Sunday, April 12, 2009

Papa Don't Preach

In our last two posts, we considered horrible and decent NBA executive performance over the last year. Now let us consider the truly best performances by executives in 2008-09. Last summer, the Cavaliers’ Danny Ferry traded Damon Jones and Joe Smith for Mo Williams, who has helped Cleveland to the best record in the league, 20 wins better than their 2007-08 performance, as of this writing. Ferry also signed Smith again several months later! He also drafted NCAA champion Darnell Jackson, who has cracked the rotation lately and sucked in lots of boards in limited minutes. Ferry’s moves were not as extensive as those of John Paxson, say, but a frenzy of activity does not always indicate intelligence. The greatest decisions are often actions eschewed. There were some rumors that Cleveland might seek to acquire Shaquille O’Neal this past February, but Ferry wisely showed restraint; the Cavs are simply not a dump-it-into-the-big-guy team, and O’Neal would likely whine upon realizing that. More generally, many critics wanted Ferry to trade Wally Sczcerbiak for a serious gamer (with a long contract) who could help the team win this season, but Ferry is taking a long-term view; he knows he will need flexibility to make the team better in 2010 and beyond, both to convince LeBron James to re-sign, and then to improve the roster around him. GRADE: A-

Miami Heat President Pat Riley’s first move of the voting year was his decision to demote himself from the coaching position and hire assistant Erik Spoelstra, who is young, smart, hard-working, well-liked by his players, and the first Asian-American head coach in the NBA. In June, Riley used high first-round and second-round picks to draft Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers; he also signed free agents James Jones and Jamaal Magloire. Beasley and Chalmers have played well for rookies, though perhaps not quite at the level you might expect of a college player of the year and a Final Four MOP. Jones and Magloire have been injured most of the year and have delivered little. Later, in his biggest move of the year, Riley traded Shawn Marion, who was severely underperforming given his past achievement, for Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon. This has been a decent move for the Heat; Moon mostly duplicates what Marion was doing (wing defense, rebounding, and general scrappiness) and O’Neal, when healthy, adds an imposing defensive presence in the paint. O’Neal’s contract runs through June 2010, whereas Marion’s contract ends in June 2009, but the extra financial commitment will do little to impede roster flexibility, as the Heat probably were not planning to sign any free agents this summer (Carlos Boozer’s injury history poses too great a risk). Miami is 14-14 since the trade, which is just about exactly the rate of success they were enjoying before the trade, when their record stood at 28-24. Recently, Riley plucked Luther Head off waivers; Head filled up some space as a backup guard in March, but has sat thus far in April. GRADE: A-

Donnie Walsh of the Knicks made several hits in 2008-09. First, he relieved Isiah Thomas of coaching duties and hired Mike D’Antoni, who averaged 58 victories during the previous four seasons with Phoenix, as his new coach. D’Antoni’s shot-happy “system” promised to win over Knicks fans hardened by too much futility, and his Italian-American identity probably couldn’t hurt in the New York area. Next, he drafted Danilo Gallinari, whose performance can only be deemed incomplete, given his back problems. Some players drafted lower than Gallinari, including Brook Lopez, Jason Thompson, Anthony Randolph, and Marreese Speights, have shown serious flashes of greatness; on the other hand, Gallinari hit a few big three-pointers for the Knicks during his short burst of health this winter. Walsh then cut a ton of 2009-10 and 2010-11 salary by dumping Zach Randolph on the Clippers for Cuttino Mobley (who promptly retired) and Tim Thomas (whom Walsh later traded for Larry Hughes, who like Thomas has a contract that expires in 2010). Walsh also traded Jamal Crawford for Al Harrington, turning a 2011 expiring contract into a 2010 expiring, while keeping an able athlete on the floor. Walsh traded Malik Rose for Chris Wilcox, which had little financial implication (both contracts expire in June ’09) but gave the Knicks a chance to test out Wilcox’s talents for two months. Finally, Walsh successfully kept Stephon Marbury, whom new Coach D'Antoni deemed a needless nuisance, away from the team for most of the season and managed to get rid of him (forcing Marbury to take a bit of a haircut on his salary) late in the season, depriving his new team, the Celtics, of more than a couple months of his services pre-playoffs. Walsh deserves credit for setting an exciting new direction for the team and cutting salary in advance of the 2010 free-agent market, though he has otherwise he has done little to improve the team’s on-court performance. The Knicks will miss the playoffs again this year for the fifth consecutive season, and the seventh time in the last eight. After Isiah Thomas's reign, Walsh's actions truly look like Total Quality Management. GRADE: A-

