The NBA appeared 24 hours ago to be reaching a state of tranquillity in the realm of coaches and general managers. Cleveland and Detroit filled their top front-office vacancies, Phil Jackson felt like old news, and everyone on both sides of the secretly recorded conversations in Golden State was gone. With so much turnover in the last two years, particularly among the league’s head coaches, there just aren’t that many people left to fire.
Ah, but the NBA thrives on chaos. Just when you thought it was safe to dig into the X’s and O’s of the final four — you know, actual basketball — the Grizz shocked the league by canning two of their top executives about a month before the draft. Both had been at the draft combine in Chicago just last week, and everything in Grizzville appeared hunky-dory.
New owners have taken control of almost half the league’s teams over the last five years, and many skew younger, with backgrounds as sharks in the finance world. It’s not quite right to describe the new group as impatient. Blanket generalizations are inaccurate by definition, and Philly stands as an example of a new ownership group that green-lit a complete teardown within 18 months of taking over the team.
But sources across all levels of the league view the new owners as more activist on the whole than their predecessors, hungry for a strong voice in basketball decisions and a close connection with other power brokers inside the organization: their coaches and general managers. As Kevin Arnovitz noted last month, philosophical harmony with an owner is becoming perhaps the most important criterion for any prospective head coach.
Here’s a look around the front-office situations that have been the most volatile over the last month, ranked in reverse order of GM-level job appeal.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Player contracts under the new collective bargaining agreement are shorter and carry smaller annual raises. Milwaukee appears hopelessly underwater, but if the Bucks snag the no. 1 or no. 2 pick in tonight’s lottery, the long-term outlook here won’t really be all that bad. The NBA in the 2011 lockout tried to craft a system in which every team would be flexible enough to turn things around in one summer, NFL-style.
That’s probably a pipe dream in the NBA, but the league is undeniably leaner now than it was before 2011. It was a landmark event when a half-dozen teams cleared max-level cap space in 2010 to lure LeBron James and his free-agency classmates. Now half the league’s teams enter each summer with $10 million or more in cap room. The league’s best teams have always been capped out, because they have good players who cost lots of money. The new CBA has made it harder to be both bad and bloated.
Witness Milwaukee, which has $32.1 million combined committed to O.J. Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders, and Zaza Pachulia over the next two seasons. What a disaster, right?
But the Bucks are set to have about $11 million in cap room this summer, and perhaps even more next summer, depending on Brandon Knight’s next contract. They own all their picks, plus five extra second-rounders over the next three drafts.
Sanders and Ilyasova are redeemable assets. Sanders suffered a couple of freak injuries last season and has to get his off-court life under control. But he’s a legitimate game-changing defender, and smart teams will try to poach him from Milwaukee while his value is low.
Ilyasova is endlessly intriguing to rival front offices, but early-season injuries keep derailing him. The Bucks suffered a ridiculous string of injuries last season, including the loss of Knight less than two minutes into the opening game, and they’re hoping to reverse that next season.
The team’s medical staff has partnered with an outside consultant to develop a software program that tracks individual biological data for each player — which muscles are strong, which are weak, and what those findings mean for related muscles and joints. They’ve used the information to craft individual offseason workout plans for every player on the roster — a first for the team, according to John Hammond and David Morway, the team’s GM and assistant GM, respectively.
The team also hopes to start using small wearable devices from the company Catapult that track player movement and biometric data during practices, Hammond says.
The futures of Hammond and Morway are uncertain after the recent sale of the team to finance executives Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry, and the new owners have at least held initial discussions about possible replacements, per sources around the league. But the growing consensus is that the current front office will have another year to make this lottery pick and hope the nucleus it’s put in place begins to perform.
But this is one of two jobs all the lurking GM candidates are watching — a group that includes all the names that are always mentioned, plus wild cards like Bryan Colangelo, who would be open to returning to a GM position, per several league sources.
Milwaukee has two intriguing young players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson, and the cap sheet basically resets after the 2015-16 season.
