Whenever I start the rankings, I first eliminate the GM's who haven't been running the show for at least three full years. This year, that made the list much easier since over a third of the teams in the NBA have recently made front office changes. The reason for the wait is because the third year is often when things start to come into shape. Chris Mullin, for instance, especially is facing a tough offseason. Biedrins, Pietrus, Barnes, and Monta Ellis are all free agents and, most importantly, Baron Davis has a player option. A talented but aging (and injury-prone) player like Davis would be wise to opt out and try to get a long term deal while he still can, especially with how well he's been playing this season. It's seems ridiculous to deal Baron but Mullin is facing a situation in which his options might be to trade him or give him a cap-crippling four year contract.
18. Kevin McHale (Minnesota): What can you say? The man traded Kevin Garnett for the core of a 24 win team. Al Jefferson is a great young big man but other than that, McHale got nothing but replaceable parts. Perhaps the second best thing he got out of the deal was the return of a pick he dealt away in the Wally/Ricky deal. On the bright side, dumping idiots Mark Blount and Ricky Davis for Antoine Walker was a nice deal and the Wolves will be getting a very good player in this year's draft. I still have faith in Corey Brewer but I just don't see it with Randy Foye or Rashad McCants.
17. Larry Harris (Milwaukee): The Bucks are terrible. They have Michael Redd and a team of 5th starters/6th men. Yi Jianlian has proven to be solid but he is hardly what this team needed nor has he proven to be someone who is a go-to guy. Ditto for Bogut (not that they ever go to him). Williams could be face-of-the-franchise. A talented player who has definite flaws, would be better coming off-the-pine, and is overpaid. Harris came into a great situation and then saddled his salary cap with the likes of Williams, Bobby Simmons, Desmond Mason, and Dan Gadzuric. Luckily for Harris, his point guard needs could be filled in the draft but you can't think that the Harris Plan for the Bucks had them still being one of the worst teams in the NBA in his 4th year.
16. Larry Bird (Indiana): Jim O'Brien was the perfect head coach to lead this rag-tag bunch but the fact remains that it is a rag-tag bunch that is getting paid like its couture. Yes, Mike Dunleavy has finally emerged but that doesn't mean that he and Troy Murphy are worth a combined 20 million a year. And is there any chance Bird doesn't draft Kevin Love if he falls to him? Obie is doing the best with what he has but, just like in Boston, this little run of mild success doesn't mean that all is well. It's time for Bird to deal Jermaine O'Neal and whatever value he might have left and start rebuilding this team.
15: Isiah Thomas (New York): Many people probably assume that Isiah would be at the bottom of the list but he came into a much worse position than McHale, Harris, or Bird. The Knicks team he inherited was an even bigger disaster and you can't say that he hasn't made the team more talented. What he hasn't done, however, is make the team a team. Yes, there is a good amount of talent on the roster but it doesn't mesh together. He has needed to acquire a shooter since Day 1 and has failed to do so. His core of Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, and Eddy Curry has talent but none of them have really ever been able (or willing to) focus their talents towards winning games. I still believe that Marbury should have been one of the best point guards ever to play the game but his ego and focus on scoring ended any hopes of that. In the end, Isiah made two huge gambles (Marbury and Curry) and both failed miserably. In the end, Isiah's biggest mistake is that he went away from his strength, drafting players. Had he focused on simply clearing out the Knicks cap space and rebuilding through the draft, things could look completely different. Unforuntately, that is the road not taken and the path that he did take has led him to one of the most villified tenures in the NBA.
14. Elgin Baylor (LA Clippers): Baylor gets points for not bending to the will of Mike Dunleavy Sr. and dealing Corey Maggette for Dunleavy Jr. And Chris Kaman's emergence has made the big contract seem reasonable. Other than that, though, the Clippers aren't much. Al Thornton, talent-wise, was the right choice but how does he fit? Can he replace Maggette (who'll likely opt out and head elsewhere this off-season)? He seems better suited for the power forward spot which means Brand or Kaman sits, which isn't likely. Then again, Elton Brand could opt out of his contract this year but since he's getting more and more entrenched in Hollywood, it seems unlikely (and Thornton is hardly going to replace Brand). Then again, do you really want t the term "more and more entrenched in Hollywood" anywhere near your franchise player? And, in the end, the Clippers are still a team that peaks at mediocrity so it's hard to commend Baylor for building an average team, especially after he got suckered by Tim Thomas's second contract year breakout performance.
