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NBA Daily: Ranking The Executives

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ ranking series by taking a look at the best executives in the league.

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If you’ve been keeping up with us for the past week or so, Basketball Insiders is ranking every position possible in the NBA. Last week, we took a look at players who were the best from their respective positions. This week, we’re taking a look at the other personnel’s effect on how the season turns out.

Today, we’re looking at the executives. The people that run the operation. The people who put the product out there. The people whose job NBA Twitter loves to pose as more than anything.

The guidelines for what makes a good executive depends on what the team’s goals actually are. If the team’s goals are geared towards winning a championship now, the executive is tasked with finding the right players and coaches to form a championship team. If the team’s goals are to winning a championship several years down the line, the executive is tasked with drafting and developing the right players. In some rare cases, the executive gets to do both.

It’s true that the executives are the ones responsible for the task of bringing in players in hopes of winning a championship. There does come a point where a question arises: If players are more involved in bringing other players in than the executive is, how much credit does the executive really deserve for the success that comes afterward?

Take Rob Pelinka, for example. LeBron James pretty much just fell right into his lap, and by extension, so did Anthony Davis. They wanted to play together. If they had wanted to do the same for New York, would we have really credited the Knicks’ management after years of incompetence? Nobody here is trying to say Pelinka is a bad executive; we have to keep it honest and say that he isn’t really responsible for the Lakers’ success as much as “GM LeBron” is.

For that reason, we have to hold Pat Riley, Sean Marks and Lawrence Frank to the same standard, no matter how good of a job they’ve done with their teams in previous years.

Does Riley deserve the credit for the HEAT’s success when it was Dwyane Wade who pushed Jimmy Butler to sign with them? Does Marks deserve props for Kyrie Irving wanting to play for his hometown team and having his best friend come to join him? Frank deserves some leeway because he established a winning culture in LA after Lob City collapsed, but the reason why the Clippers are competing at the top is that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George wanted to play together for the city they grew up in.

If you want to give those guys more credit, all the power to you. Everyone has different criteria when it comes to rankings. The following executives named below formed the excellent teams they have now because of their savvy as executives and didn’t benefit from superstars wanting to join forces. At least, not entirely.

1. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

Hardly any reigning champion has ever lost its best player after winning the title. The ones that have usually did because said best player opted for retirement — Michael Jordan and Bill Russell come to mind. Such was not the case when Kawhi Leonard left Toronto for Los Angeles. Because of that, there’s no apt comparison to what the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors have done. If having to regroup after your best player — who’s still in his prime — leaves following a championship season becomes a thing, Toronto is setting the standard of how to do it right.

And they did this by…staying exactly the way they are — for the most part, at least. Besides bringing in a sneaky good infusion of youth — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, Terence Davis — the core, minus Leonard, has remained intact. Pascal Siakam’s taken yet another step into stardom, though he has simmered down a bit. Kyle Lowry’s back to his old ways. Fred VanVleet’s playing like he wants that Brinks truck. We could keep going on about the individuals who have contributed to Toronto’s unprecedented Cinderella run.

Nick Nurse’s genius schemes have helped Toronto stay on the course, but it was Ujiri who brought in all of the correct personnel for Nurse to put it all together, as well as Nurse himself. His moves since 2013 have all amounted to a team aiming to go as far as they did last year when no one thought that was possible back in October. That makes him an expert in team-building.

Maybe there’s a little recency bias considering the Raptors are the defending champions, but for two straight years, they have not only persevered when fate dealt them a cruel hand, but have seemingly come out on top. For that, Ujiri deserves the title as the best general manager in the league.

2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

He’s had his major hiccups in the past, but Sam Presti has proven time and time again that he is a brilliant executive. When he’s backed into a corner, he somehow manages to get himself out of it. He also somehow makes himself look smarter when he comes out on the other side. This time, Presti has made himself look about as brilliant as he’s ever been.

He already did everything that a smart executive would do in his position this past summer. He blew up the squad and squeezed every asset he could out of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. He has his point guard of the future. He has plenty of draft assets at his disposal to cement a new era. The only catch was eating Chris Paul’s contract. Who knew that wouldn’t be much of a catch?

Even through all of that, he managed to assemble possibly the most entertaining Thunder team since the Kevin Durant days. With the core they’ve formed behind Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, they’re basically the team that no one in the West wants to face in the playoffs. Not many teams get to have their cake eat it. The Thunder did because of Presti.

Look, the writing’s on the wall in OKC. We all know that this team will eventually be broken apart. That’s good for them. Even with the motherload of draft assets by his side, Presti is in prime position to get more. He’s got sign-and-trade scenarios with Gallinari coming up. He may enter the same situation with Adams. Schroder has some trade value, and, after the season Paul’s had, is it too crazy to say the veteran’s contract could be tradeable this summer?

