Monday, July 14, 2008

5 Genius GMs

My favorite rebuilding GMs—sneakily driving their teams to the top with good to brilliant moves

(Yes, I do realize that this list does leave out a few heavy hitters—of course Philadelphia would be considered by most people to be included, as well as a few other teams. But Philly wasn’t considered to be rising this summer until a single move—the Brand acquisition. And if Brand had stayed in Clipperland, the same notion would have worked—they just picked up Baron Davis. Really, this article isn’t about the GMs who have made their teams good or better this year. It’s about the GMs who are building their teams on a concept, and the concept is working…to me.)

5. Spurs – Greg Popovich

Methodology: Keep no one long, pay no one much, find someone better

If you hate everything else about the Spurs, you have to respect and even love Greg Popovich. He is the only current coach who moonlights as a GM (this is unresearched, but Isiah and Larry’s Brown and Bird were the last, I believe) and he is really the only one who has been highly successful on both ends in the last decade.

What do I love about his GM moves? Well for starters, he keeps the guys he likes, and he rids himself of the guys he doesn’t. The big three (Duncan, Ginobili, Parker) are locked up for the next 2-4 years (and at relative bargains too), and there isn’t a single Spurs player with more than 2 years left on their contract. Popovich has made a habit of this in the last few years. This means they can reload whenever they want…with no consequences. Steve Kerr got old? Bring in Brent Barry. Is Bowen looking old? They went and got Udoka (again, all for huuuuge bargains). They also know when and how to stick it to their opponents, like when they let the Mavericks pay Michael Finley $20 million a year while they paid him $2 million or so and won a ring.

Beyond his abilities on the sidelines, Popovich is a master in the front office. He gets what he wants. He’s got his big three for the next decade and he’s in position to get some younger, more athletic help around them to keep the Spurs on top.

4. Detroit – Joe Dumars

Methodology: Underdogs…gotta find underdogs! Tough underdogs. Undersized underdogs. Undrafted underdogs. But NEVER European underdogs.

Yes, I do realize that this is the second 50-win team in this list, and that the whole idea is about rebuilding. The thing is, that is the difference between horrific, good, and GENIUS GMs—you can see them reloading before their team heads for the bottom.

Detroit has had an impressive decade, winning 50+ games every year since 2001, an obvious testament to great management. In 2004, everything came together and the Pistons won the NBA Championship. Now that same cast (with the exception of Ben Wallace, who is an idiot) is a veteran bunch capable of winning 55+ games each season. Of course, entering their mid-30s, Joe realizes that the party could be over any time, so he has quietly made moves in the draft that have paid dividends for his veteran team.

The Pistons, to me, are the #1 team in the league at implementing a plan. They want tough, hard-nosed players who have no problem playing 5 minutes but will work hard for 40. Even though they’ve been drafting in the late 20’s for nearly a decade, they’ve managed to acquire GREAT role player talent. Now with Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiel, Aaron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey, they have a second team that is in its early twenties but has deep playoff experience. You can’t ask for a better job than that.

I think the Pistons have lost a few rings they should’ve won in the last 4 years just off of lack of desire. But I think that once these younger guys that Joe has brought in start taking over, you will see a stronger, more versatile Pistons team than the current group. Dumars has made brilliant move after brilliant move. And yes, you can fault him for taking Darko Milicic, or for letting Mehmet Okur get away. But really, think about it—if he had drafted someone else who was starting for their team, would he have ever gone for the Rasheed Wallace trade? And if that never happens…would there even be a ring?

3. Boston – Danny Ainge

Methodology: Take advantage of great chemistry to develop great talent.

OK OK I KNOW!!! They won the Championship! That can’t possibly count as rebuilding!!!

Again, I totally, ABSOLUTELY disagree!

I’m not here to even talk about the job Danny Ainge did in the past year. It’s been nothing short of genius—every move he made was outstanding. But I think that the moves he is making NOW, while risky, may be just as important.