13. John Paxson (Chicago): The Rise and Fall of John Paxson has been amazing to watch. He came in and helped clean out a pretty miserable roster, he added some very nice talent as he cleared out cap space, and then he fell apart. First, he fell in love with his young talent and seemed to think that the team was just one player away. Then he decided that not only was Ben Wallace that player but he was a ridiculous amount of money. Then he decided that things were going so well that he could go against conventional wisdom and take a flyer on Ty Thomas and Thabo Sefalosha rather than taking LaMarcus Aldrige and Ronnie Brewer (or Rodney Carney). Paxson then tried to go big game hunting but only brought low-caliber guns. If he wanted to land the big trade, Luol Deng had to go but he seemed to be off the table in most every deal (besides KG or Kobe, who himself made Deng untouchable, reportedly saying that he wouldn't go to Chicago if Deng wasn't there). Making matters worse, Paxson's blind confidence in his young players proved to be contagious, when it came to contracts. While the team struggles on the court, the young players still hold their value very high and are expecting large contracts. It doesn't help that the one guy to already re-sign to a decent contract, Kirk Hinrich, is playing like complete crap. The Bulls always seemed on the cusp of making some nice moves but instead they did nothing. Scott Skiles had to go but he was a scapegoat. Paxson has to know that he's on notice and that he has only a year or two to get this team on the road to contending.
12. Bernie Bickerstaff (Charlotte): It's hard to blame this on Bernie when the Bobcats' recent moves have the fingerprints of His Airness all over them but still, to spend the first years of the franchise being frugal only to then open the vaults for Jason Richardson and Nazr Mohammed seems odd, at best. A core of Emeka Okafor, Gerald Wallace, Jason Richardson, and Ray Felton is nice but nice only goes so far in the NBA. This team seems destined to plateau as a team-on-the-rise that can never put it all together. (Throw in the Adam Morrison selection and it's hard to rank Bernie and the Bobcats any higher).
11. Geoff Petrie (Sacramento): Petrie has held onto his team too long. Brad Miller's trade value is limited at best. Mike Bibby's value drops by the year and Ron Artest isn't someone you should be building a team around. His drafting has been solid but it's really dropped off over the last few years. The Kings need to focus on the fuure and stop signing guys like Mikki Moore to three year deals at around 5 million per. For better or for worse, the Kings core is now Kevin Martin, Spencer Hawes, and whomever they draft in 2008. Unless Petrie thinks he can somehow swing a couple of monster deals to upgrade Bibby or Miller, I think it's time of the Kings to start over.
10. Randy Pfund (Miami): He sold his soul for a title. That's fine. What's not fine, however, is knowing that your team has limited resources financially and then paying 7 million a year for Udonis Haslem and then acquiring Mark Blount's similar contract. The Smush Parker signing was a bad move from Day 1 and none of the young guys have stepped up consistently (although Daequan Cook looks solid and is doing more for the Heat this year than he did for Ohio State last year). The Heat have two expiring contracts in Ricky Davis and Jason Williams but do they have enough to package with them to bring back anything of talent? When your best prospect is a guy who wasn't even starting in college last season, the answer is most lkely no.
9. Mitch Kupchak (LA Lakers): The Lakers are on the rise but they never should have been down to begin with. Kupchak is slowly digging himself out of his mistakes but he has, at least, learned not to dig those holes anymore. Refusing to give up Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd always seemed like a no-brainer to me but it's that type of deal that often submarines many GM's. The Lakers would be wise to make a deadline deal with Kwame Brown and one of their young point guards (Jordan Farmar or Javarris Crittenton). They don't need another superstar like Kidd or Jermaine O'Neal. What they needs are a couple of solid dependable role players (the Posey/Walker combo for the Heat).
8. Billy Knight (Atlanta): The Hawks have FINALLY emerged but it's still a flawed team that is lacking the star point guard that it needs. On top of that, they are facing a very interesting decision with Josh Smith, a player who has All-Star caliber talent but a quick temper. How much he commands in contract negotations will determine the path of this team. It might be time to Billy to look at the fall of Jon Paxson and figure out which young players are his core unit and trade those who won't make the cut. Basically, he needs to make a choice between Josh Smith and Marvin Williams. Unless he's a master negotiator and can get them all to sign for less than expected, someone's gotta go. In the end, it's hard to rank Knight any higher since you really should be winning after years in the lottery (and the Marvin Williams over Chris Paul, Shelden Williams over Brandon Roy/Rudy Gay choices look worse and worse)
7. Donnie Nelson (Dallas): Donnie has done a solid job of keeping the Mavericks playing at a high level but he hasn't been able to make the big move to get them over the hump. In fact, his moves might have made it impossible for him to do so. He made a nice deal with Josh Howard to get his #2 player for less than 10 million a year but then he turned around and overpaid Devin Harris, who hasn't yet proven himself. The large contracts for Harris, Jason Terry, and Erick Dampier make it hard to see how Nelson will be able to make that one last move.
