Saturday, April 11, 2009

I'm Happy Just To Dance With You

Welcome back to our weekend series on the NBA Executive of the Year Award for 2008-09. Last time we considered the worst performances; tomorrow we will consider the best. Today, we consider the notable jobs that fall somewhere in the middle.

Losing teams made a lot of lateral decisions that are hard to evaluate right now. For example, in Minnesota, team president Kevin McHale drafted O.J. Mayo and turned him (along with some veterans who weren’t in the Wolves’ plans) into Mike Miller, Jason Collins, Brian Cardinal, and Kevin Love. He also traded Rashad McCants and Calvin Booth for Shelden Williams and Bobby Brown. Meanwhile, in Memphis, GM Chris Wallace drafted NCAA champion Darrell Arthur and nabbed Mayo from Minnesota in the aforementioned trade. He finally dispersed his glut of young point guards, sending Javaris Crittendon to Washington for a draft pick and sending Kyle Lowry to Houston for a draft pick and Mike Wilks. However, none of these moves were particularly impactful. Memphis is still one of the worst teams in the league; unlike Dwyane Wade in 2003-04, the “combo” guard Mayo has not shown his squad how to win. Minnesota similarly did little this year. Love looks like a star, but Minnesota still sucks. GRADE for both: C+

John Paxson of the Bulls selected Derrick Rose first in the draft, refusing to imbibe the honeyed vapors of Michael Beasley or O.J. Mayo, whose amazing scoring skills helped them appear more “NBA-ready” at the time. Rose, who leads all rookies in assists and ranks second in points per game and minutes played, has validated Paxson’s gamble. Paxson also made the curious decision to hire Vinny Del Negro, who had never coached basketball at any level. The Bulls have played .500 ball in VDN’s first season, which probably is a bit poorer than a more skillful coach could have steered the team, which features six former NCAA Final Four stars. Later, in February, Paxson traded Nocioni and Drew Gooden for Brad Miller and John Salmons. Salmons has been rock-solid for the Bulls; his March included 21 points per game, nearly 5 rebounds, and 50% field goal percentage, and the Bulls went 9-7 in that month. Paxson traded Larry Hughes for Tim Thomas, Jerome James, and Anthony Roberson, although this trade did not help the Bulls much on the court or on the P/L sheet; all three of the new contracts, which sum to about the amount of Hughes’s contract ($13 MM), expire in 2010, just as Hughes’s deal does. Perhaps the disaggregation of the $13 MM into more “modular” assets gives the Bulls more flexibility for future trades. Finally, Paxson jettisoned Thabo Sefolosha for a draft pick. This last one didn’t make much sense to me. With the loss of Hughes and Sefolosha, the Bulls only have three rotation guards: Rose, Hinrich, and Gordon. Gordon likely won’t be re-signed after this spring, and Hinrich probably should be traded so he can properly play a starting PG role elsewhere. Possibly, John Salmons could be a starting SG with Luol Deng on the floor to play SF, but that still leaves only two decent guards on the team. Sefolosha was, and could continue to be, a solid bench contributor, but now he is playing le beau jeu in Oklahoma. So all in all, Paxson’s moves have brought mixed fortune to the team. I really think owner Jerry Reinsdorf needs to bring in a general manager with fresh ideas. Derrick Rose, Noah, and Tyrus Thomas are nice building blocks, but Chicago needs to ready the franchise to pull in a top-rate free agent such as Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade next summer. GRADE: B-

Since June 2008, New Jersey’s Rod Thorn selected Brook Lopez in the draft, then moved Richard Jefferson for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. He also signed free agents Jarvis Hayes and Eduardo Najera, who have been mostly inconsequential to the team. Lopez has been awesome, a steal at the tenth position in the first round. Had Thorn pulled off the rumored trade of Vince Carter for young talent or draft picks, he might be a contender for this award, but we simply cannot put Thorn near the top of the list, given the poor performance of Yi, whom some thought could become a Nowitzki-like freak. GRADE: B-

In San Antonio, team president RC Buford drafted unheralded guard George Hill and signed Roger Mason Jr. and, more recently, Drew Gooden. Mason in particular has been a solid contributor as a middling starting guard with a penchant for hitting big shots in the clutch. Mason’s presence has helped to forestall complete disaster while Parker and Ginobili missed significant time to injury, but Spurs management has failed to add another big-time player to the team since drafting Tony Parker in 2001 and adding Manu Ginobili (drafted in 1999) to the team in 2002. The 2007 decision to trade Luis Scola to Houston has never made much sense to me. And touted Europeans Tiago Splitter and Ian Mahinmi are either still in Europe, or stuck on the Spurs’ bench. Granted, this is a referendum on 2008-09 actions only, but we long for a San Antonio general manager who could hit a home run instead of just being excited by a double. Four championships are hard to denigrate, but the Spurs sure could have used more help last season or this one. GRADE: B

In Portland, Kevin Pritchard drafted Nicolas Batum and Jerryd Bayless, which were perfectly respectable picks given Portland’s relatively wide-open pecking order at SF and PG. Pritchard also coaxed 2007 draft pick Rudy Fernandez (who dazzled with the Spanish team in Beijing) to join the Blazers after a year with his club team in Barcelona. These were fine moves, and the presence of strong role players has probably helped Portland make the transition from playoff also-ran to nearly a championship contender. The Blazers’ case helps to highlight that good executive performance need not bring your team out of the cellar or launch it to a championship, but can consist of taking the little steps to go from good to great. In any case, this evaluation is attenuated somewhat by Blazer management’s obnoxious email to the rest of the league regarding the team’s perceived rights vis-a-vis Blazers player Darius Miles, which letter we considered and analyzed in this January post. So all in all, I give Pritchard a GRADE of B for these moves.

Yet, I wonder what the Blazers could be if, counterfactually, they had drafted even more smartly. So far Pritchard has scored several good moves: In 2007 traded Zach Randolph for Channing Frye and (the soon-to-depart) Steve Francis; in 2006 he drafted Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Sergio Rodriguez; and in 2007 he drafted Rudy Fernandez. His choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant looks increasingly poor, though. Imagine the Blazers with Joel Przybilla sucking in rebounds at an insane rate and bodying up to opposing centers as their full-time center, and Kevin Durant pouring in points as their starting 3. And how can we forget the previous regime’s decision to trade out of the #3 position in the 2005 NBA Draft when Chris Paul and Deron Williams were on the board? Their eventual booty from that draft, Martell Webster, is not all that good, and only played about 5 minutes this whole season. CP3 would surely be an upgrade over Steve Blake. But of course, the draft is a crapshoot, and the jackpots of Roy and Aldridge are better than most teams ever do in a three-year period.

Houston General Manager Daryl Morey had a pretty good year — first drafting Joey Dorsey, and then acquiring Ron Artest, Von Wafer, and Brent Barry before the season began. He then lured Dikembe Mutombo out of retirement, and then, observing that Aaron Brooks was ready for a starter’s role at the PG position, he revivified the team’s PG play by trading Rafer Alston for Kyle Lowry and Brian Cook. I believe, though, that Morey’s year is notable more for what he did not do: he could have traded Tracy McGrady while his value was still high (before he bowed out of yet another season, this time with microfracture knee surgery). Morey may deeply regret his excessive patience with T-Mac. Morey also organized a “sports analytics” conference in March ’09 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. We nerds at JPO adore any attempt to impose rigor on the fuzzy realm of basketball “analysis”, so he gets some extra bonus marks therefor. GRADE: B+


Next time, we will consider the absolute best executive performances of 2008-09 and announce our choice for NBA Executive of the Year.

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