NBA Insiders Grade B/R Staff Fantasy League GMs + Best/Worst Trades
The B/R Fantasy League concluded Saturday in a flurry of moves leading up to and throughout the draft. All 30 fantasy general managers ran through the 60 picks, and draft expert Jonathan Wasserman gave his grades. The next step was to crown a winner for Executive of the Year.
Each franchise was heavily scrutinized by a select cadre of B/R staff and deliberated on by a group of former Sports Business Classroom students and a final judging panel consisting of a Western Conference executive, a player agent and a former Western Conference executive. Team life cycle was considered (initial assets and both immediate and long-term goals). Some general managers did more with less; others turned more into less.
Three executives made it to the final round: Michael Ritter (Detroit Pistons), Michael Vernon (Houston Rockets) and Will Gottlieb (Chicago Bulls). Complicating matters, the judges gave each fantasy team one first-place vote apiece.
To get to a winner, five points were awarded for first-place votes, three for second and one for third. The decision was a difficult one, given how active the league was, dramatically reshaping the NBA with 40 trades in six days.
Detroit's Ritter Restarts the Pistons
Ritter was the league's early front-runner, earning the declaration "GM of the Year!" from the former executive Thursday.
In trading away Blake Griffin's contract ($75.8 million over the next two seasons, although he can opt out in 2021), the Pistons got back an impressive haul with Myles Turner, TJ Leaf and Jeremy Lamb. He also turned Derrick Rose into Kyle Kuzma and Quinn Cook from the Los Angeles Lakers. Turner was later shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans for JJ Redick, Jaxson Hayes and others.
Yet despite the former executive initially being all-in on Ritter, in the final tally he submitted a third-place vote. It wasn't anything Detroit didn't do—it's what Chicago and Houston did slightly better, taking advantage of other teams' willingness to send off unprotected draft picks.
"[If you trade] unprotected picks, you better be getting a top-12 player," he said. "You trade unprotected picks for [superstars]."
Because some general managers didn’t fully grasp that concept and were obviously willing to trade unprotected picks, the complaint was that Ritter didn't flip Turner for one of those loose potential lottery picks.
Even still, the current executive gave Ritter his vote. "I think the Pistons can really extend on what they got," he said, referring to the team's financial flexibility and potential return on future deals for veterans Redick and Lamb.
The agent also wasn't as overwhelmed by Detroit. "I'm kind of indifferent to the Pistons' trades," he said. "I like getting out of Blake's contract, and I like Skylar Mays (29th) and Daniel Oturu (30th) as younger versions of Blake and Rose."
Alas, Ritter will have to settle for third, outpacing 27 of his colleagues.
Bulls' Draft Haul Gets Major Kudos
Chicago received one vote each for first, second and third for a total of nine points. The former executive was most impressed by the Bulls' draft haul, giving Gottlieb his top vote.
"They have [flexibility] and a trove of picks that are 'in the money' picks," he said, referring to Gottlieb's impressive acquisition of three 2021 first-rounders, including two entirely unprotected (Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks) and one that will be eventually (Phoenix Suns' top three in 2021, otherwise unprotected in 2022).
Chicago also added Al Horford, De'Andre Hunter, Mikal Bridges, Nassir Little and draft picks Killian Hayes (fifth), Devin Vassell (ninth) and Paul Reed (31st) but moved out Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Chandler Hutchison, Thaddeus Young and more.
The current executive wasn't as impressed, voting third. "Horford is a pretty bad contract," he said. "I think the Suns, Hawks and Wizards could all improve next year ... LaVine started to blossom ... Giving up on him and Markkanen made me mark them down."
The agent had similar concerns but still gave a second-place nod. "LaVine is a future All-Star," he noted. "If they're going to sell, it should be for value that's more immediate. This was the best season of his career. I like Markkanen's potential, even if he is a defensive liability."
Executive of the Year: Houston's Michael Vernon
Vernon was one of the league's most controversial general managers, trading All-Star Russell Westbrook to the New York Knicks while also causing significant friction for backing out of a nearly completed trade call with Wizards general manager Cindy Robinson for Bradley Beal.
The decision to pass on Beal to acquire LaVine cost Vernon points from the former executive. "Houston should've gotten Beal," he argued. "You don't pass up on the second-best second fiddle in the league at the second-most-needed position who plays two ways, and he's locked up."
Beal is under contract for three more years at $100.5 million, although he can opt out before the 2022-23 season.
And obviously, to an extent, Vernon agreed with the former executive, attempting to restart the trade dialogue with Robinson before the draft, with designs on a three-team deal with the Bulls. Ultimately, it was too difficult to pull off, but the agent made the case for LaVine over Beal for Houston.
"[LaVine] is averaging a career high in made threes," the agent said. "[James] Harden needs a guy that's more comfortable deferring. LaVine at one point was looking like he would be an [isolation] scorer. Now he plays on and off the ball. His game is primarily catch-and-shoot threes, handoffs and spot-ups threes, which is exactly what Harden needs.
"I think [Beal and Harden] are too similar. They're both shooting guards that are dominant ball-handlers. They [both] need the ball. They're arguably Nos. 1 and 2 at their position in the league."
Still, to the current executive, the choice was an odd one. "Why would they take LaVine over Beal?" he wondered.
But given the same executive gave demerits to the Bulls for letting go of LaVine and Markkanen too early, the Rockets added both to earn his second-place vote. Houston also finished with Dennis Smith Jr., Trevor Ariza, Furkan Korkmaz, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Arcidiacono, Troy Brown Jr., Theo Maledon (34th) and Udoka Azubuike (44th). Gone are Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Austin Rivers, Westbrook and others.
