DA's Morning Tip

In all-time NBA GM rankings, one legendary name trumps all the rest

Building a winner in NBA took on many different forms in careers of these storied GMs

David Aldridge

Because, I don’t know, like the Bible says, you ain’t gonna get a second chance … what you need is a manager.

— Mickey Goldmill, asking Rocky Balboa to let him have one last crack at the big time, “Rocky”

Sometimes, readers ask dumb questions that try my patience. Why can’t the Knicks trade a second-round pick to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook? Hey, it would be a high pick! Thankfully, though, some questions are interesting.

Last week, Katy Ng asked a question that no one had ever asked me before, and we’ve been doing this a long time:

Who do you think the best General Managers (say, top 10) in NBA history are?

And I thought that was a heck of a question.

How does one determine excellence in a job that has no specific description, yet is essential to a successful franchise? The GM does so many things, yet his or her role is wildly different depending on the franchise, and what the owner allows. Some teams have a distinct separation of church and state between the GM and the coach: the GM and his staff, including the analytics group, handle everything off the floor, from scouting to trades to the Draft, and the coach works with the players they give them. (Consensus is sought in almost all cases, no good GM is going to give his or her coach a player the coach cannot stand.)

This is how Boston does it, with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge running the front office, and Brad Stevens handling the on-court product. In other organizations, the coach has final say on everything — like Stan Van Gundy in Detroit and Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. And in places like San Antonio, there’s a hybrid structure, with Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford jointly making the calls.

But the best ever? Hey, it’s a list; doesn’t mean I’m right. So, let’s rank ‘em, from 10 to 1.

Among the honorable mentions are:

  • Mitch Kupchak, who was the Lakers’ GM for 23 years, and rebuilt the team around Kobe Bryant after the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to Miami in 2004. Kupchak drafted Andrew Bynum, who played his best ball in L.A., then traded for Pau Gasol in 2008. Gasol became the partner Bryant craved, and the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
  • Joe Dumars built a championship Pistons team as GM without the benefit of a single Lottery pick; he traded for Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, signed Chauncey Billups when no one around the league thought he could be an elite guard, drafted Tayshaun Prince 23rd overall in the 2002 Draft and showed an acumen for picking coaches by hiring, in succession, Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown and Flip Saunders. Brown took the Pistons over the finish line in ’04 and Detroit made the Finals again the following season. Dumars’ teams made six straight Eastern Conference finals between 2002 and 2008.
  • Donnie Nelson pushed the Mavericks to take a skinny German kid named Dirk Nowitzki in the 1998 Draft, and Dallas maneuvered a deal with Milwaukee that brought the Diggler stateside. And Nelson, who’s had final say on personnel in Dallas since 2005, made a lot of good moves in building around Nowitzki — trades that brought in Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion, among others, which culminated in a Dallas run to the 2011 NBA title, beating the heavily favored Heat. The Mavs were formidable for more than a decade, averaging 56 wins between 2000 and 2011. Nelson was a vanguard in finding talent in Europe and elsewhere around the world, starting with his recruitment of guard Sarunas Marciulionis from Lithuania to the Warriors in the early ‘90s.

10. Pat Williams, Philadelphia 76ers: In separate stints in Philly, Williams first brought big crowds to Sixers home games at the old Spectrum by bringing in show business elements between whistles, such as Victor the Wrestling Bear and other sideshows, with Williams taking the lessons he learned running minor league baseball teams, and from his friend, legendary White Sox owner Bill Veeck. After spending five years as GM of the Bulls and Hawks, Williams returned to Philly in 1974, and he built the 76ers into an NBA champion, starting with the acquisition of Julius Erving from the Nets, drafting point guard Mo Cheeks in the second round of the 1978 Draft, Andrew Toney — “The Boston Strangler”in the first round in 1980, and trading for Moses Malone in 1982, creating the “Fo-Fo-Fo” team that lost just one playoff game en route to the 1983 championship.

Williams then joined the expansion Orlando Magic in 1986 and presided over the construction of the Magic into a title contender behind Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.

