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The Underrated Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ underrated series by looking at which executives had their efforts fall under the radar this season.

Matt John

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Last week, Basketball Insiders ranked who was the best of the best of each position in the NBA, including executives. This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at who are among the most underrated executives in the NBA.

What makes an executive underrated? It’s actually a pretty loaded question. Their work may have led to a much better team than we all anticipated. Maybe their team isn’t that good, but they’ve made some brilliant moves to make the most of a bad situation. Maybe they have a more promising future than people give them credit for.

Take the Chicago Bulls front office, for example. Gar Forman has brought in some nice young talent, they have productive vets and showed some progress last year. If the Bulls were any good this season, he’d be on this list. Lo and behold, they stink, and he’s no longer running things. Even worse, one of the primary factors as to why they stink is keeping Jim Boylen as their head coach when many are pointing to him being the driving factor. They’re making the efforts to get past their turmoil, but until they get past it, they won’t make an appearance.

To answer who the most underrated executives in the game are, we’re going to approach this as if you asked this executive why they were labeled underrated, this would be their answer. Also, this based on their performance this season, not on their reputation.

“You didn’t think we’d be this good. Nobody did, really.”

Zach Kleiman, Memphis Grizzlies

Full disclosure: Kleiman was the toughest omission from the top executives list from last week. He’s done a perfect job rebuilding the Grizzlies because, in just a year’s time, it looks like the future is already here for them. The reason he was off the list was that, even though they’ve tremendously defied all odds from pretty much the very start, they’re a merely average team and not much else. The other executives on the list run teams that are all firmly at least one level ahead of Memphis.

Because Memphis has been leaps and bounds better than we all thought they would be, albeit still a fringe playoff team at the end, Kleiman gets the nod as the most underrated executive in the league.

He’s drafted both his franchise big and his franchise point guard. He’s surrounded them with complementary personnel. He even managed to acquire more young talent for pennies on the dollar. Can someone explain how he came away with Justise Winslow after the Andre Iguodala saga? Or how Josh Jackson was just a throw-in when Memphis originally acquired him? Following the anticlimactic end of Grit-and-Grind, so much is going right so soon for the Grizzlies, with a lot of it having to do with Kleiman’s work.

It could be a very different story this time next year. For all we know, the Grizzlies could be right back on top of the West. Should they find themselves there, Kleiman would absolutely deserve a spot among the best executives in the game. Last year, this writer talked about how hard it is to rebuild a winner after blowing up a glorious era for small markets like Memphis. Kleiman has done everything to prove that notion wrong.

“I did everything I should have done. It just hasn’t paid off yet.”

David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans

If Zion Williamson had been playing the whole season, Griffin wouldn’t show up here. Because New Orleans has been frost-bitten by the injury bug for what feels like the millionth time, their *technically* below-average record has made the work that Griffin’s done fall under the radar.

When you have a potential all-timer just starting out his career as a pro, it’s imperative that you build around him the right way. No one knows this better than New Orleans. That’s because they’ve seen firsthand what happens when you don’t do that. With Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, the Hornets/Pelicans built some good teams around those guys, but not on a consistent basis. We all know what happened with both of them after that. When they got the first overall pick last year, they knew they had to avoid the same fate with Zion at any cost.

Griffin has done a phenomenal job with that. He’s acquired Zion’s All-Star running mate and certified No. 2 in Brandon Ingram, a young talent who’s seemingly quite complementary with Zion in Lonzo Ball, as well as stingy veterans — JJ Redick and Derrick Favors — and they all were brought on to a team that already had Jrue Holiday, among others.

Things started picking up when Zion made its entrance. That should give you a good idea of how good this team could have been if it had a clean slate of health the whole season. It should also tell you how scary they should be for years to come. As long as they don’t see a repeat of this past year’s string of bad injury luck, New Orleans should be well in the thick of the playoff picture. If their progress continues to trend upward, Zion will more-likely-than-not stick around. Griffin deserves a fair amount of the credit if and when that happens.

