B/R NBA Exec Survey: Who Are the League's Next Top GM Candidates?

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor ISeptember 2, 2021

Denver Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly, left, and assistant Calvin Booth in the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The role of an NBA general manager, or a team's lead basketball operations executive, evolves every year. Just look at the growing variety of titles atop front offices around the league. Whether you're a president, executive vice president or plain old GM, each organization's top basketball mind wears more hats than ever.

Team bosses are no longer solely tasked with making trades, signing free agents and executing the draft process. There are egos to stroke, public relations appearances to perfect and support staffers to hire—from nutritionists, chefs and doctors to off-court player-development leads and entry-level video coordinator interns.

"As a player, you don't know what this is," said Philadelphia 76ers general manager Elton Brand. "You don't know you're responsible for people with dreams, aspirations, raises, who want to feel safe. You don't know about the actual management of people."

Nailing that balancing act requires a unique blend of characteristics and skills. Can you communicate effectively with your team's governors and convince the majority partner (or their spouses, or their children) to make a trade or signing that may enrage your fanbase in the short term? Can you equally relate to your team's best player, who is likely one to three decades your junior?

Competing for a championship means finding creative workarounds for the league's salary cap and incorporating feedback from some of the most intelligent data analysts in the world, while still listening to basketball lifers who know the game like Stevie Wonder knows a piano.

Few humans prove they can handle all that and more, thus the high turnover rate of top executives. There will likely be openings ahead of the 2022-23 season. So from coast to coast, the search for the next elite executive is ongoing. Bleacher Report consulted with over two dozen league personnel to compile a list of the most rumored candidates who could become your team's next general manager...or whatever your team calls that post.


The Usual Suspects

Success in the NBA breeds opportunity across the board. Team governors always become intrigued by executives from franchises that stole headlines in the postseason. Personnel from the most recent year's contending teams—such as former Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green, hired as the New Orleans Pelicans' head coach in July—can cut the line of other qualified candidates. "It all depends on which team wins, and it can even help if you make a surprising run," one assistant general told B/R.

With that in mind, sources around the league wonder if Milt Newton will get his next opportunity after a successful stint as the Milwaukee Bucks' assistant general manager. Newton helped run the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2013 to 2016, assuming the lead chair after Flip Saunders died in 2015. Newton played an integral role in drafting Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng while helping to construct the megatrade that shipped Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, brought Andrew Wiggins to the Wolves and positioned Minnesota to land Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick in the 2015 draft.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Newton was one of many let go when Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden assumed control of the Wolves. Since then, he's been a key element within the Bucks' brain trust, assisting general manager Jon Horst in orchestrating Milwaukee's trade for Jrue Holiday and the creative deal to land P.J. Tucker. Newton was in the mix to join Philadelphia's front office before the Sixers brought in Daryl Morey above Elton Brand, and he was linked to Chicago's opening ahead of the Bulls' hiring of Arturas Karnisovas. "Milt's a veteran and as respected as they come," said one longtime Eastern Conference executive.

Executives around the league continue to speculate about when and where former Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey could reemerge at the helm of another front office. Rumors suggested Lindsey had an interest in joining the Houston Rockets, and then the Dallas Mavericks under new president Nico Harrison, but those conversations appear to have ceased, sources said.

Longtime Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and Miami Heat general manager Andy Elisburg will always be mentioned at the top of any list of candidates.

"If I have an opening, those two guys I'm calling first," said one veteran league official. 

Yet there's little expectation that Elisburg would entertain parting ways with the Heat and president Pat Riley. Miami assistant general manager Adam Simon was another name involved in the Bulls' recent search, as well as a candidate for the Charlotte Hornets' general manager post that ultimately went to Mitch Kupchak. Even with the growing whispers that head coach Erik Spoelstra could one day succeed Riley in the front office, few league executives believe Simon would take a position outside Miami in the near future either.

There is far less certainty about Boston's front-office nucleus under Brad Stevens, but the Celtics' rumored search for a general manager appears to have slowed, sources told B/R. It now seems unlikely Boston will make an external hire this late in the offseason with less than a month before training camp.


General Managers Ready for the Big Chair

A name that could have led off this exercise is 36-year-old Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. After seven years in the league office, Webster was Masai Ujiri's first hire in Toronto, and there may be no younger executive who ranks as high in a franchise's organization and holds more esteem among his peers. For years, personnel from all 30 teams sought Webster's counsel pertaining to the salary cap.

"He's so smart, but good with people. I think that's the challenge for a lot of guys," said one scout. "Everybody respects him. And if you're an owner, [Webster] has Adam Silver's backing." 

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Webster was also targeted in Chicago's search, and the general manager has had no trouble adapting to a greater responsibility of late with press conferences and other media availabilities. Before Ujiri announced his plans to stay in Toronto, executives around the league anticipated Webster would step into the Raptors' lead role.

Los Angeles Clippers general manager Michael Winger is another No. 2 who continues to garner interest for potential openings. Mark Hughes, Los Angeles' assistant general manager since 2017, is also typically involved in executive searches, such as Atlanta's opening before the Hawks tapped Travis Schlenk. "His name's just always in the ether," said one league voice. Trent Redden is a third Clippers executive who could become involved in a team's interview process, especially if Los Angeles remains a contender out west.

Denver Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth and Pelicans general manager Trajan Langdon are the other noteworthy GMs who've yet to run their own operation. The last person to hold Booth's title with the Nuggets was Karnisovas, and Booth may be as highly regarded as his predecessor. "Former player, works his ass off. Unbelievable dude," said one assistant general manager. "He goes out and scouts like a normal scout." 