"I really like the Rockets' trades," the agent said, giving Vernon his first-place vote. "Freed up salary, made the offense more cooperative, removing Westbrook. I think it could be a redemptive story for DSJ. I like him in a position where he's not pressured to score ... Harden plays iso ball. He thrives when he has spot-up shooters. LaVine is an incredible spot-up shooter, and Lauri really opens the floor."
The agent also liked the Cleveland Cavaliers' unprotected 2022 first-round pick.
"There are some really long, skilled forwards in the lottery that year," he said.
In the final tally, Vernon won the first B/R Fantasy League Executive of the Year title with one first-place vote and two seconds for 11 points. Gottlieb had nine and Ritter seven.
Despite rumors that some general managers were on the hot seat, none were fired in what was an impressive showing. Not every executive pleased their fanbase. Some just showed a little more flare for it.
Denver Nuggets general manager Bryan Toporek was extremely patient throughout. While more eager GMs were wheeling and dealing, often to ill effect (giving up unprotected first-rounders), Toporek calmly did his homework and lined up a pair of deals on the night before the draft.
He added Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier (who has an agreement in principle to extend for two more years) from the Orlando Magic, Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs and both Rodions Kurucs and Theo Pinson from the Brooklyn Nets. In his one trade from earlier in the week, Toporek did send out a 2021 first-rounder (for three second-round picks), but he wisely included significant protections (Top 25 through 2022, otherwise converting to a pair of seconds in 2023 and 2024).
The Philadelphia 76ers also stood out with a flurry of moves. General manager Ross Schwaber dumped significant salary in moving Tobias Harris and Horford (along with Josh Richardson and others) while investing heavily in Kevin Love, Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon, among others. The goal was to add shooting without moving Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, and Schwaber got that accomplished.
Golden State Warriors general manager Sean Jordan agreed to a post-moratorium trade with the Boston Celtics that brought in Marcus Smart via the Andre Iguodala trade exception, dropping down from No. 1 to No. 3. Wasserman also gave Jordan an A-plus for selecting Onyeka Okongwu, writing that the USC product is the "No. 1 big on Bleacher Report's board."
The addition of Turner to the Pelicans by executive Preston Ellis was also praised as one of the most significant moves of the week. Apologies to those left out; it was either an oversight or your moves were given the side-eye.
The Knicks were both blasted and praised for their Westbrook deal (including the No. 5 pick and an unprotected 2021 first from the Dallas Mavericks), with a different player agent noting that Westbrook will mean a lot more to the Knicks than Hayes (No. 5 to Chicago) and whatever selection a Western Conference playoff contender in Dallas will yield next draft.
Any trade that landed a team an unprotected first-round pick was also highlighted, but it was one of the first trades of the week that earned the most applause from the panel of experts: the Pistons sending Griffin and Svi Mykhailiuk to the Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb and TJ Leaf. Getting out of Griffin’s contract, given his recent knee injury and the team’s need to rebuild, nearly earned Ritter Executive of the Year.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Wizards traded up to No. 4, sending No. 9 and Moritz Wagner to the Bulls for Luke Kornet. That's not bad, as it enabled the Wizards to draft James Wiseman. What concerned the panel was the inclusion of Washington's unprotected 2021 first-rounder.
Words like "hate" were used by the panel on that aspect of the trade, although the agent made a case for it.
"The Wizards are in desperate need of a center. Wiseman may be a little unpolished, but the Wizards need rebounding and rim protection, two things he's still guaranteed to provide," he said. "They get a star for pennies in Wiseman."
That leaves the worst trade of the week with the Hawks sending Hunter and a 2021 unprotected first-rounder to the Rockets for Marvin Bagley III (previously acquired from the Sacramento Kings) and a pair of second-rounders.
Whether Hunter or Bagley becomes the better player remains uncertain. Hunter is easier to envision as a three-and-D role player, while Bagley is more of a mystery.
"Bagley is a tough one because it's hard to make sense of what he is in the modern era of basketball," the agent said.
Regardless, the panel was adamantly against the Hawks giving up an unprotected first-rounder and last year's No. 4 pick in Hunter for Bagley. A team with a 20-47 record in 27th place should not be giving up unprotected firsts for the following season.
That’s not a risk worth taking for Bagley.
The Rockets attempted to acquire the No. 42 pick from the Lakers, offering Shake Milton. The two teams weren't able to get a deal together in time, so the Lakers selected Elijah Hughes. The teams then attempted to negotiate for the No. 60 pick for Dennis Smith Jr., but the Lakers needed Rajon Rondo to opt in to next season's $2.7 million deal in order to match salaries. The veteran guard declined, and the Lakers chose Payton Pritchard. Rondo still has time to opt in for 2020-21, but he can't be traded until he does.
The current executive questioned the Lakers' trade of Danny Green for Rudy Gay, even with the acquisition of RJ Hampton at No. 16. He wondered if Hampton would be able to earn regular minutes on a team chasing championships with James.
Jazz veteran Mike Conley was reluctant to decide on his early termination option to enable a trade to the Cavaliers, given the presence of young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who need significant developmental minutes. Conley preferred to stay with Utah, although if Cleveland was open to discussing an extension, he might have more seriously considered the opportunity.
The Rockets and Nuggets discussed a Robert Covington trade, which would have included Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. While the numbers were close, the two teams couldn't bridge some of the economic hurdles in time to get a deal done.
Did the B/R Fantasy League have too many trades? Maybe so, but the former executive made the opposite case: "Think of it as a new boss coming in. He wants to revamp what he thinks he needs. Look at [Gersson Rosas of the Timberwolves as a real-world example]. So, the volume is relative to the fact that you had a whole league of new bosses."
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.