9. Jack McCloskey, Detroit Pistons: The late “Trader Jack” was hired by Detroit in 1979, the Pistons were nearing the end of a three-season stretch when they went 84-162. In the next decade, McCloskey brought numerous future Hall of Famers to the Motor City, starting with Isiah Thomas, the second pick of the 1981 Draft. McCloskey then traded for center Bill Laimbeer in 1982. In 1983, he hired Chuck Daly as coach. In ’85, he drafted little-known Joe Dumars from McNeese State. In ’86, McCloskey drafted an even more obscure forward from Southeastern Oklahoma State in the second round, after taking John Salley in the first. The forward was Dennis Rodman. That summer, McCloskey traded for Adrian Dantley from Utah — and in ’89, he dealt Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. That decade-long roll by McCloskey built one of the great teams of the decade, one that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, and made five straight conference finals.

8. Louis Mohs, Los Angeles Lakers: Very few today will recall the name. Mohs was a former football player (who played in the nascent days of the NFL in the ‘20s) and a newspaperman who was given the reigns of the Lakers in 1960. Owner Bob Short was moving his franchise from Minneapolis, where Mohs had worked for papers in the Twin Cities in circulation, and needed someone on the ground in L.A. to run the team. That, Mohs did. He drafted Jerry West in 1960 with the No. 2 overall pick to team with fellow future Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, and hired West’s college coach, Fred Schaus, to coach him in the pros. Equally importantly, Mohs was instrumental in helping to build interest in the Lakers in their early days in L.A., when they ran a distant third behind the Dodgers and Rams. Behind West, Baylor and Schaus, the modern Lakers’ franchise emerged, making four Finals in the team’s first six seasons out West. Because they never won a championship, a lot of people have forgotten Mohs’s role in the franchise’s storied history.

7. Jerry Colangelo, Phoenix Suns: In 27 years as the Suns’ GM, beginning with the team’s expansion season in 1968, Colangelo built several outstanding teams, almost always entertaining to boot, and was named NBA Executive of the Year four times. The Suns made the Finals in 1976 and in ’93, with Colangelo engineering trades in each case that brought difference-makers — Paul Westphal in ’75; Charles Barkley in ’92 — to the Valley of the Sun. He took on even bigger responsibilities in 1987 when he put a group together that bought the Suns, making him the team’s principal owner. There is no way that the NBA would have gone to Phoenix, or stayed there, if not for Colangelo’s impact.

He sold the team to Robert Sarver for $401 million in 2004, but has had a third act along two tracks. Chosen managing director of USA Basketball in 2005 after embarrassing performances both at the World Cup of Basketball in 2003 and the 2004 Summer Olympics, Colangelo was given complete carte blanche to select the team himself and to improve USAB’s relationships with Nike and other big players in basketball. He hired Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as coach and engaged the NBA’s biggest stars, restoring their desire to play internationally both to honor their country and as participants in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Since Colangelo’s ascension, the U.S. men have gone 88-1, winning the ’08, ’12 and ’16 gold medals at the Olympics, and the ’10 and ’14 World Cups. As Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Colangelo has implemented several innovations since being elected chair in 2009, including direct election to the Hall for numerous players and contributors both from the ABA and from the pre-NBA early African-American teams.

6. Wayne Embry, Milwaukee Bucks/Cleveland Cavaliers: The first African-American to get the opportunity to run teams, and a two-time NBA Executive of the Year (1992 and ’98), Embry put competitive contending teams on the floor for two decades, in markets where he had next to no chance of luring free agents. Hired as the special assistant to the president in Milwaukee in 1970 after playing his last NBA season for the Bucks, it was Embry who convinced his former Cincinnati Royals teammate Oscar Robertson to accept a trade to Milwaukee. With the veteran Robertson and a young and dominant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Bucks won it all in 1971. Embry formally got the Bucks’ GM job in 1972, but quickly had to adjust the roster on the fly when Abdul-Jabbar asked for a trade out of town the following year.

Embry dealt Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975, getting a package that included the first pieces to a new Bucks contender in guards Junior Bridgeman and Brian Winters. Embry gave Don Nelson his first coaching job as well, bringing him to Milwaukee as an assistant coach. Embry’s 1967 and ’77 Drafts brought in Quinn Buckner and Marques Johnson, but after Nelson became head coach in 1976, he and Embry had a falling out over personnel and control, and Embry stepped down as GM in 1978. Nonetheless, with Embry’s players and coach serving as the Bucks’ new foundation, Milwaukee averaged 55 wins a season from 1980-87.

