Neil Olshey, the Portland Trail Blazers' GM, sits alone here. But where does he sit in the rankings?
Being an NBA general manager isn't easy.
The pressure is always on. During the offseason, it's all about player evaluation, deciding who to bring aboard via free agency and who to select during the draft. And then when the season rolls around, a GM's phone can never be kept on silent, as he must constantly think about wheeling and dealing to maximize the success of the roster.
Oh, and did I mention the high turnover rate?
It's a tough job to hold down for a long time, largely because a GM can emerge as a very easy scapegoat for a losing season. After all, they're the ones in charge of putting together a competitive roster.
But in this article, we aren't concerned with the men who might be fired. Instead, we're looking at the best of the bunch and power ranking the top 10 general managers in the NBA.
It's a key phrase, as this isn't just a ranking of the best GMs in the Association. If that were the case, the entire body of work would be weighed equally. Instead, we're weighing recent moves much more heavily, just as we would when power ranking teams.
It allows new GMs—guys who have only been in charge for a year or two—to receive credit for their efforts. But don't worry, as the legends of the sport will still receive their due.
Well, most of them.
Don't be surprised to find an omission like Mitch Kupchak. The Los Angeles Lakers' man in charge would certainly get credit in a ranking of the top 10 GMs (he'd still be in the top five), but he hasn't done much to build a contender now or in the future for the Purple and Gold. He's relying on his reputation, and that doesn't fly here.
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
In Charge Since: 2013
Sam Hinkie is one of the smartest people in basketball.
Not only did he work under Daryl Morey—a noted stat guy—but he's done presentations of his own at some of the most notable analytics conferences across the country. When you're a featured speaker at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, you're doing pretty well for yourself.
Well, the mind has continued working ever since he was put in charge of the Philadelphia 76ers back in May. And I say that before seeing if Nerlens Noel is the player he was hyped up to be prior to the 2013 NBA draft.
Hinkie has already put his stamp on the team.
He did so by almost immediately trading Jrue Holiday, the team's lone All-Star representative, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Noel and a 2014 first-round pick (top-five protected).
After that, he drafted Michael Carter-Williams, then watched as the Syracuse product shattered the expectations. So far, he's the front-runner for Rookie of the Year, and no one other than Victor Oladipo is even remotely close.
Hinkie also signed James Anderson and acquired Tony Wroten for virtually nothing (a top-50-protected second-round pick), so he's had even more of a hand in shaping the current rotation than anyone could have expected.
Now add in the hiring of Brett Brown, who has done a fantastic job getting his players to buy into the fast-paced Philadelphia system and caught the entire NBA by surprise during his first few games on the sidelines.
Everything points toward a quick exit from the NBA basement, and it all started with the decisions made by Hinkie.
Honorable Mentions: Larry Bird (Indiana Pacers), Mitch Kupchak (Los Angeles Lakers), Bob Myers (Golden State Warriors), Donnie Nelson (Dallas Mavericks)
Team: Boston Celtics
In Charge Since: 2003
The Boston Celtics aren't a very competitive team right now, but that doesn't mean Danny Ainge is failing at his job.
This offseason was full of good moves by Ainge, even if it set the Celtics back in the present. The current roster is now littered with players who will be on the squad in the future, and Brad Stevens is most assuredly going to be the man in charge on the sidelines for a long while.
It was Ainge who took a flier on Jared Sullinger after medical red flags knocked him well back of his original draft projections. It was Ainge who decided that acquiring Jordan Crawford might be a good idea. It was Ainge who made the swap for Jeff Green.
Look how all of those moves are panning out now that Green is playing well as a No. 1 option, Sullinger is coming into his own and Crawford is reaching new heights as a combo guard.
On top of that, the long-time general manager decided to trade away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets, and that's worked out quite nicely as well. While they look like shells of their old selves, he's free of their contracts and working with players like Kris Humphries, whose deal will expire at the end of the year.
