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From PR to GM (cont.)

Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 2:03PM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 7:18PM
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How did Sheppard convince himself to pursue a dream that most people would have dismissed as impossible?

"I haven't done the counting lately, but at one time I remember there were 14 GMs who didn't play in the league,'' says Sheppard. "There is no set road that says if you did this, it enables you to work in the NBA. There's more than one way in this business to succeed. The exciting part is there are so many different ways to put things together and be successful. I believe in my heart that this is a people business, and every single player has a story, everybody has something tangible they can offer to help an organization get better.''

Grunfeld is one of the league's most respected basketball executives with a diverse winning record at New York, Milwaukee and now Washington. As a nine-year NBA player he has a rich basketball background, but he has established a model that could also work for Sheppard when he becomes a GM: Grunfeld hires people he trusts, and trusts the people he hires. He filters their evaluations of player talent, and when he decides whom to choose in the draft, free agency or trades, much of his decision is based on chemistry and how a new player will fit with the others on the roster. Those kinds of relationships are Sheppard's specialty.

Jerry Krause -- a non-player -- will go down as one of the winningest GMs in the history of the league with six championship rings in Chicago. Will Sheppard learn to judge pure basketball talent as well as Krause? That remains to be seen. But he will never be the antagonist that Krause was.

Stand in the hallway of any NBA arena with Sheppard for 10 minutes and he will appear to know half of the people who walk by, whether they are famous coaches and players or anonymous equipment managers and video coordinators.

"We were outside the locker rooms the other day and Sam Dalembert [the Haitian 76ers center] walked out and of course he knew Tommy,'' says Wizards P.R. director Zack Bolno. "Eric Hernandez, our Internet guy, said we could walk into the White House and Tommy Sheppard would know everybody's name from the Secret Service.''

He has served as a U.S. Olympic Committee press attaché at the last three Summer Olympics and other events, providing him with an enormous breadth of helpful friendships. He is also well-connected in Europe, where he helped Sarunas Marciulionis form the Northern European Basketball League.

Those who have worked with Sheppard will vouch for his unusual abilities to work with people, to bring out the best in colleagues and resolve problems. Those skills should in turn help him judge the qualities that can serve his team on the court.

"He has a passion and work ethic,'' says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who worked with Sheppard while coaching the Nuggets during the 1999 lockout season. "Tommy does things that go beyond the normal stuff, and though he was in media relations he had a big hand -- and knew what was going on -- in the administrative and GM side of things.''

What of the natural criticism that he will lack the expertise to judge basketball talent?

"They always say that if you didn't play. They say how are you going to be able to do it?'' says D'Antoni. "But they can say the same thing about people who did play. There is no science to it. It's all about being around it and doing your homework. A lot of it has to do with surrounding yourself with good people who know how to scout it and work it and have a vision of how to put it together. What you see in successful people is that they come from way, way different backgrounds.''

How many NBA teams turn out to be less than the sum of their parts? They have a lot of talent but don't work well together. When Sheppard is running his own team, he will help fix those problems. He won't eradicate them -- no one can -- but he will help his team reach its potential. If he fulfills his talent for working with people, then everything else -- the acquisition of talent, as well as the relations between front office, coaches and players -- will work more efficiently.

Waiting In The Wings
The list of other top GM candidates likely to receive consideration is more complicated than on the coaching side. Respected execs like R.C. Buford (Spurs), Randy Pfund (Heat), Keith Grant (Mavericks) and Glen Grunwald (Knicks) already have positions of authority with their clubs, though they don't have final say over roster moves and thus could be eligible to run other organizations.

In addition, Fred Hoiberg is not on this list because he should move up within his current franchise: League sources insist that Hoiberg will eventually replace Kevin McHale as Timberwolves VP as early as this summer.
Kiki Vandeweghe: The biggest name on the market, he's a former player and player-development guru with an innate understanding of how to develop young talent. His experience remodeling the Nuggets will serve him well in his next job.
John Hammond: As Joe Dumars' top assistant, the Pistons' VP of basketball operations has helped turn Detroit into the East's most consistent franchise. He's renowned for his honesty, character and evaluation of talent.
Bob Whitsitt: A proven winner in Seattle and Portland, Whitsitt has been trying to pull together an ownership group to buy an NBA franchise. But now he's telling friends that he's open to returning as a GM without an ownership role -- and he's brashly promising to take any NBA team to the playoffs within two years.
John Gabriel: The former NBA Executive of the Year engineered one of the great free-agent coups by signing Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in 2000, and Gabriel would still be winning in Orlando if not for the bad luck of Hill's ankle injuries. But even more impressive was Orlando's 1999-00 heart-and-hustle roster of inexpensive nobodies (Ben Wallace, Chucky Atkins, Darrell Armstrong, et al.) who were discovered by Gabriel long before they became expensive somebodies.
Jim Paxson: Now a consultant to his younger brother (GM John) in Chicago, Paxson isn't afraid to make bold moves. He laid the groundwork for Cleveland's current success, and he's far better prepared for his next opportunity than when the Cavaliers rushed him into the GM chair in 1999.
Wally Walker: The former Sonics president and minority owner will move up this list when he announces he is interested in returning to the league. He was ahead of his time in Seattle while building a young, fiscally disciplined roster.
David Griffin: The former Suns intern has worked his way up to become Mike D'Antoni's top executive assistant in Phoenix. Like Tommy Sheppard, don't be surprised if he becomes a GM in the next year.
Jeff Weltman: Vandeweghe's lead assistant was on the fast track to become a GM before Kiki's falling-out in Denver. One of the league's most innovative executives, Weltman -- in his role as Elgin Baylor's assistant -- was responsible for assembling the Clippers' 2000 draft-night trades that reinvented their franchise.
Kenny Smith: The TNT commentator has made no secret of his aim to become a GM, and he auditions weekly alongside Charles Barkley. How he goes about making that jump will be an interesting exercise.
Mark Jackson: The same holds true for the NBA's all-time leader in assists, who broadcasts his views and philosophies on ESPN/ABC and as the lead analyst on Nets broadcasts. Owners often prefer to hire former players who will form an instant connection with fans.
Greg Anthony: He may lack experience as a GM, but he plays one on TV. He will earn consideration based on the quality of his opinions on ESPN.
Sam Presti: The Spurs' young hotshot assistant GM is already being rumored as a candidate to run the Sonics, should new owner Clay Bennett decide to clean house in Seattle.
Dave Babcock: Known as the least conservative of the Babcock brothers, the Bucks' director of player personnel has the knowledge, experience and presence to run his own team.
Tony DiLeo: If the 76ers rise quickly in the post-Iverson era, so too will the top assistant to team president Billy King.
Chris Wallace: The 2001-02 Celtics won 49 games -- the high in the post-Bird era -- during Wallace's brief tenure in charge. A true insider and intelligence gatherer.
Steve Rosenberry: The Sonics' head scout is not only one of the league's top talent evaluators, but he's also a longtime executive for And1 -- giving him the business expertise handy to a future GM.

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