Embry then served as an advisor to the Pacers, and was hired as the Cavs’ GM in 1986. Embry had not even officially been hired when he advised Cleveland’s owners to pull the trigger on a deal that brought center Brad Daugherty, the top pick in that year’s Draft, from Philadelphia. Embry then drafted guard Ron Harper and again advised his new bosses to get the Draft rights to guard Mark Price, a second-round pick in ’86. Cleveland then added forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, whom the Cavs had taken the year before, but who was not allowed to sign until he was cleared of any wrongdoing in a point shaving scandal at his college, Tulane University. The next year, Embry hired Lenny Wilkens as coach, and acquired Larry Nance in a trade with Phoenix for guard Kevin Johnson, whom Embry had drafted in the first round in ’87. The whirlwind of moves almost immediately turned the Cavs into a juggernaut. Cleveland went from 31 wins to 57 in two seasons, and made the playoffs eight times in nine years, including the Eastern Conference finals in 1992.

Daughtery made five All-Star teams and Price made four. But, like everyone else in the conference during that generation, Cleveland couldn’t beat Jordan. As the team aged, Embry again rebuilt a playoff team, this time behind guard Terrell Brandon, forwards Chris Mills, Danny Ferry and the late Bobby Phills, and young center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, another Embry first-rounder taken in 1996. Embry went to Toronto in 2004, where he’s held a variety of roles, most recently the Raptors’ senior advisor.

5. Pat Riley, Miami Heat: After winning four titles as coach of the Showtime Lakers in the ‘80s, and making the Knicks into a rugged, take-no-prisoners outfit that gave Michael Jordan’s Bulls their greatest playoff competition, “Riles” nonetheless was unsatisfied when he faxed in his resignation as Knicks’ coach in 1995. He wanted complete control of a franchise, and Miami owner Micky Arison gave it to him, naming him president and head coach of the Heat in 1995.

Riley quickly pumped life into what was thought to be an impossible market for pro basketball; just a couple of months into his tenure in Miami, he acquired All-Star center Alonzo Mourning from Charlotte, and built a contender around the future Hall of Famer. The Heat couldn’t get past the Bulls in the playoffs, though, and Riley resigned as coach in 2003. But he was still in charge, which he proved that summer a year later by prying Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers. With Dwyane Wade, who Riley drafted in 2003, the Heat again rose to the top of the East. Riley went back to the bench in 2005 after Stan Van Gundy resigned (there’s always been some sentiment that Stan Van jumped before he was pushed), and Riley won a fifth ring as a coach in 2006. Yet he quickly deconstructed that team, too, setting forth his most audacious plan — luring LeBron James from Cleveland in 2010 to form a super team on South Beach, and being willing to patiently wait for three years for the chance. And Riley pulled it off, getting James and adding Chris Bosh from Toronto with Wade to create the Super Friends — which won it all in 2012 and ’13, and made The Finals the other two years James was in town before going back home in 2014.

4. Jerry Krause, Chicago Bulls: Bouncing back and forth between baseball and basketball throughout five decades as a scout and executive, Krause’s road to NBA fame came in his second stint running the Bulls, starting in 1985. The Bulls had already drafted Michael Jordan, but Chicago didn’t have much surrounding him. Krause changed that, and built one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

On Draft night 1987, he acquired the rights to a little-known former manager of his basketball team from Central Arkansas named Scottie Pippen, then took power forward Horace Grant with the 10th pick overall. (With the 1989 first-rounder that Krause got from Seattle as part of the Pippen trade, he took guard B.J. Armstrong.) Krause then ensured Jordan’s animus by trading his friend and on-court protector, rugged Charles Oakley, to New York for center Bill Cartwright. In just a few month’s time, Krause altered the trajectory of his club to due north. Pippen and Grant became the league’s best pair of two-way forwards, versatile and lethal defensively while also being able to contribute at the other end. A Krause favorite, guard John Paxson, became a clutch shooter. Jordan, of course, was Jordan. And Krause’s greatest decision, hiring Phil Jackson as an assistant coach and then promoting him to coach in 1991, was the final master stroke. Jackson challenged Jordan’s individual instincts, insisting he could still dominate and win while trusting his teammates to hold up their end of the bargain. And that group coalesced, finally vanquishing arch-rival Detroit in 1991 en route to the first of six NBA titles in eight seasons. Jordan famously went on a two-year baseball sabbatical in ’94 and ’95, but when he returned to the NBA, Krause had put another stellar group of role players around him, starting with the unlikely Dennis Rodman. But Rodman, center Luc Longley and guard Steve Kerr all filled their roles perfectly, and the Bulls pulled off a second threepeat from 1996-98. It wasn’t all Krause’s doing, but it wouldn’t have happened without him.