Orlando GM Otis Smith didn’t do a lot, but his few moves were indispensable for the team. First, he drafted college senior Courtney Lee, who has shown poised defense and adequately drilled 3-pointers to keep defenses honest. Lee beat out three other veterans — Mickael Pietrus (an athletic wing player whom Smith smartly signed as a free agent from Golden State last summer for only $5 MM annually), J.J. Redick, and Keith Bogans — for the starting spot. Later, when Jameer Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Smith quickly and effectively scrambled to replace Nelson at PG, using the few tradeable assets on his squad. First, Smith traded Keith Bogans, who was effectively the team’s fourth option at SG, for Tyronn Lue so that the team could have a proper backup point guard as long as Anthony Johnson needed to start. Later, he traded Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle, plus a future draft pick, for Rafer Alston, who immediately walked into O-town and began running the ship like Capt. Chesley Sullenberger. Even better, Foyle later returned to Orlando in March ’09 after Memphis (which acquired Foyle in the complicated three-way deal) waived him. And Lue might seem superfluous now, but Johnson is old, and it never hurts to have a third-string point guard with an NBA championship ring. This summer, the team will have a problem with two starting point guards in Nelson and Alston. Presumably Smith will trade one of them, but that’s a problem for the summer. For now, Orlando is a serious contender for the NBA championship, something only three other teams can say. GRADE: A

In Denver, General Manager Mark Warkentien pulled off the fantastic Iverson-for-Billups trade that we extolled a few months ago, following the exile of Marcus Camby to the Clippers. Camby’s exit, in addition to saving the team a whole bunch of money, has allowed the younger Nene Hilario to thrive as Denver’s starting center, earning mention as a Most Improved Player candidate. Warkentien also pulled off some quieter but awesome moves, including the signing of Chris Andersen, the signing of Dahntay Jones, and the acquisition of Renaldo Balkman, who all have been defensive beasts off the bench, adding a combined total of slightly over $3 MM annually to Denver’s payroll. Today, after all these additions and subtractions, Denver is poised to grab the second playoff seed in the Western Conference, and could finally break the Carmelo Anthony-George Karl streak of four consecutive first-round playoff losses. GRADE: A

In Oklahoma City, Sam Presti chose Russell Westbrook at the fourth position in the draft, thus finding an able distributor to pass the ball to Kevin Durant well into the ‘Teens. He acquired Joe Smith and Desmond Mason for Luke Ridnour and Adrian Griffin, added some inside heft by luring Nenad Krstic back to the NBA from Russia, and acquired Thabo Sefolosha for a 2009 first-round draft pick. Sefolosha has been a defensive beast in the last six weeks, highlighted by a March in which he delivered 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game from the shooting guard position. Presti nearly pulled off a huge heist by acquiring Tyson Chandler for some veterans with expiring contracts, but chose to cancel the deal due to concerns over an old foot injury. This already looks prudent and prescient, as Chandler played only 12 games after that trade, and has since missed 13 with an ankle problem. Most importantly, Presti hired assistant Scott Brooks to be the new head coach; Brooks then made the sensible decision of moving Kevin Durant to a frontcourt position, after former coach P.J. Carlesimo insisted on making him a guard. After starting the season 1-10 under Carlesimo, the Thunder went 2-13 in December, 7-7 in January, 3-9 in February, and 7-8 in March. It’s not the ’86 Celtics, but it appears that Brooks’s moves are paying off. Presti’s moves in the last 12 months have positioned his team to be a playoff contender for the next 10 years. GRADE: A+


Ultimately we had a tough time deciding among Ferry, Riley, Walsh, Smith, Warkentien, and Presti, but if we had a vote, we would deliver the NBA Executive of the Year Award out to Sam Presti for his patient, long-term planning. We can’t wait to see what he does next.


UPDATE May 3rd: Denver's Warkentien won the award with 9 of 30 votes. We consider this a fine choice, as we had him second on our ballot. Surprisingly, Oklahoma City's Presti only received one vote!

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