To put the cherry on top, this is the perfect time to rebuild. Pretty much everyone in the West is going to vie for the playoffs next year. When there’s no competition at the bottom, that’s the perfect time to tank. OKC missed its opportunity for a championship during the Durant-Westbrook era, but Presti has put them in prime position to create a potentially more fruitful one for years to come.

3. Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks

When you know that you have a young super-duper-star on your team, it is absolutely imperative that you build around him the right way. If you don’t, you can wind up in a situation as disastrous as the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers. Since Milwaukee drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo and deemed him their new superstar, they’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, with the man who made all the difference being Jon Horst.

Before Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you don’t build around a young superstar
After Jon Horst’s arrival in Milwaukee – How you precisely build around a young superstar

Horst may not have been responsible for drafting Giannis, but he is responsible for putting the right team around the Greek Freak to excel. He got the right coach. He brought in the right personnel. He shipped the wrong personnel out of town. He took the necessary risks to make Milwaukee better. He’s made his mistakes — waiving Christian Wood to make room for Pau Gasol — but the Bucks were a nuclear weapon ready to explode. Horst was the one who lit the fuse.

Since then, the Bucks have topped the league in net rating for the last two seasons and have possessed the league’s best record. Even if they’re technically league-average from three — 35.6 percent, good for 16th in the league — their reliance on the perimeter has unlocked Giannis’ game. They couldn’t have done that without both head coach Mike Budenholzer and the spacing they added because of Horst’s efforts.

There’s a difference between having the potential to be something special and being something special. The Milwaukee Bucks were the former term for five years and have been the latter term for the last two. Had it not been for Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard, they might be the reigning champions right now. If the season resumes, there may not be a “might be” between Milwaukee and reigning champions when it’s all said and done.

4. Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks may not be contenders yet, but man, over the last two years, they’ve hit two straight-up bullseyes, and it’s already paying off more than anyone could have imagined. They got the Slovenian Boy Wonder and they have his Latvian partner-in-crime — for who knows how long, too? They may be deprived of assets, but those assets were well-spent.

And what did it cost to get them to what should be a glorious future? Cam Reddish’s draft rights, a few first-rounders that are sure to be late picks and eating what’s left of Courtney Lee and Tim Hardaway Jr’s contracts. Lee’s contract will be up in a matter of months, and Hardaway’s bloated deal comes to an end. That’s pretty much a slap on the wrist considering Dallas hasn’t asked really anything from Lee — because they’ve never had to — and Hardaway has been reasonably productive in the role they’ve given him.

What most mystifying of all is that this wasn’t Dallas’ forte. They slyly built up an incredibly strong foundation of youth spearheaded by two of the league’s most exciting young stars in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Did anybody think Donnie Nelson had this in him two years ago? That’s not to say the Mavericks have been run incompetently under his time. It’s just the way that they’ve masterfully built their next era of basketball so shortly after Dirk Nowitzki’s prime didn’t seem in-character to them and, quite frankly, it’s unbelievable.

There are obviously more gaps to fill. Even while being one of the league’s historic offenses presently, the Mavericks have some guys to add on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no rush. Right now, they have the privilege of enjoying the ride. Because, for the first time in forever, time is on their side.

5. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics

Just for the record, this list is not based on reputation. If it was, Ainge would be higher due to how many franchises he’s ruined to help the Celtics over the past decade-and-a-half. Moreover, if this list came out last year, he wouldn’t be mentioned because he did a horrible job running the team. This year, he got his spot back because his efforts as the executive are paying off big time again.

The assets he acquired from Brooklyn from back in 2013 are blossoming into the players he had in mind when he drafted them in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker has pretty much lived up to expectations as “Diet Kyrie.” Gordon Hayward looks a lot more like himself than last year, even if he’s not playing at the same level he did in Utah. Even Daniel Theis has evolved into one of the league’s better bargain contracts.

What’s most impressive is that in the wake of losing their best player, Kyrie Irving, and their most indispensable player, Al Horford, the Celtics managed to get better on both sides of the ball. They did more with less. Brad Stevens’ coaching has a lot to do with that, but Ainge was the one who brought these guys in so that they could compensate for their losses.

In essence, this has been a redemption year for Ainge following Boston’s season from hell last season. Ainge’s reputation for being one of the best executives in the league has stemmed from his cut-throat mindset. This time, he gets the nod because he executed the “less is more” approach to perfection.

