Friday, April 10, 2009

Let Her Cry

Sports websites like and need to publish fresh content every day of the week in order to satisfy hungry readers who have grown accustomed to a steady stimulus of commentary. (Luckily, the same economic and ethical duties do not bind us here at JPO.) Every spring, a tested genre of prose is the “Awards Prediction” piece, in which writers size up the top players’ regular-season performances and predict (or recommend) which players will earn the NBA’s individual awards. One thing they almost never do is talk about who should win Executive of the Year – probably because, while the criteria for awards like Most Valuable Player or Most Improved are poorly defined, the standards for a good management performance are completely inscrutable.

To our view, a good executive is one who keeps his players and fans happy, builds a well-coordinated roster (including the right coach) that can produce quality play on the court, maintains a reasonable payroll with flexibility for future roster moves, helps his owner turn a profit, maximizes some discounted stream of present and future team success. (The precise discount rate is probably higher than a typical financial discount rate, given the frenzied myopia of sports fans.) Obviously these criteria are not precisely defined, and not always mutually compatible. Still, we will consider these rules as we evaluate performance from the past year.

Let us keep in mind, first, that the term of consideration for Executive of the Year begins with the end of the regular season in April one year, and extends to the same date the following April. In 2007-08, two general managers stood out for excellent work – notably, it was the two executives who sparked their churned rosters to the Finals. In the summer of ’07, Danny Ainge, top man of the Celtics, acquired Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and James Posey, and later signed Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown for the season’s stretch run. Plus, he drafted Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt. Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak acquired Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, and Pau Gasol for next to nothing (the latter by using as currency Javaris Crittendon and Marc Gasol, both of whom had been drafted in the ’07 draft), and later signed the earnest D.J. Mbenga when Andrew Bynum went down. There were few other executives whose performances really stood out that year. Orlando signed Rashard Lewis to a long contract; the Hawks drafted Al Horford and traded for Mike Bibby; Rod Thorn ripped off Mark Cuban in the Jason Kidd trade; and Isiah Thomas (yes, that guy) drafted Wilson Chandler and traded nearly-immobile Steve Francis, plus the disappointing young strapper Channing Frye, for a useful asset in Zach Randolph. But, of course, none of these teams made much noise when it counted in the spring of ’08.

Ainge won the award, but Kupchak easily could have taken the prize.

Let us now turn to executive performances in 2008-09. First, to be thorough, what of last year's award winners? To save money in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Kupchak traded Vladimir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown (who has seen playing time at backup PG for the Lakers, supplanting Jordan Farmar); and Ainge decided to cut costs by letting James Posey sign with the Hornets, before drafting Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens and signing Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore as free agents late in the season. These decisions were all probably helpful for the respective teams’ long-run health, but none was terribly consequential. Neither Walker nor Giddens have played all year, and Marbury really isn't that useful when Eddie House is available as a sweet-shooting backup point guard. These moves are barely worth considering to bury or praise.

This post will address terrible executive management for the 2008-09 award year; future posts will examine strong executive performance. The worst General Manager of the Year has surely been the Clippers’ Mike Dunleavy, who committed about $14 million per year through 2012-13 to Baron Davis, who is often injured and usually unhappy. Then he foolishly let Elton Brand get away. Then he acquired Marcus Camby as an ostensible replacement for Brand, though Camby is more of a skinny shotblocker, not a low-post beast like Brand, and plays the same position as center Chris Kaman (who is signed at $12 million per year through 2011-12). Camby is owed about $8 million in each of 2008-09 and 2009-10 – thus ensuring that the Clippers would have two seasons of an unbalanced roster. Pushing a bad situation into total entropy, Dunleavy then traded some spare parts for the notoriously defense-averse Zach Randolph, who is signed through 2010-11 at $17 million per season. It would have been better to let the contracts of Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas expire, rather than adding this wide load to the team. Now it’s April, and with 80 games done in the season and two left, the Clippers have won less than 25% of their bouts. GRADE: F

In Golden State, team president Robert Rowell and de facto GM Don Nelson traded Al Harrington for Crawford after Big Al developed a feud with Nelon; drafted freakish big man Anthony Randolph; let Baron Davis get away; signed Ronny Turiaf, an energetic shot-blocker; traded for Marcus Williams (who hardly played a minute all season, before being inexplicably released in March despite a guaranteed contract) after Monta Ellis wrecked his ankle; and gave a five-year free agent contract to Corey Maggette, who adds nothing that other GSW slashers like Ellis, Stephen Jackson, and Kelenna Azubuike don’t. Later, Nelson threatened to trade Crawford if he exercises his player option for 2009-10. The Warriors also alienated Monta Ellis by muttering about terminating his contract after his Moped-induced ankle injury. Though they may have that contractual right, it’s a non-credible threat; they signed him to a market-rate deal for a young budding star – why would they want to lose him? GRADE: E

In Phoenix, Steve Kerr continued his odd tinkering with (some would say destruction of) the roster, trading Raja Bell and Boris Diaw for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley. He drafted Robin Lopez and traded for second-round draft pick Goran Dragic, and later signed Matt Barnes and Louis Amundsen as free agents. Unfortunately, Lopez is not as skilled as his brother Brook; Dragic struggled when featured as Steve Nash’s understudy; and Amundsen and Barnes are little better than the role players on any other bench. Kerr’s worst move was hiring Terry Porter to coach a defensive-oriented team when he lacked defensive-oriented personnel, especially after trading away Shawn Marion the previous February. And why would he then trade Bell, the team's only remaining good defender? He also should have known that a team full of veterans, many hardly younger than Porter himself, would blanch at following Porter’s authority. Firing Porter in February was an admission that Kerr has no clue about the direction of the franchise. Kerr has already admitted that a run-and-gun style cannot work in the playoffs, so what is the point of installing Alvin Gentry as coach? Perhaps there is something to just pleasing the fans for a couple more months and aiming for a playoff berth, but Kerr needs to seriously rethink his strategy this summer. If defense wins, then trade Nash, Shaq, and Stoudemire, who all will fetch serious value in the form of draft picks, and start over. You’re not winning anything in 2009-10 anyway. GRADE: D

As general manager for Charlotte, Michael Jordan pulled off several trades: Jason Richardson for Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, Adam Morrison for Vladimir Radmanovic, and Ryan Hollins and Matt Carroll for Desagana Diop. Jordan also picked up D.J. Augustin and Alexis Ajinca in the 2008 draft. Working closely with new coach Larry Brown, Jordan has actually built a roster that can (nearly) land a playoff spot. As Diaw, Bell, Diop, and Vlad Rad are no longer youngsters, these were all moves for “today”, rather than moves for the future, which is odd, given that Charlotte has no hope of any significant success this season or next. Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace are not superstars who can take you to the promised land. Charlotte really needs to suffer through a cellar-dwelling season, score a high draft pick, and get lucky with a young stud. Finishing 9th in the Eastern Conference is not sound policy for Charlotte. GRADE: C


Next time we will consider the moderately creditable executive performances of the past twelve months.
Please keep reading.

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