Is there any job in professional sports more volatile than that of an NBA general manager? One draft pick, trade or free-agent signing can make or break the fortunes of an entire franchise, so it stands to reason that the person in charge of such a decision would be the subject of intense scrutiny.
Those who succeed (i.e. Mitch Kupchak, Pat Riley, R.C. Buford, Masai Ujiri) are praised for their foresight. Those who struggle (i.e. David Kahn, Bryan Colangelo) are mocked for doing so.
The pendulum tends to swing rather violently from side to side for these folks, as well. Today's master can wind up as tomorrow's imbecile and vice versa. Just ask Joe Dumars, who was hailed as a genius for building a Detroit Pistons "dynastender" last decade but now looks like a fool responsible for a roster that's likely to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in as many seasons. Oklahoma City Thunder GM and noted wunderkind Sam Presti might soon go from high to low as well, assuming James Harden continues to tear the league apart for the Houston Rockets.
And then there's the case of Danny Ferry, who went from a failure with the Cleveland Cavaliers, once LeBron James' path out of town was cleared, to a favorite son with the Atlanta Hawks after shipping Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets this summer. The same could be said for Danny Ainge and (to a lesser extent) Billy King.
All of which is to say, judging the competency of a given GM (much less all of them as a collective) is a tricky endeavor, at best.
Though, if the yearly NBA GM survey is any indication, there may be reason for concern. Here are a few...ummm...highlights from this year's edition:
1. The San Antonio Spurs received nary a single vote under "Which team will win the Western Conference?", even though Gregg Popovich is the best coach in basketball and has led his bunch to the best record in the West in each of the last two seasons. It'd be easy to lambast the GMs for picking the Los Angeles Lakers in this category, but it's too early to dismiss their prospects of claiming the conference crown, even after an 0-3 start.
Still, not one vote for the original "Big Three"?
2. Who was it that responded with Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook to the question of "Which player is most likely to have a breakout season in 2012-13?" I want/need to know. Those answers would be fine if this were, say, 2010-11, but those two guys have played in the last two All-Star Games and have since cemented themselves as All-NBA performers. I'm pretty sure they've already "broken out", at least in the traditional sense of the phrase.
3. Someone listed Darko Milicic as "the most underrated player acquisition." My only guess is Minnesota Timberwolves GM David Kahn, who signed Darko to a four-year, $20-million in July of 2010 and cut him via the amnesty clause this past summer. Otherwise, I'm stumped.
4. In another "breakout season" bonanza, one clairvoyant GM picked Christian Eyenga to make the biggest jump among international players.
Which would make sense, if by "breakout season", the survey was referring to a player's likelihood of breaking out of the NBA and into the D-League, as Eyenga did when he was waived by the Orlando Magic and picked up by the Texas Legends.
5. I like Kobe Bryant. I think he used to be a great defender. But whoever cast a ballot for him as "the best perimeter defender in the NBA" probably hasn't seem him play in at least two or three years.
6. Anthony Davis picked up a vote as the NBA's "best interior defender." Before he'd so much as played a single minute in a regular season game. Patience, people.
7. Whoever the front-office troll is among the league's 30 GMs was astute enough to list Kevin Durant as the player who "makes the most of limited natural ability." I feel you there, Mr. Troll. If only someone could transfer Durant's shooting, scoring and ball-handling skills into the body of a 6'11 athletic freak with ridiculously long arms...Oh, wait...
It would seem, then, that there are some in this exclusive fraternity who are either privy to information that most of their peers aren't or they aren't privy to much of anything based in reality.
How much stock can we really put in a GM survey, though? How many of those questioned take the survey seriously? How many of them fill it out on their respective lunch breaks? And how many of them slough it off to their interns?
Keep in mind, too, that not every query garners 30 responses. As John Schuhmann of NBA.com wrote regarding the survey:
Percentages are based on the pool of respondents to each question of the survey, rather than all 30 GMs
And, by and large, the GMs' picks—including (but not at all limited to) the Miami Heat to repeat, LeBron James to be the MVP, Chris Paul as the best point guard and Kevin Love as the best power forward—make sense.
Perhaps, then, the greatest failing of NBA GMs in this regard is their lack of awareness as to how closely people might comb through their answers, and how dumb they can all end up looking when a select few give head-scratching responses to a handful of the 57 questions on the docket.
Or, rather, that they're not as clairvoyant as forward-thinking sports executives ought to be. Last year, they picked Kevin Durant as the preseason MVP, albeit by a relatively-slim 11.2-percent margin. The year prior, they overwhelmingly anointed the Lakers as three-peat favorites, though it was the Dallas Mavericks that ended up winning the whole thing, and delivered most of the MVP vote to Durant, though Derrick Rose ended up carrying the day.
If there's anything to take away from the GM survey about the folks who fill it out, it's that most decisions with which a front-office big wig is faced—be they questions on a ballot or franchise-changing personnel moves—ultimately come down as guesses, educated and otherwise.
And that when those guesses don't pan out, the people responsible for making them come off as less qualified to make them.
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