With promising young players, a franchise point guard (Rajon Rondo) waiting in the wings and a stellar head coach calling the shots, Ainge's Celtics are in far better shape than their record might indicate.
But how optimistic can we actually be?
It still remains to be seen what Rondo will look like post-injury, and the "promising young players" may still be flashes in the pan or max out as mid-level starters. There's no guarantee of future championships here, especially since Ainge hasn't historically been a great fisher of free agents.
Team: Phoenix Suns
In Charge Since: 2013
Yes, the student ranks higher than the teacher.
Ryan McDonough spent a decade learning under Danny Ainge, working as both an international scout and assistant general manager for the Boston Celtics. But now he's getting his own chance to run the show with the Phoenix Suns, and the results have been largely positive.
Jeff Hornacek hasn't made quite as big an impact as some of the other rookie head coaches, but he still feels like a keeper on the sidelines of US Airways Center. After all, he's helped last year's bottom-feeding squad morph into one of the more surprising teams in the Western Conference.
But let's actually look at the players on the court.
The Luis Scola trade brought Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee to the desert, and McDonough managed to flip Marcin Gortat (and a few other players) for Emeka Okafor and a 2014 first-round pick (top-12 protected). So basically, for a pick.
And both of those trades paled in comparison to the first one he made while in charge. You know, the three-team swap that allowed Phoenix to acquire the services of Eric Bledsoe.
Averaging 18.6 points and 4.0 assists per game while shooting 48.9 percent from the field, the dynamic floor general has been absolutely sensational in his new home. He earned the "Mini LeBron" moniker while backing up Chris Paul, and he's quickly proving that he's an upper-tier starter in his first season with an upgraded role.
With quality players on the roster right now and up to four first-round picks in the loaded 2014 draft class waiting to join the squad, McDonough earns high marks for his first quarter season (and offseason) in charge.
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
In Charge Since: 2007
Sam Presti was once the golden boy of the general managers, but he's made some questionable decisions since putting together the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka/James Harden foursome for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
OKC has relied on internal development since trading the bearded shooting guard to the Houston Rockets, and it's looking like that could work out rather nicely. Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb are holding down the fort after replacing Kevin Martin, who replaced Harden.
Well, kind of replaced.
But Presti has also kept Westbrook and Durant together while ensuring their happiness. And now it looks as though Steven Adams could be a piece capable of pushing this team back over the top in the Western Conference, which is rather surprising since he was viewed as an uber-raw prospect coming out of Pittsburgh.
He still belongs in the top 10, but his status is trending downward. At least until one of the many young players on the Thunder's roster—including Jackson, Lamb, Adams, Perry Jones III and Andre Roberson—breaks out in a big way.
Well, if they break out.
Dreams of what might have been are the only things keeping Presti from rising any higher.
Team: Atlanta Hawks
In Charge Since: 2012
The Atlanta Hawks fanbase is in love with Danny Ferry.
If the former Duke standout shook the hands of a random fan in Philips Arena, there's a solid chance that the fan in question may end up swooning. That's what happens when the first two moves made after gaining control of the franchise involve shipping Joe Johnson to Brooklyn and Marvin Williams to Utah.
Since then, Ferry has done a masterful job keeping the Hawks relatively competitive in the present while setting them up for future success. That's what signing Paul Millsap to a cheap, multi-year deal does, as well as drafting Dennis Schroder (who has been admittedly disappointing) and Lucas Nogueira.
But the biggest key has simply been clearing up the books.
Instead of being saddled with Johnson's albatross of a contract, Ferry now has plenty of financial flexibility going forward. Maybe not next offseason, but Atlanta could potentially go into the 2015-16 season with only Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver under guaranteed contracts.
Additionally—and you'll notice that this has been a theme throughout the early portion of the GM power rankings—Ferry made a savvy coaching hire prior to the 2013-14 campaign: Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks' offense has much more creativity than it did under Larry Drew, and Coach Bud has used his experience with the San Antonio Spurs to turn Teague into a stud.
