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Executive order

Ranking the league's personnel bosses from 1-30

Posted: Tuesday June 26, 2007 1:03PM; Updated: Tuesday June 26, 2007 5:02PM
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With but 15 players per roster and five to a lineup, the role of an NBA personnel boss is of paramount importance -- especially when compared to counterparts in the world of major league baseball (which has no salary cap) and the NFL (where a hard salary cap and a host of nonguaranteed contracts allow teams to rebuild on the fly). The NBA is a special breed, as even a three-year run from a GM can make or break a franchise for a decade.

With that fact established, we decided to rank the league's personnel bosses from 1-30, starting from the most promising to the most enervating.

Executive Rankings
Rank   Personnel Boss
1
R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs
Pluses: On the surface, Buford's accomplishments appear to be mitigated by the presence of David Robinson (drafted in 1987) and Tim Duncan ('97), and the stern influence of Gregg Popovich calling the shots from the bench while wielding a heavy hand in the front office. Even while taking all of this into account, it has become clear that Buford has had the strongest influence in creating the NBA's model franchise. From scouring the lower reaches of the draft for talent (Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) to keeping his superstars surrounded with well-meaning vets who have something left to prove, Buford has earned his place atop this list.

Minuses: Buford traded 2007 Sixth Man Award winner Leandro Barbosa to the Suns in June '03, but one of the draft picks he received from Phoenix later helped the Spurs acquire a pivot man (Nazr Mohammed) who contributed to the franchise's '05 title. Other than that, the only players who haven't worked out within San Antonio's system were cheap veterans on their last legs, such as Ron Mercer, Nick Van Exel and Steve Smith.

Bottom line: With only Duncan, Parker and Ginobili under contract entering 2008-09, the Spurs could have enough money to sign another star to a max deal or, more likely, flesh out the roster with solidly compensated and easily movable contributors.
2
Donnie Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
Pluses: Whether working side-by-side with his father -- former Mavericks coach Don Nelson -- or setting up the defensive-minded, new-age Mavs for Avery Johnson, the younger Nellie has refused to let conventional wisdom taint his personnel decisions. And we're not talking about his decision to scour the international ranks for players like 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki. Donnie has also made hay with players who were initially regarded as little more than strong scorers for lousy teams: Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse and Nick Van Exel. Nelson also garners our respect for working under mercurial owner Mark Cuban, who, despite his willingness to spend money (though the Mavs have been trying to avoid the luxury tax since '05), gives the impression of a being superfan who either wants to extend the contracts of everyone after a win or blow up everything after a loss.

Minuses: Letting Steve Nash walk as a free agent, essentially replacing his cap hold with Erick Dampier while trading for rookie Devin Harris in 2004. And yet, anyone who watched Nash struggle against Mike Bibby and the weak-defending Kings in the opening round of the '04 playoffs would also blanch at the idea of handing the then 30-year-old Nash a six-year, $63 million deal. The Mavs have won an average of 62 games in each of the three seasons since his defection.

Bottom line: A minor tweak or three should have the Mavs right back in the finals. And who better to make those changes than Nelson, who appears to boast the perfect mix of adaptive qualities and fearlessness.
3
Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
Pluses: Dumars realized early that cap flexibility can sustain a team's chances of remaining a powerhouse and allow a decision-maker to take advantage of teams looking to clear onerous contracts. His series of gutsy decisions from the summer of 2002 to February '04 gave Detroit its third NBA championship: He threw the full mid-level exception at journeyman Chauncey Billups, took Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick of the '02 draft, dumped '02 Coach of the Year Rick Carlisle for Larry Brown in '03 and rolled the dice with a midseason trade for Rasheed Wallace, who was the missing piece of the '04 championship team.

Minuses: Cap flexibility and unwillingness to take on bad contracts cost the Pistons the services of Mehmet Okur in 2004 and Ben Wallace in '06. Though it makes sound fiscal sense, Dumars sometimes acts as though he's working with an NFL-like hard cap -- witness his recent trade of the inconsistent Carlos Delfino to the Raptors for two second-round picks. The trade was made to clear up cash to re-sign Billups even though the Pistons can far exceed the salary cap to retain the point guard. Dumars also deserves heat for not only passing on a series of future All-Stars in order to draft Darko Milicic, but also for compounding his mistake by dealing the big man to Orlando to clear money he thought needed to keep Ben Wallace, who ended up signing a free-agent deal with Chicago.

