The general manager is the most influential and scrutinized position in sports because he decides how the owner's money is spent on players.
Forbes.com's first-ever proprietary look at GMs in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB grades each GM on two yardsticks. First, there's the performance (regular season winning percentage and postseason wins) during the GM's tenure versus the performance of his predecessor. Second, there's the GM's relative (to the league median) payroll compared with his predecessor's relative payroll.
And the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves GM Kevin McHale tops our list.
Only the 98 current GMs with at least three years of service were reviewed. In terms of enhancing the value of a sports franchise, winning is more important than payroll. So we double-weight winning percentage in our scoring to discount GMs (like Mark Shapiro of the Cleveland Indians) who successfully cut costs but in so doing damaged their franchise.
Our rankings will surely raise some eyebrows.
The Timberwolves' McHale has been harshly criticized in the press for not giving superstar Kevin Garnett the supporting cast to win a championship. But McHale has guided the Timberwolves to eight playoff births and a .539 regular season winning percentage--more than double his predecessorís .244. Winning improvement under McHale has been so great that it offset a 19% rise in salary against the NBA's median payroll during his 11 years as GM.
Another GM who has been under the gun the past few years is Glen Sather of the New York Rangers. Despite a bloated payroll, which topped out at a then NHL record $76.5 million in 2003, Sather has not been able to win a single post-season game in his six years in New York. His No. 12 ranking is attributed to prolonged success in Edmonton, where Sather paired Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in building an Oilers dynasty that won five Stanley Cups.
There were also some predictable names atop our list. The highest rated baseball GM is Oakland's Billy Beane (No. 26 overall). Beane has been able to capture four division titles and win almost 60% of his games with the small-market A's by developing prospects. Beane has also kept his teamís payroll at 70% of the major league median. Having scouts emphasize statistics like on-base and slugging percentage has allowed Beane to find capable young talent to replace expensive free agent veterans.
Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils gained acclaim in hockey circles for his ability to put together championship teams with low payrolls. New Jersey's .592 winning percentage in 18 years under Lamoriello is more than twice that of his predecessor and higher than any other team in the NHL's Eastern Conference. Lamoriello has won with a payroll that has been just 75% of the typical hockey team.
Some team owners double as GMs. The success story here is Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys (No. 13), who turned the Cowboys from a has-been to a three-time Super Bowl champion. To his credit, Jones has actually spent less on players, on average, than his league counterparts during his 18-year reign. The failure? Cincinnati Bengals owner and GM Mike Brown (No. 97), who has won half as often as his predecessor, despite outpacing the league's median payroll by 4% since taking over the franchise in 1991.
Interestingly, most of MLB's GMs fall in the middle of the pack. One possible explanation is that baseball's relatively long season and greater yearly payroll fluctuations due to free agency create an unintended balancing effect.
Our rankings compare each general manager to the final three years of his predecessor's tenure in two categories: (1) performance (regular season winning percentage and playoff win totals) and (2) payroll spending (relative to the league median). Performance counts twice as much in our scoring as payroll spending. Scores account for all teams where the GM held the office and are indexed to 100. A score of 120 in winning improvement means the GM won 20% more games than his predecessor. A score of 80 in payroll containment means the GM spent 20% more than the previous GM relative to the league median.