But the coup d'etat could come if the Brooklyn Nets continue losing games.
Ferry has gained the right to swap picks with the Nets during the first round of both the 2014 and 2015 NBA drafts. Can you imagine if Brooklyn gets a lottery pick this year and gives it to Atlanta? Not only would the Hawks be moving up in a stacked draft, but they'd be waiting for the Nets to get even worse before doing the exact same thing in 2015.
Hawks fans don't often have reason to be excited, but Ferry has given them cause to cheer.
Team: Miami Heat
In Charge Since: 65 BCE
Pat Riley hasn't made a major move in a while, but it's not like he needs to do so.
The man has been in charge of the Miami Heat for a long time, and he easily could've sat back after signing Chris Bosh and LeBron James, watching as the Big Three took over the NBA. But that's not Riley's style.
Instead, he's consistently tried to make small-scale moves that keep the Heat on top of the NBA landscape. Miami wouldn't have repeated without Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mike Miller, and that's indicative of the overall mentality Riley has assumed.
It's all about building depth, but only if the depth fits in with the systems that Erik Spoelstra has installed in South Beach.
Norris Cole is a Riley product. So too is Rashard Lewis, and it was Riley who decided to take a gamble on both Michael Beasley and Greg Oden. While the latter hasn't worked out yet, it's telling that the former has become a quality rotation member during his second go-around with the team that originally drafted him.
Winning a championship in the NBA is not easy. Repeating is harder still. And three-peating? Typically, you can just forget about it.
But thanks to the acquisitions of two All-Star players and the ability to continuously fill up the Miami bench with quality second-string players, Riley has given the Heat a legitimate shot to join the exclusive club. As a result, he's still one of the three best general managers in basketball, no questions asked.
But there's a difference between being in the top three and earning a top-three spot in a set of power rankings. Recent decisions matter more than older ones in these rankings, and it's been a while since Riley has made a true marquee move.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
In Charge Since: 2002
The last paragraph of the Pat Riley slide might as well be reprinted once more at the start of R.C. Buford's. Actually, what the hell...let's do it.
There's a difference between being in the top three and earning a top-three spot in a set of power rankings. Recent decisions matter more than older ones in these rankings, and it's been a while since Buford has made a true marquee move.
Instead, he's still relying on the old guard to carry this squad: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But it's also impressive Buford has kept all of these guys together while adding new impact pieces like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
In fact, it's Leonard who pushes Buford ahead of Riley despite the latter getting the better of the former in last year's NBA Finals.
The San Diego State product was drafted in 2011, and he's already developed into a fringe star player.
Thus far, he's averaging 11.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the field with a 17.7 PER, according to Basketball-Reference. One of the best wing defenders in basketball, Leonard would be putting up even better numbers if the team needed it.
It doesn't, and that's a testament to Buford's greatness.
Between signing Marco Belinelli and re-signing Tiago Splitter, Buford also kept the rest of the roster strong, and it's resulted in—you guessed it—another season right near the top of the Western Conference. You know, just as is always the case.
This team seems like it'll never be bad while Buford is in charge.
Team: Toronto Raptors
In Charge Since: 2013
Is it too early to call Masai Ujiri a genius?
After turning the Denver Nuggets into a powerful team—that entire roster was put together under his supervision—Ujiri took his talents to the Toronto Raptors. And while his old team continues to look like a deep and talented one, he's already starting to put his fingerprints on the new team.
It didn't take long for Ujiri to undo what Bryan Colangelo had done before him. Just 18 games, in fact, as that's all it took for him to deal Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings for a handful of semi-valuable players. But the point wasn't to make Toronto into a contending squad; it was to clear cap space for the future, and he did exactly that.
Rather than worrying about Gay's $19.3 million player option, he instead has to deal with just a single-digit total. And that's highly beneficial, especially once Kyle Lowry is inevitably dealt for more expiring contracts.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that Ujiri acquired Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and the other players so that the Raptors could win more games. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was a move made with salary in mind and nothing else.
