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.
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