6. Rod Thorn (New Jersey): On the bright side, he hasn't done much wrong. Of course, that's because he hasn't done much of anything. Taking a flyer on Sean Williams has panned out but everything else has just been reshuffling the mediocre players that are supposed to be supporting his three stars. It's looking like it's time for someone to go and, like all GM's, my guess is that Thorn is shopping his least enticing asset. In this case, it's Vince Carter. Vince is still a great player but his age, injuries, and contract all add up to someone most teams would rather avoid. It's hard to penalize Thorn too much for his moves but he needs to do something soon because the Nets are going nowhere but down.
5. Kevin O'Connor (Utah): So here are the Jazz again; great PG, great PF, searching for the missing pieces. Andrei Kirilenko's contract make that harder but O'Connor was wise not to dump the Russian this past off-season. While AK-47 is still overpaid, his trade value has gotten better with his improved play this year. Ronnie Brewer is also emerging as a qualiy shooting guard and Kyle Korver is a decent fit off the bench. Still, Utah still needs one more piece to become a consistent upper-echelon team and that is how O'Connor is going to be judged from here on out.
4. Danny Ainge (Boston): I didn't want to move Ainge too high in fear of being accused of trying to make up for my past criticisms or because I'm a homer but, honestly, who has been as good as Ainge has over the last couple of seasons? In the first years, he didn't care about salaries and was focused on acquiring draft picks. He moved from that mantra and, last year, made the move that set the rest of this in motion: sacrificing a draft pick and a shot at Brandon Roy for Theo Ratliff's expiring contract. If the Celtics have Raef Lafrentz rather than Ratliff, KG is never here. He then rolled the dice on Ray Allen, a move that many Celtics fans disliked, which also helped land KG. I'm not going to say that this is exactly what Ainge had planned for from Day 1, but it is clear that he was building towards a big move for the last couple of years. Also, signings like James Posey and Eddie House have been extremely astute. House might not be the ideal backup point guard but he and Posey's locker room presences have really helped this team. Smush Parker and Eddie House might not seem too different in terms of talent but House's attitude makes him an asset while Smush has been a detriment on both coasts. There's always an element of luck in building a team but being able to take advantage of that luck (and not, say, keep holding onto the Knicks pick ala Paxson) and help build a team around that lucky break isn't as easy as it seems.
3. Ernie Grunfeld (Washington): The Wizards looked like surprise contenders last season until most of their starting lineup got injured. This year they are playing surprisingly well without Gilbert Arenas. Grunfeld has put together a solid roster in spite of the fact that he really hasn't gotten much of anything from any of his draft picks so far. Aundray Blatche is emerging. Slowly. Oleksiy Pecherov is probably a year away and Nick Young hasn't gotten a real chance of yet. But while his rebuilding of the Wizards has been solid, this is the year when he needs to prove himself. Antawn Jamison is going to be a free agent and all signs point towards Gilbert Arenas opting out of his max contract and looking for a big payday. Despite these two major free agents, the Wiz don't have a lot of cap space because of 17 million dollars worth of mistakes in Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila, and Brendan Haywood (who has improved and might have played himself into being a trade asset).
2. RC Buford (San Antonio): The Spurs have talent to burn, as evidenced by Beno Udrih leaving and suddenly showing that he is a quality player in Sacramento. While the knee-jerk reaction would be to say this is an example of Buford not being able to judge talent, the fact is that title teams often have quality players who are lost on the bench. What this (and the Luis Scola deal) do show is that Buford's penchant for drafting foreign players is a feast-or-famine proposition. You can either score with the likes of Manu or you hold onto a guy, can't find a place for him or afford him, so you have to give him up for nothing.
1. Joe Dumars (Detroit): The Pistons are perennial contenders are Dumars just made them much better for the future with his selection of Rodney Stuckey and his dumping of Nazr Mohammed's contract. The bottom line is that when it comes to managing a team in the salary cap era, Joe Dumars is model general manager: sensible contracts, smart trades, and solid drafting. Most importantly, Dumars has shown that it is possible to build a contender without having a consensus top 5 player in the league. (Although the Darko pick will forever haunt him).