“We made the most of a really bad situation. Even if it won’t lead to much.”

Neil Olshey, Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers’ struggles this year should fit under the “surprised, but not surprised” file. They are coming off of an impressive Western Conference Finals trip, but they lost their starting center and their best perimeter defenders this offseason. To add insult to injury literally, they then lost one of their rotation players on top of all that midseason. Guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Rodney Hood are not easily replaceable. That didn’t stop Olshey from trying.

He didn’t take any of the Trail Blazers’ losses personnel-wise lying down. When Portland needed a starting center, Olshey brought in Hassan Whiteside. When Portland needed another scorer, Olshey brought in Carmelo Anthony. When Portland needed perimeter defense, Olshey brought in Trevor Ariza. None of those guys have been the missing piece that magically turned Portland’s fortunes around, but Portland would be in much worse shape if Olshey hadn’t acquired them.

An executive earns the label of good by doing everything he can to help further his team. That includes making the necessary adjustments during a down year. Olshey did just that. It didn’t get the results that everyone in Portland wanted, but he made the conscious effort to do everything in his power to make the Trail Blazers a winning team.

It’s a shame that in the end, Damian Lillard’s best season is more-likely-than-not going to waste. No one should be blamed for what’s happened to Portland this season, but if there is, none of it should be placed on Olshey.

Tommy Sheppard, Washington Wizards

It’s been brought up before that Sheppard will probably be on the hot seat since the Wizards are out of the playoff picture, for one, and Bradley Beal is losing his patience in addition. That is the nature of the business. When the team is in a funk that they can’t get out of, everyone looks to the executive to resolve their issues.

Sheppard didn’t create this mess, but you can definitely tell he’s doing everything to clean it up. For what it’s worth — and sadly, it’s not really worth much at all — Sheppard has been doing a pretty darn good job. He stole Davis Bertans from San Antonio. He stole Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga from Los Angeles. He signed Thomas Bryant and Ish Smith to bargain deals. He drafted the very exciting Rui Hachimura. And you know what else? Bringing in Isaiah Thomas was a fun, albeit ineffective, experiment!

All of this has culminated in another porous season that still leaves more questions than answers. How is Washington going to get better? What are they going to do about John Wall? How will they appease Bradley Beal?

Sheppard’s got much bigger fish to fry both this summer, but he’s shown thus far that he’s a competent executive capable of making a good move when it’s available to him. He’s got his work cut out for him, but he’s done enough to encourage Washington to keep him around.

“We’re not good right now, but our youth movement is more promising than people think.”

Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte Hornets

Make no mistake. The Hornets are as unremarkable as they’ve ever been. They’re 23-42. They have the fourth-lowest net rating in the league — minus-7.0 — and their cap flexibility is still limited by the money they owe to the role players they overpaid. It’s not like things were great before, but they were certainly better then than now.

Even if this season is going to be the worst Charlotte’s been through since the Lance Stephenson experiment, there is a glass-half-full side of things. This is the most athletic team we’ve seen in Charlotte in quite some time. P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges have given Charlotte a little extra bounce that they haven’t seen in years. Dubbing either as stars would be jumping the gun, but man are they a fun watch.

We’ve also seen a fair amount of progress among Charlotte’s younger players. Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, and Malik Monk have all played remarkably better this season compared to last. Terry Rozier hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he has given the Hornets his all with the role that they’ve given him. And who knows what the Martin twins could do in the long-term?

Kupchak has assembled a team with the label “not good, but fun.” The Hornets have a long way to go because the holes they had even before Kemba Walker left still need to be filled. The state of the team is definitely not good, but it’s not as hopeless as it may look on paper. With another lottery pick, and Nic Batum approaching a contract year, Charlotte may take a much bigger step next season. Don’t expect a lot from them, but because of Kupchak, you shouldn’t sleep on these guys either.

