When we last spoke of Knicks’ honcho Isiah Thomas, he had just finished presiding over a 55-point loss at Boston. The Knicks were 4-10 on the season despite once again featuring the league’s highest payroll, an example of squandered resources so egregious that it could be fodder for a James Howard Kunstler book.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. The Knicks have won just four of 13 and are tied for the second-worst record in the league. Meanwhile, Knicks fans (or at least two dozen really angry ones) have whipped out their proverbial torches and pitch forks, demonstrating outside Madison Square Garden and waving a giant pink slip.
Meanwhile, Knicks CEO James Dolan continues to sit on his hands, pledging patience and support while even Isiah, himself, thinks that a change may have to be made soon. This isn’t basketball. It’s an episode of “General Hospital.”
Today, I want to drill down on one statement I made in my previous Isiah diatribe (Isiahtribe?). I still find it befuddling that Thomas has been given so many NBA jobs of high responsibility without really being qualified for any of those positions.
I’m not a résumé waver. In the regular workaday world, I’m not one to judge a person based on where he went to school (or even if he went to school) or who he interned for or with whom his daddy plays golf. I believe in ability and track record. The latter is difficult to achieve without opportunity, so I believe in taking chances on people, recognizing the locked up potential in people and placing them into positions where they are properly mentored and can move up as they achieve success.
I don’t see why that shouldn’t hold true in the sports world. Thirteen years ago, the Raptors first hired Thomas as their key basketball operations executive immediately after he retired as a player. My problem isn’t that Toronto put their faith in a person whom I deem to be unworthy of it. It’s that they gave him a job that he wasn’t qualified for AND didn’t put him in a position where he could learn the ropes. He was bound to fail. If the Raptors really believed that Thomas was the man for them, why not hire him to work under a proven NBA executive for a year or two?
That got me to thinking: What is the background of the typical key basketball operations person in the NBA today? Does he have a typical background at all? How many former players are there? How many, like Isiah, got the job without really putting in the requisite time working and learning under someone else? Are one of these various groupings more successful and/or efficient than the others?
From here on out, I’m going to refer to these executives as general managers. Some of them actually hold that job title. Others don’t. There is much more of a variance in labels of this sort than there is in, say, baseball. But the job description is what matters: he’s the guy who oversees the draft, signs free agents, makes trades, hires coaches, negotiates contracts, and has the ultimate responsibility for managing the salary cap.
For some teams, the division of responsibilities isn’t so clear. I’ll point out those examples as we get to them. Today, I’m simply going to list each general manager, describe his work background, and attempt to identify whether or not he was properly mentored somewhere along the line. Next time, we’re going to break these guys into various groups to see if one background type tends to be any more successful than another. I’ll also look at which teams have been well run over the last half-dozen years or so, and which ones have not.
I’ve pieced together “résumés” for each active general manager using media guides, news stories, and various other Web resources. I’ve posted that research here, and if you notice any gaps that you can help fill in, please feel free to drop me a line. For the purposes of this examination, I am not counting television work as an adequate mentoring opportunity.
Atlanta Hawks: Billy Knight
Knight was a fine offensive player during his 11-year NBA career in the 70s and 80s. After playing, he eventually found his way into the front office of the Pacers, where he worked in various capacities under the esteemed Donnie Walsh for five seasons. Knight landed his first front-office starring role with the Grizzlies in 2000, and he stayed in Memphis for two seasons before being replaced by Jerry West. The Hawks then hired him, and he worked one season under Pete Babcock before taking over as GM in 2003. He’s been running the show ever since, a period in which the Hawks have been one of the NBA’s worst franchises–-few wins, poor resource management, and extreme fan apathy. This season, however, the Hawks seem to be turning a corner with their stable of young, athletic talent.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge
Ainge has turned into the NBA’s version of a boom-or-bust executive. After taking over a team that former GM Chris Wallace had helped get into the Eastern Conference finals, Ainge dismantled it, turning Boston’s roster into a hodgepodge of semi-talented and ill-fitting young players who surrounded star Paul Pierce, a collection that didn’t win many games. Ainge’s spending habits have been sensible, giving him flexibility that, until last summer, he hadn’t shown the ability to take advantage of. Then Ainge was able to move most of his young talent to bring in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Pierce, and, just as importantly, he managed to surround his new “Big Three” with a solid set of complementary talent. Now he’s the odds-on favorite to win the Executive of the Year award.
