boasts one of the league’s best offenses.
Acquiring Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2012 was a boon for the franchise’s future prospects. Morey dubbed him a “foundational” player after the trade; he saw something special in Harden, who mainly played a bench role during his time with the Thunder. More recently, pairing Harden with offensive guru and Coach of the Year candidate Mike D’Antoni has done wonders for the team that was in shambles at times last season. Morey has surrounded Harden with guys who can stretch the floor and let Harden play his best basketball—Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Lou Williams—all of whom have thrived in D’Antoni’s system and managed to post some of the best offensive numbers in league history. With the Rockets’ rise to prominence, Morey has a great chance to win the 2016-17 Executive of the Year award.
Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder have weathered the loss of Kevin Durant and managed to grab the Western Conference’s sixth seed this season. While much of the team’s success can be attributed to the offensive explosion that is Russell Westbrook, the hard work of GM Sam Presti cannot go unrecognized.
Presti is one of the better drafting GM’s in the league, having drafted three MVP caliber players in a three-year span (Durant, Westbrook and Harden) in addition to several other good NBA role players. With the loss of Durant to the Golden State Warriors in the offseason, Presti has attempted to reload on the fly, surrounding Westbrook with the best talent he has been able to acquire. Going back to the end of last season, Presti has acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in a trade with the Orlando Magic, Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott in a trade with the Chicago Bulls and Jerami Grant in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, all of whom have contributed to the team in some form this season. With Westbrook leading the charge, the Thunder could make some noise in the postseason before Presti manages to find another exceptional talent in the draft.
Neil Olshey, Portland Trail Blazers
Since losing LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs two seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers are no longer considered one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Currently fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot, the Blazers have managed to stay competitive thanks to the work of GM Neil Olshey.
Olshey has built one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league through the draft, picking Damian Lillard sixth overall in 2012 and C.J. McCollum 10th overall in 2013. More recently, Olshey managed to acquire a solid role player in Maurice Harkless from the Orlando Magic in 2015 for only a future second-round pick. He also traded Miles Plumlee and a second round pick to the Denver Nuggets for unhappy but talented center Jusuf Nurkic at this year’s trade deadline. Nurkic has since flourished as a part of the Blazers starting lineup before an injury, propelling them into contention for the eighth seed in the west. Olshey even managed to get the Nuggets to throw in a first round pick in this year’s loaded draft, giving them three picks in the first round.
Donn Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
During the twilight of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Dallas Mavericks and GM Donn Nelson have done as much as they can to remain competitive. However, championship windows close quickly in the NBA and the Mavericks have fallen on hard times. There are some positives that can be taken away from this season, though, and most of them have to do with the work of Nelson.
Nelson has turned other teams’ castoffs into serviceable players for his own team. Surprise Rookie of the Year candidate and undrafted Yogi Ferrell, along with teammate Seth Curry, have become a large part of the Mavericks roster now and in the future. The signing of Harrison Barnes in the offseason gives them a young and athletic number one option on offense, while the deadline trade Nelson made with the 76ers to acquire center Nerlens Noel gives them a true anchor on the defensive end (if they choose to retain him in free agency). With a spot in the lottery, the Mavericks have a chance to get even better in the offseason and possibly compete for a playoff spot next season.
Andy Elisburg, Miami HEAT
Andy Elisburg has been working magic for the Miami HEAT for quite some time. After losing superstar LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chris Bosh to medically issues, Elisburg managed to keep the HEAT afloat in the eastern conference. After losing the last piece of the “Big 3” in Dwyane Wade this past offseason, Miami was in a tough spot to begin the season, projected to be one of the bottom feeders in the east. After going 25-32 in the first half, the HEAT have gone on a tear since the All-Star break, thanks in part to better health and the work of Elisburg.
Like Nelson, Elisburg has taken other teams’ castoffs and, with the help of coach Erik Spoelstra, turned them into competent players and made his team competitive. Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and others have formed a cohesive unit with HEAT stars Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, forming a squad that is trying their hardest to make a playoff push. With only a few games remaining in the regular season and Miami currently the ninth seed, the chances of that happening may be slim, but Elisburg and the HEAT have a solid foundation to work with for the future.
NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans
Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.
By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.
In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.
Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.
“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”
That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.
“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”
He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.
“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”
Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.
“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”
Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.
“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”
The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns
Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.
Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.
On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.
Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.
For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.
Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.
“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.
“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.
So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.
What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.
Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.
Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.
With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.
Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.
On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.
The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.
So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.
After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.
Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.
Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.
Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.
“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.
“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.
“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”
* * * * * *
When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.
It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.
So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.
As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.
Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.
If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.
That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.
* * * * * *
Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.
And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.
Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.
Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve
While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.
In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.
The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.
Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.
For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.
“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”
Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.
Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.
Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.
In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.
“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.
“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”
From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.
Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.
“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”
With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.
After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.
“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”
Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.
Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.
“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”
Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.
The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.
So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.