A former 10-year pro, Booth was a finalist for the Wolves' opening that went to Gersson Rosas and is considered an exceptional prospect evaluator. Langdon, a Duke graduate, is known to travel the scouting world in his own right with interpersonal skills that pay significant dividends in collecting intel. "He's good with people, put together, no ego, down to earth, easy to talk to," said another veteran executive. "He listens and asks questions." Langdon also helped assist Sean Marks in building the infrastructure in Brooklyn before joining the Pelicans.


The Next Wave 

Underneath Langdon, Pelicans assistant general manager Bryson Graham continues to be mentioned as a rising executive in the NBA. Graham, Nets assistant general manager Jeff Peterson and Hawks assistant general manager Landry Fields were the three names most linked with Boston's GM vacancy under Stevens. Graham has recently been linked by league sources as a candidate to join Phoenix's front office under James Jones after the departure of Jeff Bower.

Graham is known to have a strong relationship with Suns head coach Monty Williams. He's primarily draft-focused and has collected valuable intel for New Orleans when it comes to evaluating prospects. 

Peterson is known for his affable personality and for quickly rising up the Hawks' org chart before joining Brooklyn. "He's honest, he's a grinder, he's personable, he's approachable," said one former colleague. "He can talk to anyone, from ownership to the janitor. Competitive, too. He checks off a lot of boxes." 

Fields, 33, has had a similar rise. After a five-year playing career, Fields began his executive path as a college scout for the San Antonio Spurs. The Stanford product then paid his dues as the general manager of the G League's Austin Spurs. And now, Fields is said to have adapted easily to the top of an NBA front office, becoming a trusted adviser to Hawks boss Travis Schlenk.

Photo by Ryan Stetz/NBAE via Getty Images

While it appears unlikely Graham, Peterson or Fields joins Boston's front office at this juncture, Celtics vice president Allison Feaster continues to be mentioned as a candidate to be named Stevens' general manager, sources said. Feaster has a decade of on-court experience in the WNBA and overseas, and sources said she easily relates with players. She was the only Celtics figure aside from Stevens and team governors to conduct Boston's head coaching interviews. 

A vice president under Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Will Dawkins has ascended through the Thunder's scouting department since the team's first year in OKC. Part of the Emerson College pipeline of league personnel, Dawkins has been a key Presti lieutenant throughout the Thunder's various stages of competing and rebuilding.


The Numbers Guys

Aside from Daryl Morey, no executive may be celebrated more in the NBA analytics community than Sam Hinkie, and their disciple Sachin Gupta, the Timberwolves' executive vice president, has also garnered attention from team governors around the league. A noted team strategist, Gupta came with Hinkie from Houston to Philadelphia and later served as an assistant general manager for the Detroit Pistons. Last offseason, he was a finalist for the Sacramento Kings' opening, which went to another Rockets product, Monte McNair. 

Gupta famously invented ESPN's Trade Machine and has specialized in finding ways for his front office to extract value from other teams' trades as a third or even fourth party. There has been widespread speculation over the last week that Gupta is entertaining an offer to rejoin the Rockets after Houston sought permission to interview him at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, sources said. Several executives with knowledge of the situation also mentioned the possibility that Gupta joins Stevens in Boston in some capacity, or perhaps reunites with Morey and Philadelphia.

Sixers executive vice president Peter Dinwiddie is another official who's interviewed well in the past. Before joining Philadelphia last season, Dinwiddie spent years as a backbone of the Indiana Pacers front office, and he was a finalist for top jobs in Memphis (before Zach Kleiman assumed control of the Grizzlies front office) and Milwaukee (before the Bucks landed on Horst). "He's not necessarily a basketball guy, but creative, well-respected, super smart, great guy. Agents respect him highly," said one former Pacers colleague.


The Former Players

As playing experience becomes more valued among front-office personnel, Shane Battier's name has been mentioned more than most as a potential basketball operations leader. Another Duke grad, Battier has worked in Miami's basketball development and analytics areas in various capacities and has been widely linked as a candidate to join the Jazz with new minority owner Dwyane Wade involved in Utah's decision-making, sources told B/R.

Battier's Blue Devils teammate Mike Dunleavy Jr. has earned high marks as a member of the Golden State Warriors front office, drawing inquiries from several rival teams for vice president-level openings. But he's currently serving as an assistant general manager in Golden State, patiently learning under Bob Myers.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Anthony Parker has many fans around the league as well. Recently promoted within the Orlando Magic front office, Parker served as the Lakeland Magic general manager in the G League, drawing constant rave reviews from his rival counterparts. "He was a legend at Maccabi, played a ton in the NBA...and he's like a normal dude. He's almost too humble," said another assistant general manager.

In Memphis, Tayshaun Prince has proved himself as a valued member of the Grizzlies' brain trust. He's known to grind out reports after watching hours of film and travels often to assess prospects. Nazr Mohammed has commanded similar respect for his approach in Oklahoma City.


The Agents

Myers, Rob Pelinka (Los Angeles Lakers) and Leon Rose (New York Knicks) are unlikely to be the last agents turned executives. Austin Brown, who represents Zion Willamson at CAA, was another candidate for that Chicago opening and has also been linked by league sources to Utah as a potential front-office leader.

Omar Wilkes may be entrenched as an agent for some time, but he was mentioned by several league executives as a name to monitor for future general manager positions. Wilkes, who started with Octagon Basketball and recently took over as head of basketball at Klutch Sports, represents some of the league's best young talent, including Trae Young, Anthony Edwards and OG Anunoby. And in a league where pedigree is everything, he's the son of Jamaal Wilkes, and also played college basketball at California.


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.