Ainge does not have the ideal background for an NBA executive. After playing he worked for a year in television. Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons hired Ainge as an assistant in 1996, an arrangement which lasted eight games, until Fitzsimmons stepped down and Ainge took over. After mostly failing as the Suns’ coach, Ainge went back to television, and then resurfaced as the Celtics’ GM in 2003.
Charlotte Bobcats: Bernie Bickerstaff and Michael Jordan
I’m not privy to the day-to-day workings of the Bobcats’ front office, but I suspect it goes something like this: Jordan makes the big decisions and sets the tone, Bickerstaff actually does all the work. Anyone with even a passing interest in the NBA knows Jordan’s background. He was the best player of all-time, sort of ran the Washington Wizards for a couple of years, played some more, played some golf, made some underwear commercials with Cuba Gooding Jr., took over the Bobcats, and now watches a lot of his son’s college games.
Bickerstaff is the consummate NBA lifer. He was a long-time assistant coach with the Washington Bullets in the late 70s/early 80s, then moved up as the head coach in Seattle for five years. He later ran the Nuggets for much of the 90s. The last three of his seasons in Denver, he also coached. He then coached the Bullets, went down to the minor leagues, and resurfaced as the first GM of the Bobcats in 2002. It’s a tough call as to whether coaching is really good training for an executive, but when you log as much time as Bickerstaff has, that’s good enough for me.
Chicago Bulls: John Paxson
Paxson is one of several executives that come from an NBA family. His father played in the league, as did he and his brother, Jim, who also ran the Cavaliers for awhile. Jim wasn’t that successful, but did have the good sense to draft LeBron James. John served a year as one of Phil Jackson’s assistants after retiring as a player in 1994. He then worked in television for seven seasons before taking over the Bulls in 2003, replacing the redoubtable Jerry Krause. Paxson spends his money carefully and has assembled a roster that some (OK, me) think is capable of reaching the NBA Finals. But it’s also a roster with some obvious holes. The Bulls have been rumored to be in on every elite player that has changed teams over the last few years, but Paxson has not managed to pull the trigger on any of those potential deals.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Danny Ferry
Ferry comes from another NBA family. His father, Bob, played in the league and was an executive for the Bullets for many years, which included a championship season. Danny had a long, middling playing career. He then moved directly into management, working two seasons in the Spurs front office before taking over the Cavs. Ferry has earned a reputation as a tough negotiator. Cleveland made a somewhat-flukey run into the NBA Finals last year, but with the same roster back for this season and an increasingly alienated roster, it’s looking unlikely that the Cavs are going to be able to take that next step anytime soon.
Dallas Mavericks: Donnie Nelson
And we have yet another son of an NBA guy: Donnie’s father has been involved in the game since the peach basket days, or so it seems. Donnie didn’t play in the NBA, but has been working in the league for 22 seasons, much of that time spent under his highly-respected father. He took over the Mavericks in 2002 and has earned much admiration for the way he has run one the league’s model franchises.
Denver Nuggets: Mark Warkentien
The relatively anonymous Warkentien climbed the front-office ladder for years before taking over the Nuggets from Kiki Vandeweghe last season. A former worker bee for Jerry Tarkanian in his UNLV days, Warkentien moved up to the professional ranks in 1993, working in various front office capacities for the Trail Blazers for 11 seasons. He then worked one year as Cleveland’s Director of Player Personnel before moving into his present position. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about Warkentien, but I really wish he’d lose those powdered blues. Myself, I’d go back to these.
Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars
Dumars is among the most successful and well-respected executives in the NBA, the only blight on his record being the selection of Darko Milicic in the LeBron James/Carmelo Anthony/Dwyane Wade draft. He took over for Rick Sund in the summer of 2000 after serving for a year as the Pistons’ Vice President of Player Personnel. That came on the heels of a 14-year, Hall-of-Fame playing career. Apparently, he learned a lot in that year under Sund, who at one time or another has served as GM of every NBA franchise, including the Sheboygan Redskins. Or maybe Dumars is just a really smart guy.
Golden State Warriors: Chris Mullin
The way the Warriors handled Mullin is an example of how the Raptors could have handled Thomas. They identified Mullin as the person to run the show and had him serve for two years as a special assistant to team president Robert Rowell. Under Rowell, Mullin learned the business side of the game, and then moved into Gary St. Jean’s job in 2004. Of course, Mullin’s presence completely undermined St. Jean, so it wasn’t all milk and honey. But St. Jean was pretty brutal at his job anyway.