This is probably the least appealing situation here, especially because Sanders regressed last season even when he was on the floor. But the cupboard isn’t bare. It would be nice if Mayo reported in shape.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
This is a crucial summer for Cleveland, but you can start here: Jarrett Jack is the only player on a non-rookie deal that extends beyond next season. That will change once David Griffin, the team’s well-regarded new GM, decides which players to retain from the current roster. Spencer Hawes and Luol Deng are about to enter unrestricted free agency, and Cleveland gave up a combined five draft picks to get them in a slim-chance run at the no. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving are both eligible for extensions this summer, and Irving is a no-brainer candidate for the max.
That sounds crazy, since Irving is a flawed player. He plays abominable defense, he just had the worst shooting season of his career, he has been hurt a lot, and he clashed at times with Dion Waiters last season.
But he just turned 22, and he’s a fantastically talented offensive player — that rare breed of point guard with ankle-breaking off-the-bounce skills and a threatening 3-point shot. He’s the Damian Lillard of the Eastern Conference, only almost two years younger, with a higher ceiling.
And remember: The “max” for guys coming off their rookie deals is smaller than the “max” for veteran players. It might stand as an overpay for present-day Irving, but it’s an overpay you make with the cap rising so fast every season.
Thompson is a thornier choice. He declined a bit in Year 3, he can’t shoot, and he doesn’t protect the rim well enough to play heavy minutes at center. Team executives are increasingly wary of big men who can play only power forward and cannot shoot 3s. That’s Thompson, and Griffin has spoken openly about the need to find more shooting from all positions.
Regardless: Cleveland has a relatively clean cap sheet, a budding star in Irving, and extra first-round picks coming from Memphis and Miami. Dan Gilbert is a loud, impetuous owner, but this job would have piqued the interest of lots of GM candidates had Cleveland truly opened it up.
4. New York Knicks
No one quite knows what Phil Jackson is going to do with the front office. Steve Mills is around to potentially work as a day-to-day general manager. Mark Warkentien still works for the team, but Glen Grunwald, the deposed GM, will be off the books soon.
But over the next year, the Knicks will likely hire someone to act as general manager, shifting Mills to some other role and allowing Jackson to do the big-picture peyote-smoking.
Is this an appealing job? James Dolan always butts into basketball business and his presence is a turnoff for most candidates. The team has dealt away its 2014 and 2016 first-round picks, plus its next four second-round picks. New York can always buy picks here and there, but the new CBA has made that tougher by capping the amount of cash teams can use in trades at just $3 million per season across all transactions.1
Carmelo Anthony is about to enter free agency, and the Knicks may be stuck with three unappealing options: watching him walk, striking some nauseating sign-and-trade deal, or re-signing him to a five-year, $130 million max contract that will probably look bad within three years. That kind of max is proportionally far more damaging than the Irving version, even under a rising salary cap and a local TV deal that will always have the Knicks swimming in money like Scrooge McDuck.
The Knicks will be capped out next season even if they replace Melo with a minimum-salaried player. Anyone who signs on as head coach or GM (should the job open) will have to swallow a placeholder year while the franchise waits to pile up max-level cap room in the summer of 2015, when deals tied to Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler all expire. Ask Mike D’Antoni how that waiting game went.
The Knicks would still have max-level room in July 2015 even if they re-sign Anthony, but they’d have just one max-player slot left.
Still: The Knicks play in New York, which means they’ll get a meeting with every big-name free agent who hits the market. They also pay their executives a shit-ton of money, which is both a nice thing and a necessity in a city where a one-bedroom can easily run you $4,000 a month. People will want this job.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizz were off the board until Monday’s shocking turn, when the team fired Jason Levien, the team’s CEO, and Stu Lash, the assistant GM, almost out of nowhere. Levien even owns a small equity slice of the team, making him one of about 17,423 people who own a chunk of Grizz flesh.
No one quite knows what to make of this. David Mincberg, the team’s in-house counsel, appears to have made a power play for more basketball decision-making power, per sources familiar with the situation. There are high-level executives on other teams who have literally not heard of Mincberg. Robert Pera, the most powerful among the team’s owners, conducted his own exit interviews with players after the season, according to Sam Amick of USA Today. That is strange, and Pera is quickly gaining a reputation as a temperamental new owner.
