Re-Ranking NBA's Most Influential Executives

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2013

Re-Ranking NBA's Most Influential Executives

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    The NBA's power structure is being turned on its head under the latest collective bargaining agreement.

    The league's preeminent franchises, such as the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, can't simply outspend small-market teams anymore. The CBA's stringent punishments for luxury-tax-paying teams  make smart management more important than ever before.

    The rise of the analytic movement only brings an added dimension to today's NBA. As teams place increasing importance on the value of each possession, inefficient chuckers in search of maximum-level contracts will find few, if any, interested parties.

    Reputation among executives can be a fleeting thing, too. While Mark Cuban and Sam Presti were hailed as geniuses a few years back, both are now licking their wounds after the fallout of the 2013 offseason.

    Here, I've ranked the NBA's 10 most influential executives—general managers, team owners and basketball operations staffers—largely based upon their moves since July 1, 2012.

    Let's start at the bottom, with the NBA's new "Tommy Boy."

     

    Note: Information about free-agent signings and other transactions is current through July 14, 2013.

10. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles Lakers

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    When one of the most famous sports columnists in the country starts comparing you to the title character in Tommy Boy, you know you've sunk to new depths.

    Bill Simmons' plan to fix the Los Angeles Lakers featured not only such a comparison, but also referred to Jim Buss, the executive vice president of player operations for the Lakers, as an "atrocity."

    It's been a rough few years for Buss and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. They went from seemingly acquiring Chris Paul for Pau Gasol in December 2011 to losing the first marquee free agent in franchise history (Dwight Howard) less than two years later.

    In the interim, Buss appeared to string along Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches in franchise history, by pulling a bait-and-switch and hiring Mike D'Antoni as a head coach instead.

    You don't have to go searching far on the Internet to find articles accusing Buss of destroying the Lakers. Barring a miraculous recovery by Kobe Bryant, the Lakers now face the prospect of missing the playoffs in 2013-14 for only the third time since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.

    The Buss-Kupchak duo do deserve credit for having the franchise positioned to be major players in 2014 free agency. Still, the aura of invincibility around the Lakers has begun sprouting leaks since Buss took over from his late father in the spring of 2011. 

9. James Dolan, New York Knicks

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    James Dolan, the Executive Chairman of the Madison Square Garden company, has long been known as one of the worst owners in sports.

    Despite running one of the NBA's most powerful franchises, Dolan has turned the New York Knicks into a perpetual laughingstock. The Eddy Curry trade may be his most infamous disaster, but he's also the man responsible for Isiah Thomas' tenure in New York and Allan Houston's $100 million contract.

    During the 2012-13 season, Dolan reportedly made MSG employees sit courtside and record everything said by his team's superstar, Carmelo Anthony, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. This was a direct result of an on-court confrontation between Anthony and then-Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, which ultimately ended with Anthony being suspended one game.

    In the 2013 offseason, Dolan continued with his lovable tradition of making head-scratching moves. He traded three draft picks, Steve Novak and Marcus Camby to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Andrea Bargnani, a player whose fit with the current Knicks is questionable at best.

    Like Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak with the Los Angeles Lakers, Dolan being in charge of one of the league's preeminent franchises earns him a few brownie points.

    He's doing just about everything in his power to take that inherent advantage away, however.

8. Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks

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    In June 2011, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was one of the kings of the NBA.

    His team had just won the 2011 championship, putting a sudden, surprising halt to the expected coronation of the Miami Heat's Big Three. With Dirk Nowitzki finally having a title to his name, Cuban was vindicated for building his team around the seven-foot German.

    Once the NBA ratified its new collective bargaining agreement, the Bank of Cuban suddenly dried up. He allowed defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler to depart in free agency, figuring that a large-money, long-term deal for the big man could come back to haunt the Mavericks in the coming years.

    Cuban, instead, wanted to maintain as much salary-cap flexibility as possible. He knew the new CBA restricted teams over the cap from making major free-agency additions, and Cuban was on the hunt for a second star to pair alongside Dirk Nowitzki.

    Two years later, all Cuban has to show for that plan is Monta Ellis. He struck out on Deron Williams and Dwight Howard in the summer of 2012 and couldn't convince Howard, Chris Paul or Josh Smith to join forces with Dirk during the 2013 offseason, either.

    Nowitzki can become a free agent in 2014, which should have Cuban sweating. If he can't land a major free agent next summer, there's a very real chance Nowitzki could leave Dallas to join a legitimate championship contender elsewhere.

7. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sam Presti's reputation as the NBA's golden boy has come to a dramatic end.

    When Presti joined the then-Seattle Supersonics as general manager in June 2007, he could do no wrong. He landed Kevin Durant and Jeff Green with top-five picks in 2007, brought Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to the now-Oklahoma City Thunder with the fourth and 24th picks in 2008, then grabbed James Harden with the No. 3 selection in 2009.

    That swath of young talent came together faster than expected, putting a real scare into the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Two years later, the team emerged as the Western Conference champion before falling to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

    At that point, Presti had two options: Keep the Thunder's core of Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka together and run the risk of venturing into luxury-tax territory in coming seasons, or choose between Ibaka and Harden and let the other player walk.

    Presti chose Option B, and the rest is history. The Thunder traded Harden to the Houston Rockets a few days before the start of the 2012-13 season, where he quickly emerged as a legitimate superstar. When Westbrook tore his meniscus in the 2013 playoffs, Harden's absence was glaringly noticeable.

    And just to rub even more salt into Oklahoma City's open wound, Harden's presence on the Rockets helped lure Dwight Howard to Houston this summer. Meanwhile, the Thunder have remained on the sidelines during the 2013 offseason, refusing to add another shooter to their roster.

    Ultimately, Presti's decision not to re-sign Harden led to the creation of a legitimate foe for the Thunder to contend with for the next few seasons. It's tough not to label the decision to allow Harden to walk as a huge mistake for the franchise, and specifically Presti.

6. John Hollinger, Memphis Grizzlies

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    By design, the Memphis Grizzlies haven't made many splashy moves in the 2013 offseason.

    The Grizzlies locked up Tony Allen, the heart and soul of their grit-and-grind culture, to a four-year, $20 million contract. Beyond that, the surprise 2013 Western Conference finalists have been relatively content to remain on the sidelines in free agency.

    John Hollinger, the vice president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies, therefore largely earns his "influential" status based on team's moves during the 2012-13 season.

    Shortly after Hollinger joined the Grizzlies in December 2012, the team made one of the more controversial trades of the season. Memphis shipped Rudy Gay, the team's No. 1 option on offense, to Toronto in a three-team trade that netted them Ed Davis, Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince.

    While some might argue the trade came back to haunt the Grizzlies in the 2013 playoffs, others like ESPN.com's Henry Abbott called it "defusing a financial time bomb." Prince couldn't replace what Gay provided on offense, but the trade opened more offensive opportunities for Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

    It's clear that with Hollinger on board, the analytic movement is here to stay in Memphis. While the jury is still out on the Gay trade, it's clear that the former ESPN.com writer has quickly emerged as one of the more influential executives in the NBA.

5. R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs have long been seen as the model NBA franchise.

    Head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford deserve the lion's share of the credit for that.

    Ever since drafting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997, Popovich (the GM until 2002) and Buford (the GM ever since) have managed to keep the Spurs among the ranks of true championship contenders.

    The Spurs have thrived by convincing their stars to sign for less money than they're allowed to earn. Between locking Tony Parker into a four-year, $50 million deal or signing a 36-year-old Tim Duncan for three years and $30 million, that strategy has provided San Antonio with enough additional cap room to sign legitimate complementary players beyond the veteran's minimum.

    In the 2013 offseason, Buford worked his magic once more, getting Manu Ginobili to agree to a two-year, $14 million contract. He also re-signed Tiago Splitter to an entirely reasonable four-year, $36 million deal and convinced sharpshooter Marco Belinelli to settle for a two-year, $6 million contract.

    While the Spurs' failed pursuit of Andrei Kirilenko could be seen as a minor miscue, Buford deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's bringing back the core components of a team that finished within 30 seconds of winning an NBA championship in 2013.

4. Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

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    After years of perpetual mediocrity, the Golden State Warriors suddenly find themselves relevant again.

    The Warriors' first-round upset of the Denver Nuggets in the 2013 playoffs appears to have ushered in a new era for Golden State. While Golden State's crowd already had the reputation as one of the most raucous in the NBA, the playoff run allowed casual basketball fans to appreciate the unbelievable shooting talents of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the so-called "Splash Brothers."

    Fans weren't the only ones who took notice of Golden State's surprise playoff run.

    When Dwight Howard began meeting with teams in free agency, the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks were long considered the two biggest threats to draw him away from the Los Angeles Lakers. But after their meeting with Howard, the Warriors emerged as a legitimate contender for his services, too.