Bottom line: Dumars' Pistons have been the class of the East for years, but he's also developed a roster that is long on arrogance and short on sealing the deal in the playoffs since the 2004 championship. Outside of Antonio McDyess, recent attempts at adding new blood (Milicic, Delfino, coach Flip Saunders) have been met with locker-room derision. This sated group desperately needs a jump-start. Dumars may have his toughest challenges ahead of him.
4
Bryan Colangelo, Toronto Raptors
Pluses: The two-time Executive of the Year understands that aesthetically pleasing basketball can also be winning basketball. He doesn't mind letting his coaches determine what sort of team will grow from the talent assembled. With Danny Ainge (easy practices, small lineups), Scott Skiles (strong defense, up-tempo offense), Frank Johnson (screen-and-roll orthodoxy), Mike D'Antoni (all-out offensive blitzkrieg) and Sam Mitchell (modified up-tempo attack with a spread floor and ball movement), Colangelo has allowed his coaches to work without a hint of meddling from the front office.

Minuses: Traded Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury in 2001, which might bar Colangelo from making the Hall of Fame even if his Raptors win 16 championships in a row starting in '08.

Bottom line: For those general NBA fans who had to watch the primes of Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce frittered away by the shortsighted personnel decisions of their respective GMs, having Chris Bosh's future in Colangelo's hands has to feel good.
5
John Paxson, Chicago Bulls
Pluses: Paxson has shown unyielding patience while creating a young, dynamic and sometimes-explosive roster filled almost entirely with players who have gone deep into the NCAA tournament, NBA playoffs or international play. As a result, the Bulls consistently field one of the youngest rotations in basketball, and they've still been in the playoffs three years running. Because of Paxson's ability to spend wisely, draft carefully and not cash his chips in early, the Bulls have long been a preferred trade target for teams looking to unload unhappy superstars -- though Paxson's greatest scores have come from taking advantage of Knick president Isiah Thomas' lust for players who can fill up highlight reels but have issues when it comes to making an efficient dent in the box score (Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford).

Minuses: Paxson's perceived faults depend entirely on how you view pro basketball. On the surface, Chicago is desperate for a low-post threat. Paxson actually traded away one of the NBA's finest young low-post threats in Curry in October 2005, but Curry wouldn't have played another game for the Bulls because he refused to take a DNA test for a heart problem. His issues with defense, rebounding and turnovers were also wearing thin. Paxson also traded away Tyson Chandler after acquiring Ben Wallace last summer. While Chandler had a better per-minute statistical year in '06-07, Wallace's ability to stay on the floor without fouling and help limit Chicago's turnovers was a strong improvement over Chandler's play. Paxson also turned down a reported deal in February that would have sent Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, and P.J. Brown to Memphis for Pau Gasol, but trading three starters for one is never a smart move.

Bottom line: Paxson has created a team reminiscent of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 15-20 years ago -- a club full of well-meaning and talented players who might be missing the superstar needed to lead them to the next level. Those Cavs cashed in some assets for Danny Ferry, fresh out of Duke. Here's hoping Paxson, should he decide to gamble a bit, finds a better return.
6
Geoff Petrie, Sacramento Kings
Pluses: Unafraid to make what appear to be risky deals for certain talent, Petrie doesn't think twice before taking advantage of a lopsided offer. Two big ones -- acquiring Chris Webber for fading vets Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, and getting Mike Bibby for Jason Williams -- turned the Kings into one of the NBA's better teams for the first part of the decade. But big deals alone didn't turn around Sacramento's fortunes. Petrie also persuaded Vlade Divac to come to a 27-win team in 1999, waited patiently as Peja Stojakovic (drafted in '96) developed overseas (he debuted in '99) and consistently rotated a sound cast of seventh and eighth men in and out of Sacramento since '99.

Minuses: Petrie hasn't had luck with coaches. In 1997, he gave Eddie Jordan the reins a little too soon, before Jordan became a Princeton offense devotee. Rick Adelman was an improvement who led the Kings deep into the playoffs soon after, but his shortened rotations never seemed to mesh with Petrie's personnel moves. Worse, the Maloof brothers jumped in last summer and hired Eric Musselman, who was fired after one season.

Bottom line: Petrie knows how to put together a winner, and even last season's 33-win team appeared to have playoff-worthy talent. But without a Finals appearance from the Webber-led squad, Petrie's legacy now depends on his most recent coaching hire (the energetic Reggie Theus) and his own work with a team that needs retooling.
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