Chris Wallace will retain his position as GM for now, and it is remarkable that Wallace, so genial that people call him the Mayor of Memphis, has somehow outlasted two-thirds of the team’s once-new front-office power trio. (John Hollinger, the third member of that group, is still with the team. Ditto for Dave Joerger, who did a nice job in his first year as the team’s head coach. Joerger has multiple years of guaranteed money left on his deal, though as a first-time NBA head coach, it’s not an expensive contract.) You cannot kill Chris Wallace. He will be in the Grizz front office, being jolly and talking up his favorite BBQ joints, until he wants to leave.
The Grizz are the best among this group of teams, but they’ve now officially got a bit of that Dolan “What the F is going on here?” stink on them. They’ll be very good again next season, assuming Zach Randolph picks up his $17 million player option, and they have two cornerstone pieces in the primes of their careers in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
But Gasol is 29, and he’ll be a free agent after next season. The team has about $14 million per year invested in the Courtney Lee–Tony Allen–Quincy Pondexter trio over each of the next two seasons, and it owes a juicy first-round pick to Cleveland after last season’s Marreese Speights salary dump.2 Memphis is not a glamour free-agent destination.
It’s not hard to see a scenario where Memphis backslides into 2017, with Gasol entering his decline and zero young impact players on the horizon.
In December, I reported on a proposal circulating around the league that would eliminate the lottery and replace it with a wheel system in which each team would cycle through the 30 first-round draft slots over a 30-year period. The idea came from Mike Zarren, Boston’s assistant GM, who has since tweaked it in ways that might make it more palatable to the league’s owners.
The primary objection among league higher-ups was that the wheel would make it difficult for bad teams to get better, especially bad teams in smaller markets that have no realistic means beyond the draft lottery to nab franchise-level stars. What if the wheel slotted this year’s Bucks into, say, the no. 18 and no. 12 picks over the next two seasons? Why would a Milwaukee fan stay engaged?
The Grizz represent a kind of flip side to that concern. They’re a capped-out small-market team that can’t go into the tax. They will not attract first-tier free agents. They’re too good to pick high in the draft, and they figure to stay at least mediocre if Randolph leaves in free agency after next season.
What’s their avenue to maintaining 50-win status? The easy answer is that they simply have to nail a pick or two in the early 20s and choose their second-tier free agents well. The Spurs sustained their dominance by doing both those things, and the Mavs built perhaps the best no. 8 seed in NBA history by winning second-tier free agency — at least in the short term. (That Jose Calderon deal is not going to end well.)
But the Spurs started with Tim Duncan, and even though Dirk Nowitzki remains among the league’s 15 best players, this Dallas team is not contending for a title without major reinforcements. There are lots of ways to be really good in the NBA, but it’s unclear if the landscape has actually changed the fact that the only way to win a title is to have at least one of the league’s 10 best guys — and, really, one of the half-dozen best.
The wheel advocates would say the entire point of the proposal is to incentivize the kind of smart management we’re talking about here — to remove bottoming-out as an avenue toward achievement. But it’s worth thinking about whether there might be other benefits, including providing a good team like Memphis a means to stay good and perhaps even get better without eventually crapping out. Would it be horrible if the Grizz had, say, the no. 6 pick in the draft this season?3
Critics worry the wheel chips away at hope for the downtrodden, but it helps sell a different kind of hope to good teams with an uncertain future — a hope that rewards the smart management that went into building those teams.
I’m not sure if the wheel is the precise right answer to lottery reform, but Memphis provides an interesting case study.
2. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons are kind of like the Bucks, in that they seem like they should have a vomit-inducing cap sheet, only they are super flexible both this season and going forward. “The cap situation is a lot better than people think,” says Stan Van Gundy, who took over the dual role as head coach and president of basketball operations last week. “People see Josh [Smith]’s contract and immediately think, ‘Oh my god, they’ve got cap issues.’ But we’ve got decent flexibility.”
Interestingly, Van Gundy says long-term roster setup was a minor factor in his choice. “Things like the roster and the cap situation, those are almost meaningless to me,” he says. “Those things change over time.”