The Celtics went out and drafted two of the most talented players in this draft. The thing is, they are also two of the biggest question marks in this draft. J.R. Giddens of New Mexico and Bill Walker of Kansas State are two guys who were projected to be top-10 draft choices in their freshmen years of college. Each was derailed along the way –Giddens by immaturity, Walker by an ACL tear. Most teams had given up on them as great prospects.

So the Celtics took the gamble. They figure that Drill Sergeant Garnett and the disciplined Ray Allen can light a fire in Giddens as they did with Rajon Rondo, whose rookie season didn’t leave much indication that he’d be a championship point guard a year later. Then they hope that Bill Walker, an uber-athletic wing when healthy, can learn a little something about durability from the Finals MVP, who played his way through an MCL sprain in Game 1 to somehow dominate in the 6 biggest games of his life.

I love the idea. I truly believe that if a team has great chemistry, they can afford to take a few risks for talent. There’s nothing either of these guys can do to erode what Boston is doing—not as long as Kevin Garnett is around, that’s for sure. Instead they can come along slowly, learn from three guys who got to the top by working hard and playing unselfishly. And who knows—maybe Rondo, Giddens, Walker, Big Baby, and Perkins is the Celtics team of the future. It’s already got three NBA champions and two potentially great rookies. We’ll see.

2. New Jersey – Rod Thorn

Methodology: We’re gonna stay young and play fast. And if you don’t want to be here, watch out for the doorknob on the way out.

So you’ve got an old point guard. Trade him in for a young point guard. Check.

(Oh and can you throw in two first round picks too? Great. Check.)

You’ve got a 22 point scoring wing player in his late 20’s on a rebuilding team that isn’t making money. You trade him for the 2nd best Chinese player in the world—who happens to be in his early twenties. You’re now rebuilding and making money. Check.

If the New Jersey Nets get rid of Vince Carter as easily as they disposed of Kidd and Jefferson, Rod Thorn becomes my darkhorse candidate for GM of the Year, whether they win 50 games or 5. Sure, he may have prematurely disposed of Kenyon Martin and slowly caused his own team’s demise, but what exactly is the purpose of keeping together a core that gets SWEPT two times in a row in the NBA Finals?

This team steps out above the others to me simply because building a team through trades is a hard thing to do. Most rebuilding teams climb the ladder through drafting and free agent signings. The way the Nets have handled this rebuilding project has been patient, yet somehow quite risky. Thorn is making moves that many GMs would not make, but he is likely setting his team up for greater success than most of those GMs will achieve.

I just love the acquisition of Devin Harris for the Nets. He never really got to do what he does best in Dallas, and what he does best seems to be what the Nets want him to do: get to the hole. Not only that, but the Nets are quietly assembling one of the deepest teams in the league. They’ve got Krstic, Sean Williams and rookie Brooke Lopez patrolling the paint, and they’ve got Vince Carter, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Ryan Anderson who all can play inside-out. That doesn’t even mention that they have Harris and Marcus Williams playing point. Both are more than capable at performing point guard duties.

And on top of all of this…they might get LeBron in two years! They’ve trimmed the cap enough to possibly set up the biggest coup in NBA history that didn’t involve a friend of David Stern or the city of Seattle. The Nets could potentially head into Brooklyn with the best player in the NBA…on top of all of the talent they currently have.

Overall, it’s just a great job. It’s a marvelous job. It’s a stupendous job. And if they end up with LeBron? With this roster?!! It becomes the ‘Rod Thorn Dynastic Creator Award.’ That’s just it.

1A. “Sonics” – Sam Presti
1B. Blazers – Kevin Pritchard

I retardedly, STEWPIDLY left one of these teams off. But then I realized how fitting and appropriate it is that they be presented together.

The “Sonics” and Blazers have had years of history in the great northwest…which is about to come crashing to an end thanks to Clay Bennett.

But the 2007 NBA draft will be what links these two franchises for the next two decades. Portland drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, and from that moment the two franchises have had their success compared, and will for many years.

Because of these acquisitions, both teams are considered to be on the rise, despite even the season-ending injury to Oden. And both teams have taken great strides towards becoming NBA dynasties.

