General Managers Deserve Some Respect
This is an article about general managers, and their recent plight as a species. I fear not for their souls -- surely, not every team can fall victim to rank foolishness -- but for the short-term turmoil it could cause in the NBA. The GM is loop of paradoxes: behind the scenes, he assembles the team, and while his vision can guide a future, it's just as easy for an organization to convince itself that another functionary could do his duty.
I know headhunters are supposed to find replacements. In Kevin Pritchard's case, though, news that the team will seek his replacement made it sound like the hunter would infiltrate the Rose Garden and emerge with KP's bloody scalp. Steve Kerr's unceremonious exit from Phoenix, coming at the worst possible time and basically a giant middle finger to a cheap-skate owner, gave Sarver what he deserved. And let's not forget about Danny Ferry, who left his capo in charge when he felt like his judgment had given way to LeBron-mania.
Overnight, general managers have gone from great brains who cobble together great teams, to just another suit. The mojo that turned Pritchard into a celebrity backfired; the cult of personality, and all its novelty, dissolved into hot air overnight. I come not to parse front office intrigue, especially not that mess in Portland. But for the love of draft, don't GM's matter anymore?
Not too long ago, the general manager looked to be the central figure in how teams would rise and fall. The once-great Knicks had been thoroughly demolished by idiot GMs Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas. The Spurs stayed in contention for a decade behind the shadow hand of R.C Buford and de facto GM Gregg Popovich. Jerry West turned the laughingstock Grizzlies into a playoff team. Geoff Petrie built the oddball Kings, tore them down, and is now trying all over again. Daryl Morey brought the math to stay. In Oklahoma City, Sam Presti's clarity and planning were a thing of beauty.
On top of it all, there was Pritchard. Certainly, the Portland executive went out of his way to make himself visible, accessible, and readily viewed as the locus of all the rebuilding that had taken the once sordid Jailblazers by storm. He specialized at elaborate draft night maneuvers, which gave the impression of meticulous scouting. We'll forgo a full appraisal of his hits and misses, and arguably, the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge-Greg Oden nucleus could have used a second look at some point. But he got the franchise up and running again, poised to become a Western power.
Now, Pritchard is expendable. His ego, political clout, and standing in the organization could, in the eyes of some, be impeding progress. Pritchard is now a distraction, and vulnerable in a way he wasn't before he ducked out from under the cover of committee. The Blazers feel they might be better off with a general manager who didn't exert such force -- a mind, minus the self-awareness.
Herein lies the oddity of the GM. With all due respect to assistant GMs, scouts, and other staffs, in many cases a single figure rises up as the man who built the team. Coaches need help, especially from their players, but at the end of the day, only a moron calls them interchangeable. Doc Rivers blossomed, and won a title, as a glorified manager. This we call a leader, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who really believes anyone could have won that title.
Now, think back to the general manager. Even if all he does is corral the analysts and evaluators, if there's a plan, it's his. This is an important position, and history has shown that strong GMs lead to definite, productive futures.
Someone failed to mention that to Robert Sarver, who so aggressively low-balled Steve Kerr that Kerr saw fit to walk out the front door -- right before the draft, and with the negotiations for superstar forward Amar'e Stoudemire hanging in the balance. Not to mention the drastic adjustments that will come when Steve Nash hangs up his sneakers for that last, tearful time. Sarver said, more or less, "you rescued my team from oblivion with some really inventive decisions, but I don't recognize that."
Sure, Kerr killed SSOL. At the same time, he also resurrected a franchise that most had given up on. With all due respect to Alvin Gentry's coaching, Kerr's personnel decisions set the Suns up for another title shot where before there was none.
The sheer strangeness of that situation perhaps explains Kerr's abrupt decision. If anything, he had proven himself an expert who could keep the Suns relevant. Predecessors Bryan Colangelo and Mike D'Antoni had thrown around money and squandered or sold draft picks; not so with Kerr. He was, in short, the ideal GM for the Suns. Sarver sent the opposite message, and when you think about, Kerr couldn't really go back and negotiate. Not with that kind of disrespect from the outset.
Sarver had decided, like Paul Allen, that the star GM -- or at least too centralized a front office -- might be a liability. Or at least not a clear-cut advantage when the name attached to it wasn't Larry Harris. But there's writing on them there walls, especially in a summer where free agents are arguably more important than team logic. That's why you saw Danny Ferry leaving Cleveland, right before what should have been the most exciting months of his career.
Or were they? Ferry tried to give James support as best he could. The same goes for Mike Brown. Maybe neither is perfect, but both proved extremely effective at their jobs. Now, they would come under intense scrutiny, however unfairly, for the simple fact that Cleveland didn't go all the way. That artificial set of conditions was all about LeBron James' presence. And it would only heighten in the run-up to July, to the point where Ferry would be second-guessed and undermined at every turn.
Ferry would have had to land LeBron and at the same time, justify his resume to LeBron. If he made any other moves, they would be both more loaded than ever, and more monolithic. This isn't what a resourceful general manager should spend his days doing. Is that so different from what Danny Ainge, 2008 Executive of the Year, did to win that title? Well, Ferry has more actual team-building chops (Ainge's draft grabs didn't add up on their own), has been more active, and presumably wants more out of his job than wooing single big names.
The problem is, the way things are going, it's not clear teams will be looking for his executives like him. How safe is the Hornets' Jeff Bower? And remember, as general managers gain recognition and demand credit, they will cost more. That's the gruesome subtext of the Steve Kerr situation. Having a visionary ultimately doesn't matter to teams if he costs too much, or isn't making things happen. Somehow, the GM gained recognition, and really opened up as a position, over the last few years.
Now, we're seeing a backlash. Paying for a name is ugly business but then again, not wanting a name for the simple money matters is like booking reservations in the Stone Age because it's a natural way of life.