The exception: Van Gundy is eager to coach Andre Drummond, one of the best young players in the league at a scarce position. He’s also already hard at work choosing coaches, scouts, and new front-office executives, and watching all 82 of Detroit’s games from last season. (I’m pretty sure that was one of the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno.)
Van Gundy wants his key coaching hires to do the same, and in jotting down notes to himself over the weekend, he zeroed in on one phrase, he says: “Avoid groupthink.” He wants to delay all roster-evaluation talk until all his key new hires have watched those 82 games, so that no one goes into the film room with preconceived notions about any player. “I don’t even want to talk about things before that,” Van Gundy says, “because if I mention, ‘Hey, this guy is really great at that,’ some guys may start looking for examples of that guy being great.”
Van Gundy hopes to hire a GM before the start of free agency on July 1, and he says he’s limiting the pool to guys who have held a full-time GM job before. He and the team’s owners have 50-50 say in the final hiring decision, he says: “I’m not just picking someone I want, and they are not forcing anyone on me.”
With Van Gundy aboard, cap room, and Drummond, this is an attractive job. The team has to figure out Greg Monroe’s free agency, and owes the Bobcats a first-round draft pick thanks to the Ben Gordon–Corey Maggette swap — perhaps the most depressing trade in recent NBA history. You are a sad League Pass addict4 if you can remember either one of those guys doing a basketball thing in a basketball game for either team after this trade.
Van Gundy played down the idea that he’s committed to playing a power forward with 3-point range, an ideology that would make both Monroe and Smith awkward long-term fits. “The no. 1 seeds in both conferences play two big guys,” he says. If anything, Van Gundy says, the team needs more 3-point shooting to put around two interior behemoths.
Detroit keeps its pick if it falls within the top eight, and enters tonight’s lottery in the no. 8 spot. If a team below Detroit moves up, Detroit will send the pick to Charlotte. The Pistons are sending Kyle Singler (and Kyle Singler’s hair) to represent them at the lottery, and Van Gundy has jokingly threatened to revoke Singler’s per diem budget next season if Detroit forfeits the pick.
Losing the pick would be a blow. The Pistons figure to be better next season, meaning they could send Charlotte a lower pick if the lottery gods smile upon them tonight. But again: It’s hard to be both bad and capped out, and even Brandon Jennings’s contract has just two years remaining.
1. New Orleans Pelicans
The team is not slated to have any significant cap room, or perhaps any cap room at all, until July 2016. Eric Gordon’s contract is borderline toxic. Tyreke Evans is due about $32 million combined over the next three years, and though he went bananas as a starter late in the season,5 no one is clamoring for Evans at that price. Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday played 56 games combined last season, and Anderson underwent neck surgery. The Pelicans will fork over a lottery pick to Philly tonight unless they move into the top five, and they already dealt Nerlens Noel to Philly in the same trade.
It doesn’t matter. This will be the league’s most attractive front-office and coaching destination the moment either position opens up. Everybody wants to be part of the Anthony Davis experience.
Folks around the league have been wondering for weeks whether the team would bring back Dell Demps, the GM, for the final year on his deal after a disappointing 2013-14 season. The consensus is growing that Demps is likely safe, though ownership needs to see progress next season — and perhaps a playoff berth in the ultracompetitive West.
But Demps and Monty Williams haven’t always seen eye to eye, according to several league sources, and ownership is more committed at this point to Williams as a long-term organizational pillar.
Two names to watch if the Pellies eventually part ways with Demps: Joe Dumars and Bobby Marks, the Nets’ assistant GM. Dumars is from Louisiana and tight with higher-ups from the New Orleans Saints, a relationship that dates to well before any real possibility Tom Benson would ever own an NBA team. Marks is well respected and could become a candidate for the New Orleans job.
But neither has had any direct conversations about the job or lobbied for it at all with Demps still on board.
A good season could render all this speculation moot, but another trip to the lottery will have the vultures circling both Demps and Williams. Davis’s appeal is that strong, and if this week has taught us anything, it’s that the waters in the NBA are never as calm as they look.