Houston Rockets: Daryl Morey
Yes! It’s a stat guy who made it good. Morey is in his first season as the Rockets’ GM. He replaced NBA lifer Carroll Dawson, and chucked the abacus out the window in the process. Morey is an MIT graduate, has a background in analytical sports management, and served as a consultant with Stats, Inc. He worked for the Celtics for three years before moving into a role as Dawson’s assistant and apprentice in Houston for one season.
Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird
The Pacers are another team where front office duties have been split. For the past four seasons, Bird has worked in tandem with Donnie Walsh. This season, however, Bird is calling the shots all on his own, which accounts for the hiring of Jim O’Brien as coach and the switch to a pass-happy, quick-tempo offense, which is always good. Prior to that, Bird was one of the 10-best NBA players ever before retiring in 1992. He was given some sort of vague role in Boston’s front office for five years (special assistant?) before moving to Indiana and coaching the Pacers for three successful seasons. After taking some time off, he returned to work with Walsh in 2003 before taking the reins solo this year.
Los Angeles Clippers: Elgin Baylor
Baylor is in his 22nd season running the Clippers-–one of the most stupefying facts in all of sports. One of seven current or probable Hall of Fame players that are presently running NBA teams, Baylor finished playing in 1972. He worked as an assistant coach for the Jazz for a couple of seasons, and served as head coach for three more seasons. Then he spent seven years out of the league that I couldn’t account for before being hired for his current job in 1986. During most of his tenure, the Clippers have been right at the forefront of the argument about which franchise is the biggest joke in sports. In terms of background, I’d rate him as most similar to Isiah Thomas.
Los Angeles Lakers: Mitch Kupchak
Kupchak learned from the best, but when he finally took over for Jerry West in 2000—after a 14-year apprenticeship—the last Lakers dynasty was already mostly in place. Kupchak did preside over some championship teams, but he’s also presided over what came next. First there was the Kobe/Shaq split. Then Phil Jackson left and came back. Then Bryant demanded a trade, but to his credit, Kupchak held to his guns when no value-for-value deals materialized. Of course, the final chapter of that saga may not yet be written. Kupchak has generally been fiscally responsible, and there are some things to like about the 2007-08 edition of the Lakers, but in LA, the bar is set pretty high. Kupchak played 10 seasons in the NBA before moving right into the Lakers’ front office when he retired in 1986.
Memphis Grizzlies: Chris Wallace
Wallace has had an interesting career. He got started way back in 1981 by founding the widely-admired “Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.” He then spent many years as a scout for the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks, and Heat. His scouting background served as a springboard to a one-season gig as the director of Player Personnel for the Heat. From there, he went to Boston, where he built the Celtics’ last good team (before this season). His six-season reign of relative competence ended when Danny Ainge was hired. Wallace still held the title of general manager, but was effectively emasculated by the presence of Ainge. Jerry West then selected Wallace to be his replacement in Memphis. Presumably, Wallace is calling the shots, free from any looking-over-the-shoulder antics of the allegedly retired West.
Miami Heat: Randy Pfund and Pat Riley
Miami is another place where I have a hard time comprehending how things run. Pfund is the front office version of Stan Van Gundy, whose coaching tenure was undermined by the considerable shadow cast by Riley. I think most people consider the Heat to be almost completely the work of Riley, but it is actually Pfund who is charged with the day-to-day responsibilities and actual job title of general manager. Pfund has plodded along after Riley for almost his entire professional life. He served as an assistant in LA for seven years when Riley was the head coach. He then took over for Riley for a season-and-a-half or so. After that job, he followed Riley to Miami, where he was an assistant coach for two years. He’s now been in the Heat front office for 12 seasons.
Riley moved from a tepid nine-year playing career to three seasons doing television analysis for the Lakers. He then became an assistant under Jack McKinney (briefly) and then Paul Westhead before a Magic Johnson-led mutiny largely resulted in Riley getting his initial head coaching opportunity. The Hollywood-handsome, slicked-hair Riley turned out to be the perfect coach for the “Showtime” Lakers of the 80s. Somewhere along the way, Riley’s ego ballooned out of control, and he became the poster boy for the micro-managing, control-freak group of coaches that contributed to the general slowdown of the NBA game in the 90s. Riley never worked in a front office nor as a scout before going to Miami in 1995, so you could arguably classify him as “unmentored.” It’s a judgment call, but I’ve elected not to do so given his extensive background in coaching.