The funny and ironic part is how drastically different their strategies have been thus far.

Portland’s Methodology: Be aggressive. Get character guys. Get your hands on as many players as you possibly can.

The Blazers have been more active in the draft than any team we’ve seen since Mark Cuban got an NBA phone in the late ‘90s. They’ve made close to 15 acquisitions, more than 4 trades, and gone from the bottom of the league to a near playoff team in only 2 seasons. Oden didn’t even have to play a single game last year for them to still split even at 41-41. This year they’ll bring in quite possibly the second most talented point guard prospect in the draft. All it took was the 13th pick and some cash.

Pritchard has really been aggressive in Europe as well. They are bringing in the MVP of the Spanish league, Rudy Fernandez, as well. There is so much talent on this team, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect 50+ wins out of them—even though their average age is a remarkable 23.4. Now THAT is a great rebuilding job.

But—partially, I admit—my favorite has to be Sam Presti with the “Sonics.”

Presti’s Methodology is quite simple: Take your time. Build a TEAM. Make the pieces complement. Don’t go for the home run, just get difference-makers on your team.

That means instead of drafting Yi Jianlian, they went for a consummate teammate, pass first hustle player, Jeff Green.

That means that instead of Kevin Love, or maybe Anthony Randolph, they took a defensive stopper like Russell Westbrook (who apparently can score too!).

They also traded many of their talented players and ended up with SIX first round picks in the next 3 years. For a young, rebuilding team, draft picks are gold.

It may seem like things are going a little…TOO slow. But the reason I love what they are doing is, they know what they’ve got. Kevin Durant is a superior talent, and he will be top 3 in the NBA some time very soon. But instead of doing the rush job that Cleveland did around LeBron, leaving him as a 24-year-old superstar on a team of aging role players, the Sonics are not wasting their time trying to win championships with a wiry 20-year-old kid. They are letting the young “Sonics” be young, and make mistakes. And lose games. And get HUNGRY. All of the losing and the struggles will only make this core group of “Sonics” better in the long run. The fact is, the west is loaded right now—but it has about 5 or 6 teams that will be out of their prime in the next 3 years. It is THEN that the “Sonics” are posturing for, and it will be interesting to see how much better they are then, when Durant is 24, then the impatient Cavs are now.

Presti is taking the best of what he learned from Greg Popovich and molding it into his own formula. Except ‘Keep no one long, pay no one much, find someone better’ evolved into a much more patient way of doing things—a way that is definitely going to set his “Sonics” up to seize the throne of the 4-time champions when Duncan and Popovich head out the door.

Good job, gentlemen.

(PS: Mr. Cuban wanted me to tell you all that Dirk is up on the block…just had to pass the message…)


bobbo said...

Thorn didnt dump KMart too early. He got a great deal considering that since he traded him to dumb Kiki Vandeweghe, KMart has missed 129 games and averaged less than 13 ppg.

Nets didnt get swept two years in a row. They got swept by LA, then lost 4-2 to the Spurs (when KMart went 3 for 23).

And hold off the parade for Thorn. No one knows how this will all turn out. It could be a disaster.

CJessup3 said...

I apologize for that Nets sweep part. For some reason I remember it that way, I've just never gotten straightened out, so thanks!

As far as the KMart injuries, 80 of the 129 games he missed were in a single season with Denver. 2 of his 4 Nuggets seasons he played 70+ games, which he also only achieved in 2 of his 4 seasons in Jersey. He wasn’t too healthy before he became a Nugget either. So because he had an injury-prone past and minimal stats, it was a good trade…but it still was what sunk them for much of the 2005 season.

And you are absolutely right; it very well could end in colossal disaster, lol. But they’re gonna have most of their current, talented roster in two years, and still have more than $10 million to throw at LeBron, DWade, Bosh, and a potentially loaded free agent class. And none of this was remotely possible before FEBRUARY when Kidd was traded. So that volume of work in the course of five months is enough to be applauded. The end is never certain, so we’ll watch and see!