Growing role of GM makes good front office leaders hard to find
NBA GMs are forced to fulfill a number of different roles in running teams
Identifying and projecting good GM prospects is a tricky proposition
The long view GMs often must take buys them more job security than coaches
Hiring an NBA coach is like hiring a tax accountant: By the middle of April each year, you know exactly where you stand. Hiring an NBA general manager is more like hiring a financial advisor: He takes control of your entire portfolio, makes decisions for some distant horizon and assures you during the bumpy times that the plan is sound, that time and patience are your friends and, by the way, that past performance is no guarantee of future results.
And every once in a while, a franchise ends up flipping its keys to the basketball equivalent of Bernie Madoff.
The challenges in filling that key front-office job have been highlighted again recently, with Golden State's replacement of Chris Mullin with Don Nelson-crony Larry Riley this week and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor's ongoing search to finally fill Kevin McHale's spot in Minnesota.
"It's harder to find capable GMs than it is coaches because there are so many hats you have to wear as GM," said Pat Williams, a longtime NBA executive who held the GM job in both Philadelphia and Orlando. "It's a leadership position. It's an executive position. You have to judge talent. More so, you have to judge the people you're working with. It requires a level-headed, cool approach. You have to have endless energy, for it's a 24/7 job. And having the wrong wife, in a job like that, can ruin you."
As difficult as it is to hire a good coach (and downright rare to land a great one), the process is relatively straightforward. The GM, almost always a basketball man himself, sits down with the job candidate and listens to his pitch, probing about overall philosophy, the style of ball the coach wants his team to play, his vision for each roster member. Gauging the potential coach's leadership style, getting a sense of his personality and ambition, the boss does the usual due diligence of talking with others (those offered as references as well as those who know the man from various points in his career -- basketball is a remarkably small industry).
Typically, too, there is a track record by which to judge a coach: All those indelible victories and defeats that are as much a part of each coach's permanent record as Blutarsky's zero-point-zero is of his. If the candidate already has been a head coach, the book on him is thick; a team thinking of hiring Eddie Jordan, Avery Johnson, Dwane Casey or Jeff Van Gundy knows pretty much what it would be getting. If he is an assistant coach somewhere looking to slide over those proverbial 18 inches on the bench and get that marvelous payday, he has the reflected glory from whatever his current employer is doing, a won-lost record once removed. Chances are, he'll have bosses from the past and present stumping for him, such as Van Gundy and Doc Rivers in Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau's corner or Orlando's Stan Van Gundy challenging teams to interview Magic assistant Patrick Ewing.
Now, if the job candidate is a college coach, that's a tougher transition to project. Those NCAA successes and setbacks don't always translate -- too often, they might as well be HD DVD in a Blu-ray world -- and smart GMs have learned to avoid them without some sort of NBA air lock (i.e., an assistant's gig) in between. Every once in a while, someone forgets and hires Mike Montgomery or Tim Floyd straight off a campus, providing a fresh reminder for the next organization that might have considered it.
Firing an NBA coach, by the way, tends to be just as straightforward. Sure, it's painful and all, but the reasons generally are evident: woeful underachievement, a late-season or playoff swoon, a locker room gone deaf to the guy, friction with the franchise player. Coaches occasionally get fired for the wrong reasons, but it seldom happens in spite of a rosy W-L record. Most of the time, he walks away with stupid money, too, with a year or more on scholarship to land a TV gig, settle into a cushy assistant's role somewhere or begin lobbying for that next three-year, $10 million contract.
Now compare all of the above to the process of what goes on with general managers, both their hiring and their firing. GMs in the NBA -- and we're including the various permutations of that job, the "presidents" and "vice presidents" of basketball operations -- don't make nearly as much money as coaches (Riley's reported $700,000 salary from the Warriors is pineapple money to Nelson). They don't wind up in front of the cameras very often once they're dumped or take seats on the bench. Some of them get recycled, sure, or catch a bone from an employed pal to do a little scouting. Often, though, when these guys are out, they're out.
This additional harshness is balanced, however, by job security that dwarfs your standard-issue NBA coach. A savvy GM can preside over two or three coaching changes, easy, before the sludge starts to back up to the glass offices. The costs incurred by the franchise when one of them fails are more hidden. With a coach, failure can burn through weeks and seasons, and sour a relationship with a player or three. But with a GM, the spill can be toxic, seep out over time and require years of cleanup. A flop in the lottery? That's three years of guaranteed salary and the opportunity cost of carrying and paying that bust when the team could have snagged a better piece. With some of these guys, it's lather, rinse, repeat.
Identifying and projecting the good GM prospects from the bad is tricky, too, with no wins, no losses on the résumé, not directly anyway. How a future NBA coach handles a particular game situation -- down two, final timeout, 12 seconds left -- can be extrapolated from how he handled it in other jobs or at other levels. How a future GM works both the board and the phones on draft night, how he (or heck, she) builds consensus or resolves disputes, how he navigates free agency within his owner's budget or demands, and how he pounces or pulls back at the trading deadline can't fully be known until he actually does it. And doing it in one place doesn't mean replicating it in a second; even Jerry West, who built multiple champions across a couple of generations with the Lakers, didn't get the same results in Memphis, trading away Kendrick Perkins, procuring Troy Bell and building a club just good enough to get swept 12-0 from three consecutive first rounds.
Everything about a GM is once removed, even twice or thrice removed, compared to coaching. NFL honcho Bill Parcells once said, if he was going to have to cook the meal, he ought to be able to shop for the groceries. But that level of power and control is rare in the NBA -- Gregg Popovich has it, Pat Riley had it, Mike Dunleavy recently got it. Candidates for these front-office jobs have basketball philosophies, but they're mere architects, dependent on the contractors (coaches) and the laborers (players) to actually enact the plans. In Hollywood terms, the coach is Spielberg or Scorsese; the GM is more like the screenwriter.
Also, they're typically hired not by basketball people but by businessmen, by owners, who then entrust or meddle to varying degrees. The criteria by which they choose the GM vary, too. A number of GMs are former players, though not nearly as many (12) as coaches (18). Some are reputed capologists, experts in understanding and finagling the NBA salary cap. Others are numbers crunchers, dedicated to the type of statistical analysis that has swept through baseball's front offices.
Golden State went with an oldie-but-goodie approach, promoting Riley and taking the expected heat that Riley would be a puppet for Nelson and president Robert Rowell. The Timberwolves reportedly were searching for acorns that dropped close to the San Antonio and Cleveland trees, with initial interest in Spurs assistant GM Dennis Lindsey and Cavs assistant GM Lance Blanks. (Forgetting, apparently, that the single greatest factors in those franchises' rise was getting lucky for the No. 1 lottery pick in the precise year when a future Hall of Famer was coming out.) More recently, the Wolves are said to have focused on Portland assistant GM Tom Penn, who works with former Spurs employee and current Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard. Meanwhile, current front-office leaders Fred Hoiberg and Jim Stack twist as internal candidates, and McHale waits to make a decision -- returning as coach? -- that might not be his to make after all.
Not that either job is a snap. One is just more, well, buffered.
"As a general manager, you've got the gun at your head once-removed," Williams said. "The coach has it pointed at both temples, the GM just one."
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