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Harris
Daddy was a coach: Harris is the son of longtime NBA character Del Harris. While his familial associations certainly opened the door for Harris’ first NBA job back in 1987 (the same year Del was named Bucks head coach), he has paid his dues and worked his way up the ladder with the Bucks since then. He spent four seasons as a scout and video coordinator, moved up to a two-season stint as Director of Player Personnel, spent three seasons as Assistant General Manager, and finally took over as the Bucks’ GM in 2003. That’s the way it’s done. Of course, the Bucks haven’t been particularly good during Harris’ tenure.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin McHale
McHale has come full circle in Minnesota. After a Hall-of-Fame playing career in Boston, McHale did local television for a year before working for a season as the Wolves’ Assistant General Manager under Jack McCloskey. McHale assumed his current role as the head of basketball operations in 1995. One of the first things McHale did was draft Kevin Garnett, and the pair were joined at the hip for 12 seasons in Minnesota. During that span, they rose from a perennial lottery team to a conference finalist in 2004. But Garnett is now gone and McHale is back where he started.
New Jersey Nets: Rod Thorn
Talk about your NBA lifers. Thorn’s involvement in the league dates back to his rookie year as a player in 1963-64. Yep–-Thorn was just beginning his NBA career when JFK was assassinated. He retired as a player after the 1970-71 season and worked as an assistant coach for the Sonics for two seasons, then was an assistant for two more seasons with the Nets. Thorn then suffered through a miserable partial season as head coach of the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis before returning to the Nets as an assistant coach for two more seasons. He then became the GM of the Bulls and lasted for six seasons. He’s the guy who drafted Michael Jordan. After that, Thorn worked in the NBA league office for 15 years, and in 2000 took over the Nets. Thorn has done a terrific job running New Jersey, even if the team's ugly style of play is difficult to watch. Few figures in professional sports can boast of the depth and variety of experience that Thorn has enjoyed.
New Orleans Hornets: Jeff Bower
Bower is most similar to the Nuggets’ Mark Warkentien–-he’s an anonymous non-player who climbed the front office ladder. Bower completed his ascension in a relatively short amount of time. His first job was as an advance scout for the Hornets back in 1995. He did that for two seasons, then spent three seasons as the Hornets’ Director of Advance Scouting. He spent part of one season as an assistant coach, then left the Hornets for two years. He returned as Assistant General Manager under Bob Bass. He actually assumed the GM title for two seasons, but Bass was still running the show. Bower went back to the bench, working the 2003-04 season as an assistant coach, then became the team’s Director of Player Personnel the season after that, working under Allan Bristow, who had taken over for Bass. Bristow didn’t work out, and Bower is now in his third season running the Hornets. He appears to have a bright future.
New York Knicks: Isiah Thomas
Ah, the reason for our examination. Thomas played for 13 seasons then moved right into a gig at the head of the front office of the expansion Raptors in 1994. He lasted four seasons, spent a year in television (where he largely tanked), spent two seasons sending the CBA into bankruptcy, coached the Pacers for three underachieving seasons, and was rewarded for all that success by being handed the keys to the New York Knicks. He’s still there, and if you can believe James Dolan, he’s not going anywhere.
Orlando Magic: Otis Smith
Smith qualifies as a feel-good story after parlaying a nondescript playing career into a great job running an NBA franchise. Smith worked as Community Relations Manager for the Magic after retiring as a player. He eventually resurfaced as the Executive Director of Basketball Operations of the Warriors for one season (2002-03) and returned to Orlando as the Director of Player Development the year after that. He then spent one season as the Assistant General Manager under Pat Williams before taking over the team in 2005.
Philadelphia 76ers: Billy King
Note: was replaced by former Nets GM Ed Stefanski on Dec. 3.
King is a Larry Brown protégé. He got his start as an assistant coach under Brown in Indiana during a four-season stretch in the mid-90s. He followed Brown to Philadelphia, though this time he was in the front office, spending a season as the Vice President of Basketball Administration. That season was enough to land the General Manager job in Philly in 1998, and he lasted until this month. Despite that season in the Sixers’ front office, it’s tempting to classify King as “non-mentored.” I haven’t done so, but Sixers fans probably wouldn’t argue with me if I had.
Phoenix Suns: Steve Kerr
Well, Kerr sounded smart enough when he was trading barbs with Marv Albert on TNT. Nevertheless, I thought his selection as President and General Manager of the Suns last spring was questionable. Kerr played in the league for 15 seasons and won championships with both the Bulls and the Spurs. He worked for three seasons in television before taking over the Suns, replacing Mike D’Antoni so that the latter could concentrate on his coaching duties. In effect, Phoenix selected Kerr to be the long-term replacement for Bryan Colangelo, who departed for Toronto in February, 2006. Best comp: John Paxson, both as a player and an exec. Kerr had a lot more personality on television, however.