    The Dubs weren't content to wait for Howard with no Plan B, however. Instead, they moved ahead by signing Andre Iguodala to a four-year, $48 million contract, a move which Myers later referred to as "transformative."

    Between becoming a legitimate free-agent destination and shipping out the useless expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, few executives had a better offseason than Myers did in 2013.  

3. Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Have Donald Sterling's notorious penny-pinching ways come to an end? It's sure looking that way.

    Since drafting Blake Griffin with the No. 1 pick in 2009, the Los Angeles Clippers owner has begun to loosen his wallet. Sterling signed off on a trade in December 2011 that brought Chris Paul  to the Clippers, knowing full well that CP3 would become a free agent in the summer of 2013.

    Sterling responded to the threat of CP3's impending free agency by signing Griffin to a five-year, $95 million maximum extension during the 2012 offseason. In essence, he locked in a running mate for Paul, proving that he was done with being one of the cheapest owners in the NBA.

    While CP3 was rumored to be a virtual lock to re-sign with the Clippers, a surprisingly early exit from the 2013 playoffs cast a hint of doubt on that proposition. Sterling thus broke out his wallet once more and ended up shipping out a 2015 unprotected first-round pick to Boston in exchange for the rights to negotiate with coach Doc Rivers.

    With Rivers in tow, Paul's camp started spreading the word that other interested free-agent suitors need not apply; CP3 was re-signing in Los Angeles the second the July Moratorium lifted. Had Sterling reined in his spending, there's no telling what Paul would have done.

    Locking up Paul and Griffin long-term has only helped the Clippers fill out their complementary cast, too. Matt Barnes and Darren Collison both signed below-market-value contracts after Paul re-signed, content to take less money to play for a legitimate championship contender.  

2. Pat Riley, Miami Heat

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    Compared to summers past, Miami Heat president Pat Riley has remained more or less in the shadows during the 2013 offseason.

    Beyond convincing Chris "Birdman" Andersen to re-sign with the Heat on a one-year, $1.7 million contract, Riley and the Heat haven't made any major moves in free agency.

    That's a luxury afforded to a president whose team is coming off back-to-back championships.

    With LeBron James reaching new heights on a daily basis, the Heat don't need to make major moves. Riley told reporters on July 12 that he wants to "try to keep this team intact as long as we can" due to his belief that continuity is "the most important thing when it comes to winning championships."

    That means resisting the urge to exercise the team's one-time amnesty provision on either Mike Miller or Joel Anthony, according to Riley. If anything, the Heat can still amnesty Miller or Anthony in the summer of 2014, when James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade can all opt out of their contracts and become free agents again.

    No matter what happens in the 2013-14 season, Riley has his work cut out for him next summer. In the meantime, who can blame him for kicking back on South Beach and relaxing this offseason, basking in the glow of back-to-back titles?

1. Mikhail Prokhorov, Brooklyn Nets

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    You see this face? It's the face of a man who couldn't care less about the NBA's silly new collective bargaining agreement.

    Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is currently tied for 69th in the "world's richest men" list, according to Forbes.com, only $300 million behind Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg. To him, the thought of paying $100 million in luxury tax is chump change if it means turning the Nets into legitimate championship contenders.

    When Prokhorov bought the franchise in May 2010, he made his goal clear immediately: He expected the Nets to win a championship within the next five years. He restated that mission before the start of the 2012-13 season, saying that he was "expecting a championship within three years now," according to ESPNNewYork.com.

    Having an owner that dedicated to winning allowed the Nets to break the bank after the 2012-13 season, acquiring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry in a draft-day trade with the Boston Celtics. Prokhorov wasn't done there, as he then convinced fellow countryman Andrei Kirilenko to sign a two-year deal under the taxpayer mid-level exception, starting at $3.1 million in 2013-14.

    The Kirilenko signing, in particular, has the rest of the league up in arms and whispering about collusion, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Some rival executives are convinced that Prokhorov has an under-the-table deal with Kirilenko, who opted out of his $10.2 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves to become a free agent.

    With Kirilenko on board, the Nets' payroll figure clocks in at over $100 million, with a projected luxury tax payment alone of $83 million, according to ESPNNewYork.com. Yet if those additions mean winning a championship within the next two years, as he famously promised since Day 1 of owning the franchise, Prokhorov apparently couldn't care less about how much it costs to get there.