And just like everything else Ujiri has done, it's going to work out rather nicely.
Let's not forget the Andrea Bargnani swap with the New York Knicks either. Not only did Ujiri manage to unload dead weight from his roster, but he actually managed to land two first-round picks and a second-round selection in the process.
Ujiri has become "that guy." You know, the one in your fantasy league that you almost refuse to trade with because you know he fleeces everyone on the other side of a deal.
If you're looking for the rising star of the general managing class, this would be where you find him.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
In Charge Since: 2012
So...who saw an 18-4 record coming? Did anyone think the Portland Trail Blazers would be sitting atop the ranks of the ridiculously tough Western Conference as we crept into the middle of December?
Neil Olshey might have.
After all, he's steadfastly refused to give up on the major pieces that his roster utilizes. He wouldn't let Nicolas Batum get away after he signed a massive offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He wouldn't trade LaMarcus Aldridge when the trade rumors were swirling around the power forward with astounding frequency.
And in addition to his stubbornness, he's added quality pieces to Rip City.
Olshey drafted Damian Lillard just weeks after he took the job, and then he sat back and rubbed his hands together gleefully as the Weber State product was unanimously named the Rookie of the Year. I'm kidding about the hands, but I hope it's true nonetheless.
Back in May, OregonLive.com's Sean Meagher ran through the first year of Olshey's tenure with the Blazers, then asked his readers to grade the GM's performance. Here were the results of the 1,504 votes (at the time of this article's publication):
- B: 51.06 percent
- A: 35.7 percent
- C: 10.04 percent
- D: 2.13 percent
- F: 1.06 percent
Already some pretty solid results, right?
Well, it's hard to imagine him getting anything but an "A" at this point. Since May, Olshey has signed Dorell Wright, traded for Thomas Robinson, inserted himself in the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade so that he could acquire Robin Lopez and signed Mo Williams.
Everything he's touched has turned to gold, and the Blazers are reaping the benefits in a big way during the 2013-14 campaign. This is a team that's built to win right now and stay/grow together for a long time.
What more could you ask?
The only thing keeping Olshey out of the No. 1 spot in the power rankings is the length of time spent in Rip City. He didn't originally acquire Aldridge, Batum and Matthews, even if he did manage to keep them all together.
Team: Houston Rockets
In Charge Since: 2007
According to RealGM, the Houston Rockets were coming off a season in which they started Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes and Yao Ming when Daryl Morey took over in 2007. Since then, he's completely reshaped the roster, and there isn't a single holdover from his predecessor's tenure.
Yes, Morey built a contending team from scratch, and he did so because his star-chasing ways finally came to fruition. The 2013-14 Houston Rockets currently have 10 players averaging double digits in the minutes per game column. Take a gander at how they were acquired:
- James Harden: Brought aboard via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder
- Chandler Parsons: Drafted in the second round of the 2011 NBA draft
- Dwight Howard: Signed as a free agent after an offseason of pursuit
- Patrick Beverley: Signed as a free agent before playing in an NBA game
- Jeremy Lin: Signed as a free agent after a cat-and-mouse game with the New York Knicks
- Terrence Jones: Drafted at No. 18 in the 2012 NBA draft
- Omri Casspi: Signed as a free agent in 2013
- Francisco Garcia: Acquired via trade in 2013
- Omer Asik: Signed as a free agent in 2012
- Aaron Brooks: Signed as a free agent in 2013
It doesn't matter how Morey has to acquire those who populate his roster. He does so through trades, the draft and free agency. But out of those 10 acquisitions, three stand out for the stat-minded general manager.
He uncovered a gem in the form of Parsons, traded for an absolute stud (Harden) and recruited Howard away from the clutches of the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as many other teams that were in heavy pursuit.
That's an unmatched combination of moves, and it's good enough for Morey to hold down the fort at No. 1.