“Players influenced why we’re great, but that doesn’t mean we had nothing to do with it!”

Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers
Pat Riley, Miami HEAT

Last week, this writer talked about how certain executives couldn’t be ranked as the best at their positions if their team’s newfound success came primarily from their newly acquired stars who were swayed to go there by their teammates’ influence. Luckily, what can make an executive qualify for the underrated label is if he is responsible for other players that he brought in playing their part in their team’s success. Hence, both Pelinka and Riley deserve to be named here.

It’s definitely weird to link Pat Riley with underrated because just about everyone who pays attention to the NBA knows who he is and what he’s done. He may not have been the one who convinced Jimmy Butler to sign with Miami, but he put in the framework to get a deal done to both get Butler onboard and expand Bam Adebayo’s role by trading the mercurial Hassan Whiteside. Work like that shows an executive that knows exactly how to get things done.

The same credit can be applied to Pelinka. He may not have been the one to convince Anthony Davis to come to LA, but he made the necessary deals to get The Brow there. The Lakers had to finesse their salary cap situation to make room for Davis this past summer, and that’s exactly what Pelinka did. He put in the necessary work to make the dream duo become a reality.

Those aren’t the only reasons why the work from these two are underrated.

Riley has brought in a very exciting youth movement with Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, among others, to round out the edges. Butler might be the reason why the HEAT are a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, but without the aforementioned players, how much better would his team be than the last ones he had in Chicago? Again, the credit goes to Riley there.

Pelinka has done basically the same just with castoff veterans. Dwight Howard has finally embraced his role as a second-string center (took him long enough!) and Avery Bradley has been having his most effective season since his days in Boston. We haven’t seen too much to say anything definitive yet, but the returns on Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters are promising. Pelinka’s work put a good roster around LeBron and Davis.

These two might wind up second-guessing some of the moves they made. Riley traded the young Justise Winslow for the older Andre Iguodala. Pelinka traded a lot of assets for Davis whose long-term status with the Lakers is up in the air. Still, they played their part in creating winners. They shouldn’t be written off.

As you can see, much like players and coaches, there are so many different ways in which an executive’s work can be underrated. It doesn’t honestly take much to earn that label. It also doesn’t take much to lose that label, too. Take Jerry Krause.

Krause’s work with the Bulls during the Michael Jordan era is, in fact, underrated because when we discuss Chicago’s reign in the 1990s, many love to praise Jordan for being the greatest player of all time, Scottie Pippen for being the perfect sidekick or Phil Jackson for running an excellent system during their heyday. Not many stop to think that it was Krause who got the whole gang together. Usually, he’s the last one to get the recognition. In fact, it seems as though Krause is better known for his issues with everyone on that team than his work in getting them there.

If you’ve been watching The Last Dance, you’d know how much that bothered Krause. It bothered him so much so that he elected to blow up the team piece-by-piece rather than keep it together for another run. By doing that, he arguably may have screwed Chicago out of another title, and after getting rid of everyone on that team, they never came anywhere close to what they were ever again under Krause.

This is all brought up not to take a swing at the former Bulls executive — RIP Mr. Krause — but to show that an executive’s effort can go from underappreciated to much-disparaged in an instant.

The work that these executives have done this season deserves more appreciation, but their work can be undone. If it is, it may not matter how much good they’ve done. They could still wind up being as collectively hated, arguably undeservedly, as one Jerry Krause.

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NBA PM: The Bright Future Watch – Eastern Conference

Matt John looks at the Eastern Conference’s brightest futures.

Matt John

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“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

Brooklyn Nets

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.

Milwaukee Bucks

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 76ers

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.

Charlotte Hornets

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.

Atlanta Hawks

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

Boston Celtics

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 HEAT

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.

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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.

Tristan Tucker

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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.

The others

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.

Overseas development

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.

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NBA

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.

Chad Smith

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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.

Honorable Mention

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.

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