December 30, 2006
How to spot the genius GMs
Posted by Mark Montieth
Sad, isnít it, that Jerry West lost his genius?
He must have forgotten to pack it when he moved from Los Angeles to Memphis in 2002, after he took over as president of the Grizzlies. Maybe it was left behind when he switched planes in Denver.
Sure seemed like he had it when he built a roster that won consecutive NBA championships from 2000-02 didnít it? In the summer of í96 he signed Shaquille OíNeal as a free agent and worked a draft day trade for Kobe Bryant that set up the franchise for guaranteed success, then added pieces around them.
Best general manager in the league, everybody said.
Now look at him. Just fired Mike Fratello, the coach he hired to replace Hubie Brown, who quit after replacing Sidney Lowe, the coach West inherited and then fired. The Grizzlies won 28 games Westís first season, improved to 50 the following year, but have slipped since. They currently have all of six victories, the worst record in the league thank you very much. Their only star is Pau Gasol, and he's injured.
This isnít to criticize West, itís to point out the slippery business of evaluating general managers, presidents or whatever you want to call the men who fill the swiveling chairs in the NBAís executive offices.
If West was great in L.A., how could he be struggling so badly in Memphis?
Fate. And circumstance.
The practice of building teams that win and contend for championships is more often than not left to the whims of forces beyond the control of executives. Which isnít to say they arenít important, and that some arenít better than others. Over the long run, a teamís history of drafts and trades will determine a teamís success, and someone has to be in charge of drafting and trading.
Still, the record shows that good timing and dumb luck have more to do with winning big than smart people.
West is the best example. He got Kobe because Kobe had made it clear when he entered the draft out of high school that he wanted to play for the Lakers, which forced Charlotteís hand when it drafted him. Next thing you know the Hornets were trading Kobe for Vlade Divac.
Then Shaq fell out with Orlandoís front office when he was a free agent and signed with the Lakers. He wanted to live in L.A., where he could make movies and CDs, and the Lakers needed a center. Perfect.
Problem is, the Kobes and Shaqs of the world arenít so eager to live in Memphis. Or Indianapolis or Milwaukee or Portland for that matter.
Make no mistake, West made some good moves to put talent around Kobe and Shaq. But that task was made easier with Kobe and Shaq on board, and a lot of executives can make moves that get good players. Getting the great ones is the key to winning championships, and that option isnít available to most.
Look at the teams that win championships and itís easy to recognize the formula. For most teams, itís simply a matter of having a high draft pick _ very high _ in a year when a landmark player happens to be available in the draft.
Gregg Popovich has proven himself a skilled coach and general manager in San Antonio, but the Spurs have won titles because they happened to be really bad at the right times. In 1987, they found themselves holding the No. 1 pick when David Robinson was available. Ten years later Robinson was injured six games into the season so the Spurs became really bad again. And who happened to be available that year with the No. 1 pick? Tim Duncan.
The Spurs went on to make savvy calls on players such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but theyíve won their championships because of Robinson and Duncan.
Chicago happened to have the third pick when Michael Jordan was available. Houston happened to have the first pick when Hakeem Olajuwon was available. Detroit happened to have the second pick when Isiah Thomas was available.
The Pistonsí championship team of 2004 is the closest the league has to an exception to this rule. They drafted just one of their starters, Tayshaun Prince, and he came with the 23rd pick.
Joe Dumars was justifiably praised for assembling a great team, but even he had to admit his dumb luck. He had no way of knowing how good Ben Wallace would turn out to be when he got him as a consolation prize for the departing Grant Hill. He fell into Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline, with help from Atlanta GM Billy Knight.
Dumars had tried to build a very different team than the one that won a title, but failed. He once agreed to a trade that would have brought Allen Iverson from Philadelphia, but Sixers forward Matt Geiger torpedoed it by refusing to waive the clause that gave him a raise whenever traded. Dumars also had tried to sign Chris Webber as a free agent, but Webber re-signed with Sacramento, where the money was better.
Know what kind of team Detroit would have had if Dumars had gotten his way? Probably a lot like the one Philadelphia recently gave up on when it traded Iverson.
All this might seem an endorsement for the argument teams should purposely get into the lottery to get the high picks that bring the great players who can bring championships. The problem is, it doesnít always work. The Pacers had four top-four picks within a six-year period in the 1980s. They wound up with Steve Stipanovich, Wayman Tisdale, Chuck Person and Rik Smits. All were good players, but none of them were capable of carrying a team to a title. And none of them were bad picks taken ahead of players who turned out to have far better careers.
Some years you get Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Tim Duncan or LeBron James with the first pick. Some years you get Pervis Ellison, Joe Smith or Kenyon Martin.
Fate. In the NBA, the geniuses are usually the lucky executives who happen to make friends with it.
Good article! The good GM's usually have teams that stay around the top of the league. There's a handful of them. Then there's the GM's that have dumb luck on their side. Those guys can be good or bad GM's.