3. Gregg Popovich/R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs: It’s hard to know where Pop ends and Buford begins, but they’ve been in charge in San Antonio for two decades and the proof is in the winning: the Spurs have five NBA titles since the two of them came to town, and they’ve been the winningest team in all of professional sports during that time. Yes, Pop and Buford were the decided beneficiaries of having consecutive Hall of Fame big men in David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio. That cannot be ignored. But they’ve nonetheless found not only the right talent to surround them, but people with the right temperament.

The Spurs not only were among the first teams to go around the world for players, but were the first to understand that finding that kind of cultural, historical and emotional diversity was a goal in and of itself. The Spurs have reinvented themselves so many times I’ve lost count (Halfcourt Defense Strangler Spurs became Feed Duncan Spurs became Pace-and-Space Spurs became Kawhi Postup Spurs), but they always manage to see the curve before everyone else. Take Becky Hammon, a great player who was rehabbing an injury in San Antonio at the end of her career. It’s not that Popovich and Buford were any smarter in seeing that Hammon knew the game; that was obvious. What they did see was that her perspective, her ability to teach, her ability to lead and her ability to fit in despite her pedigree meant her gender was not only not disqualifying, it was a positive. There will surely come an end to San Antonio’s run as the standard all other NBA organizations seek to emulate (Oklahoma City, Utah, New Orleans, Indiana … so many teams have Spurs tentacles). But for two decades, the Spurs’ market size hasn’t mattered. Their “boring” style hasn’t mattered. Their lack of controversy hasn’t mattered. There are, always, R.C. and Pop, joined at the hip, disagreeing when they no doubt do on occasion in private, setting the tone. Everything else falls into place.

2. Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers: Some have won more titles as players or executives, but no one in the history of the league has been as great a player andexec as The Logo. He was a Hall of Fame guard for the Lakers; he was a Hall of Fame GM for the Lakers. Yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was already there when West joined the team’s front office in 1979, after a three-year stint as coach. And there is considerable anecdotal evidence that West wanted to take Sidney Moncrief with the first overall pick that L.A. had in 1979 instead of Magic Johnson.

But West was smart enough to be convinced otherwise by his boss, Jerry Buss, and once West was officially named GM in 1982, he spent much of the next decade putting a championship-caliber team around his Hall of Famers — drafting James Worthy in 1982 (and resisting Buss’ desire to trade Worthy to Dallas for Roy Tarpley and Mark Aguirre in 1987); taking Byron Scott out of Arizona State with the fourth pick overall in 1984; drafting A.C. Green near the end of the first round the following year; trading for Mychal Thompson in 1987. Just about every move wasn’t just good, it was great, laying the foundation for the Showtime Lakers.

They won five titles between ’79 and ’88 and became the equal of the Celtics as the NBA’s signature franchises. After Magic’s HIV disclosure in 1991, and the natural aging of his championship team, West lay low for a couple of years.

But he came roaring back in 1996. Kupchak was officially the Lakers’ GM by then, but West — officially executive vice president of basketball operations — still had the juice and the final say. He outmaneuvered everyone for an 18-year-old kid from Lower Merion High School in Philly that had, in West’s words, the greatest pre-Draft workout he’d ever seen. Through persuasion, threat, whatever was handy, West got Kobe Bryant. And that summer, he went all in to get free agent behemoth Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando, gambling he could reach the big man. He did. And when the Lakers hired Phil Jackson to coach them, the path was laid for a championship. The Lakers ripped off three straight from 2000-02.