Portland Trail Blazers: Kevin Pritchard
Pritchard’s rise to the GM chair in Portland has been meteoric. After playing for six seasons in the NBA, Pritchard surfaced as the coach and head honcho of the Kansas City Knights in the neo-ABA. The ABA is one of the more absurd sports endeavors on the contemporary landscape. The only thing the league excels at is awarding franchises. Last time I checked, there were between 40 to 294 teams in the league. The commissioner has likened his approach to professional sports to the McDonald’s business model. Too bad the league isn’t concerned with banal things like making and executing a schedule of games. Anyway, the Knights were actually run quite well until the league’s finances became too much to bear, and Pritchard deserved a lot of credit for lending an air of competence to an utterly senseless enterprise. He left the Knights to scout for the Spurs for two seasons before spending a year as the Director of Player Personnel of the Trail Blazers. He worked in other front office capacities for Portland before becoming the team’s key executive this season. Good timing: the Blazers are a budding power in the Western Conference.
Sacramento Kings: Geoff Petrie
Petrie was the original Trail Blazer–-the first player Portland ever signed. Injuries cut short his career after six seasons. The face of the Blazers during their formative years, Petrie was traded to Atlanta (for whom he never played) before Portland’s championship season in 1976-77. He split duty between the Blazers’ front office and radio booth for seven seasons in the late 80s/early 90s before becoming Portland’s key exec, bearing the title of Senior Vice President of Operations, from 1991-92 to 1994-95. He’s been in his present job running the Kings ever since, a span that included a kind of golden era in Sacramento earlier this decade.
San Antonio Spurs: R.C. Buford
Buford is another member of the Larry Brown family tree. He played for Brown at Kansas and was an assistant for four seasons under Brown with the Spurs after that, then moved with Brown to the Clippers to become assistant coach for one season. He returned to San Antonio as a scout, a job he held for three seasons. In 1998 he became President of the Spurs, stayed in that office for five years, then took over the basketball operations arm of the front office from Gregg Popovich in 2002. The engine has been humming along just fine ever since.
Seattle SuperSonics: Sam Presti
These damned overachievers: Presti is only 30 years old. Talk about a rapid rise. Presti interned for the Spurs in 2000-01, then took a regular job in the Spurs’ front office the following season as a special assistant. In 2003, he began a two-season stint as San Antonio’s Director of Player Personnel, then spent two seasons as R.C. Buford’s Assistant General Manager. Presti is in his first season as the GM of the SuperSonics. He was hired by Lenny Wilkens, but by all available evidence, it’s Presti that’s running the show in Seattle.
Toronto Raptors: Bryan Colangelo
Colangelo is the son of longtime NBA owner/exec/coach/general sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. So we know how Bryan got his start, but he’s justified the nepotism. Besides his basketball duties, Colangelo had extensive experience overseeing the family’s other sports interests in the WNBA, Arena Football, and more. He held various front office roles and scouted for the Suns for a four-year period beginning in 1991. He then took over as GM of the Suns and remained in that position until leaving for Toronto in February, 2006. The Suns were extremely well run during his tenure in Phoenix, and in less than two seasons in Toronto, Colangelo has the Raptors on the rise.
Utah Jazz: Kevin O'Connor
O’Conner may be the best sports executive you’ve never heard of. After spending many years scouting for the Blazers, Clippers, Nets, and Jazz, he took over as Director of Player Personnel for the 76ers in 1997 and lasted two seasons before replacing Scott Layden in Utah in his current capacity. Now in his ninth season, O’Conner provided a blueprint for turning over a roster when he successfully transitioned the Jazz from the John Stockton-Karl Malone era to the Deron Williams/Carlos Boozer edition of today.
Washington Wizards: Ernie Grunfeld
Grunfeld was a gritty, gutty bench player during his nine seasons in the NBA, ending in 1986. He spent three seasons doing Knicks radio before becoming an assistant coach in New York in 1989. The following season, he moved into the front office under the vague title of Director of Administration. The next two seasons in New York, Grunfeld served as the Vice President of Player Personnel, then took over as VP and GM for a six-season run beginning in 1993. In two of those seasons, the Knicks reached the NBA Finals. He bolted New York and ran the Bucks for four seasons before moving to Washington to clean up Michael Jordan’s mess in 2003. He’s in his fifth season with the Wizards.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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