6. Tim Connelly, Denver Nuggets

Why is Denver always off of everyone’s radar? This is the second consecutive season in which they have finished with a top-three record in the conference that has been deemed the tougher one to compete. It makes sense to talk more about the Los Angeles teams because, until proven otherwise, they are a level above everyone else. After that, people want to talk about Houston’s funky experiment, Utah’s struggles, Dallas’ surge, and Oklahoma City’s resilience among others….but the Nuggets have been better than all of them.

They still have one of the best all-around centers in the game. They’re a well-coached squad with guys who know their roles. Best of all, they somehow still have more potential to fulfill. This year, they found yet another reason to be excited about their future. They went with a low-risk, high-reward project in Michael Porter Jr, and let him redshirt his rookie season. Now, with Porter Jr. healthy and playing ball again, it looks like Denver may have yet another superstar waiting in the wings. If he avoids the injury bug, Denver’s ceiling gets taken up to yet another level.

It hasn’t all been perfect. Jamal Murray still hasn’t become the consistent electric scorer that he shows himself to be from time to time. Paul Millsap’s not getting any younger and…what happened to Gary Harris? Have we ever seen a young player’s production drop as badly as Harris’ when the guy’s only in his mid-20s? That’s what makes Denver even more impressive. In spite of some of their guys not being as productive as they like, they’ve managed to outplay everyone in the conference that doesn’t reside in LA.

It’s time the Nuggets got their due. They wouldn’t get one if it weren’t for Connelly’s excellent work running the operation. He would be even higher if he had just kept Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights, but Nuggets fans have already heard enough about that, haven’t they?

7. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets

Daryl Morey has a reputation for making brilliant trades either because he hoarded the appropriate assets in order to make them, thought outside the box or thought he’d fit in with Houston’s gameplan like a glove — or all three. That brings us to Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook didn’t seem like the type of player that Morey would covet. He’s not a three-point shooter. He prefers having the ball in his hands. He’s not the most efficient scorer. An incredible future Hall-of-Fame talent, indeed — just not the sort of player that Morey would want on his team. We all know the situation both he and Rockets were facing with the fall out between James Harden and Chris Paul. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

So why is Morey on this list? Because, like all good executives do, he retooled the team into the perfect one for Westbrook and Harden. Instead of forcing Westbrook into Houston’s system the whole season, he changed up the system to make life easier for Westbrook to play to the best of his abilities. Going with all wings and no bigs is definitely not a foolproof plan. It is, warts and all, the only way he can properly justify trading Paul — who’s a shoo-in for an All-NBA team this year — for Westbrook, who wasn’t really fitting in with the team.

That’s what the best executives do. They make the accommodations so that the pieces fit even if it’s not a picture-perfect situation. Morey’s lower on this list than he usually would because there’s a very solid chance that this may not work, but he’s still here because he knew it’s what he had to do.

8. Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers

It’s virtually impossible to not include a man who everyone regarded as incompetent almost three years ago only to be laughing in all of their faces since then on a list like this. Pritchard has been running a victory lap around everyone since he traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. This season, he had even more reason to.

Oladipo took the reins by becoming a star his first year in Indy, and now Sabonis has followed in his footsteps two years later. Even though the former’s status as a star is going to be in question until he proves he’s still got it, Indiana has still managed to be one of the tougher teams in the Eastern Conference. Pritchard deserves credit for helping them stay afloat after their best player has been through hell and back.

Sabonis’ evolution into one of the league’s best offensive bigs in the league has helped a fair amount, yes. Bringing in Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. McConnell to stabilize things has also helped. All of those players were brought in because of Pritchard; they were arguably upgrades over who they had before.

The Pacers have a good thing going on for them. If things continue to progress for them as well as they already have, things could turn out better than they were with Paul George. There is an elephant room that Pritchard will have to confront sooner or later — trading Myles Turner when it’s clear that Sabonis is their big man of the future — but knowing how he’s done since 2017, there should be plenty of confidence that he’ll make the right move.

This list was based off how the executives performed this past season. Had Zion Williamson not gotten hurt, David Griffin probably would have made this list. If New Orleans has a healthier season, and their young guys continue to grow, there’d be little reason not to include Griffin at a time like this. The same goes for Zach Kleiman and company, who have done a masterful job with Memphis this season.

If this had been based on moves made before the season, it’s very likely that Dennis Lindsey and Elton Brand would have been on here. Since the moves they’ve made haven’t worked out nearly as well as they had hoped, they can’t be included.

Lastly, these days, it’s tough to rank executives because management around the NBA period has gotten smarter for the most part. We have teams that still have poor ownership, but executives have mostly gotten smarter. Even recently, the Chicago Bulls, who have been largely criticized for the moves they’ve made (and not made), hired a smart front office guy — Arturas Karnisovas– to clean up their mess.

Maybe the New York Knicks will do the same. At least, that’s what their fans have wanted since the start of the 21st century.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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