West left that year to become the GM of the Grizzlies, who’d never done much winning before he got there; he coaxed Hubie Brown out of the TV booth, and Brown won Coach of the Year in 2004, the same year West won his second NBA Executive of the Year award. After leaving Memphis in 2007, West was scarfed up as an advisor by the Warriors in 2011, where he again made his mark by standing firmly against a proposed deal to send Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love, and then playing a key role in Golden State’s successful recruitment of Kevin Durant in 2016. After six years with the Dubs, West was off again last summer — back to L.A., where he’ll be Consigliere or anything else that Steve Ballmer needs. Forty-three years afterhe retired as a player, West’s word is still gold around the NBA.

1. Red Auerbach, Boston Celtics: Auerbach’s reign as the architect of almost all of Boston’s 17 NBA titles remains the standard by which all other bosses are judged. He had complete control over the Celtics roster as the team’s coach and GM from 1950 through 1984 (he retired as coach following the 1966 season, but kept the GM title another 18 years). In his first season in Boston, he reluctantly (Auerbach thought him too small) took Bob Cousy in the dispersal draft of the long-forgotten Chicago Stags. History shines upon the lucky as well. Auerbach drafted Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Jim Loscutoff between 1953 and ’55; Ramsey and Hagan became Hall of Famers. Then Auerbach had himself a day on April 30, 1956, the date of that year’s Draft.

He took Tommy Heinsohn in the first round; Heinsohn went on to the Hall of Fame. He took K.C. Jones in the second round; Jones went on to the Hall of Fame. Then, Auerbach traded Hagan and Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the Draft rights to William Felton Russell, out of the University of San Francisco. Look at that again: Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bill Russell. In one day. All those maneuverings, added with a couple of other shrewd moves, like drafting John Havlicek in 1962, created the league’s greatest dynasty, a team that won nine NBA championships in a row between 1958 and 1967, and 11 titles in 13 seasons. That run alone would make Auerbach the best executive ever.

Except he was just getting started.

In 1968, he drafted Don Chaney. In 1969, he drafted JoJo White. In 1970, he drafted Dave Cowens. He got Paul Silas in a trade in 1972. With Heinsohn now coaching, the Celtics won two more titles in 1974 and 1976. That’s 13 rings that Auerbach was directly responsible for bringing to Beantown. And, he wasn’t done yet.

In 1978, Auerbach took a “junior eligible” player with the sixth pick in the Draft. The player had the right to return to college for his senior season under the existing rules, and the Celtics had a year to sign him; if they failed to do so, he’d go back into the 1979 Draft. Auerbach finally got him to commit to Boston after he’d taken his team to the NCAA national championship game. Larry Bird was worth the wait. With Bird on the team, the Celtics went from 29-53 in 1978-79 to 61-21 the following year, losing to Philly in the Eastern Conference finals. That year, Auerbach pulled off what might have been his greatest sleight of hand.

He had traded Bob McAdoo, a prodigious scorer, to the Detroit Pistons in 1979, in exchange for forward M.L. Carr and Detroit’s first-round pick in 1980. Unfortunately for Detroit, its season fell apart; the Pistons fired their head coach, a gent named Dick Vitale, and won only 16 games in ’79-’80. Their pick became the first pick overall in the Draft, and Boston now had it. Which meant Auerbach had something up his sleeve. He found his quarry in Oakland, where the Warriors had a young but inconsistent center named Robert Parish that Auerbach wanted. So he dealt the first overall pick to the Warriors for Parish and their first-round pick, which was third overall. With that pick, Auerbach drafted…Kevin McHale. Of course, Bird, Parish and McHale all wound up in Springfield.

With his “Big Three” in place for Coach Bill Fitch (and, later, K.C. Jones), and guard Dennis Johnson, yet another acquisition of Auerbach’s, in 1983, the Celtics won three more titles in the ‘80s; that made a total of 16 championships over a 28-year stretch for which Auerbach was directly responsible. He had acquired every player. He had coached most of them. He was the first NBA exec to draft an African-American player (Chuck Cooper, in 1950: he was the first NBA exec to hire an African-American as head coach (Russell, who was player-coach his last three NBA seasons, from 1966 to 1969).

Arnold Auerbach knew how to put great teams together, because he had a way with people. Nobody’s done as well before or since.

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MORE MORNING TIP: 24 questions for 2017-18 | DA’s Top 15 Rankings | DA’s Mailbag: Kobe over LeBron?

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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