NBA Icons as GMs and Magic Johnson

For Lakers fans, there seems to be a palpable sense of excitement connected to the hiring of Magic Johnson as team president.  Having a franchise icon help run the show certainly sounds good on paper.  Many are quick to point out that being a great player does not mean one will be a good coach and being coach does not mean one will be a great GM (see Jackson, Phil).

How effective will the new Lakers front office of Magic and Rob Pelinka end up being?  Certainly, Magic’s banal tweets aren’t great indicators that he will be a sharp GM.  On the other hand, dumb tweets are certainly not the exclusive domain of Magic these days.  Also, Magic isn’t exactly replacing the best regime anyway.  Mitch Kupchak’s two big signings last summer, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov have been bad on all levels.  And they haven’t just been bad, they are overpaid, older players on a team trying to rebuild.  It’s not exactly unfair for Jeannie Buss to want to change direction and give someone else a shot at running the team.

Putting aside all the hoopla for Magic and cynicism against him, how well have franchise icons done when they are handed the GM role?  let’s take a look at the record of other iconic players in management roles to see if this is something that really can work.  As a sample, we will review the icons as defined by any players in the NBA’s old top 50 list from back in 1996-97.  Here’s an overview of the ten such players who ended up in management:

-Elgin Baylor:  Baylor is not the typical GM.  He suffered for 22 years (1986-2008) with Donald Sterling, so it’s not really fair to assess what he could and couldn’t do.  Back in 2004, we did a GM report of Baylor and found that the Clipps drafted decently well in mid-first round, missed really big on some the higher picks (Michael Olowokandi was an all-time whiff), and helped initiate the great trade for Elton Brand.  You can’t really assess Baylor’s trade/free agent record because Sterling’s tightwad ways prevented most moves during that time.  Still, Baylor’s record here is not great, even if you accept that Baylor was in a tough spot.

-Larry Bird:  Bird hasn’t been the perfect GM in Indiana but he has built two solid teams (the Jermaine O’Neal team and the Paul George team) and he has absolutely nailed a few mid-round picks (Paul George).  His record is still very much ongoing but he has to be considered pretty successful.

-Dave DeBusschere:  DeBusschere was famously a player-coach in his mid-20s, so going to GM wasn’t exactly a stretch.  We’ll ignore his brief ABA stint (for the 1974-75 Nets) and focus on his tenure with the Knicks (1982-1986).  As a Knick GM, he presided over a Knick team trying to find its footing after the title runs of the 1970s.  DeBusschere biggest move came early when he traded Micheal Ray Richardson for Bernard King, a trade that would give the Knicks two very nice years.  The drafting was less spectacular.  He took solid Trent Tucker sixth overall in 1982 but passed on some nice players.  In 1983, he took Darrell Walker, a decent player, two slots over Clyde Drexler.  He traded away the 1984 draft pick for vet Ray Williams (the pick ended up being Vern Fleming).   This type of short term move was defensible and helped the Knicks make a decent playoff run in 1983-84.  Alas, the Knicks were eviscerated by injuries in 1984-85.  Key players Bill Cartwright (broken foot), Truck Robinson (broken ankle), and Marvin Webster (abruptly retired) all missed nearly the whole season.

DeBuscchere filled these roster holes with CBA-type players and the team stunk in 1984-85.  DeBusscherethe  presided over the first NBA Draft Lottery in 1985, where the Knicks nabbed Patrick Ewing.  It wasn’t enough.  DeBusschere lasted a few more months but was fired in early January 1986.  At the press conference announcing his firing, DeBusschere complained that ownership Gulf & Western had prevented him from making the moves he wanted to make: “I was not the person responsible for signing Bill Cartwright to a six-year contract. I was not the person responsible for Patrick Ewing’s contract. I was not the person responsible for the delay in signing Albert King. And I was not the person responsible for the delay in signing Louis Orr. I participated in all of those decisions, but I tell you today that if I could have operated under a normal structure, different results would have occurred.”  DeBusschere’s tenure was not totally unsuccessful (the King trade was huge) but most of his moves were not particularly inspiring.

-Michael Jordan:  Yeesh….where to start about MJ’s three-year run with the Bullets from 2000 to 2003.  Jordan really wanted to play again and being the GM of the Wiz gave him that excuse, when he grew frustrated watching the Wiz stink in 2000-01.  A lot has been written about whether Jordan’s comeback was sad but he was still a pretty good player.  What was actually sad was MJ’s drafting.  He took Kwame Brown first overall and missed so mightily it set back the entire program.  Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol were available and much better players.  But the draft miss wasn’t the worst move.  Brand (a sure thing on the Bulls) was available to be traded for the pick and MJ could’ve and should’ve traded the pick to lock in Brand (instead, Baylor pounced and got Brand for the rights to Chandler).  This is particularly true since MJ knew he was coming back and pairing a raw Brown with Jordan made no sense.  Had Jordan acquired Brand, the Wiz would’ve been a playoff team. Instead, the Wiz had an aging Jordan and some bit players.

Aside from signing himself, Jordan made only two other major personnel moves.  First, he signed Larry Hughes, who ended up having a few very good seasons (after MJ retired again).  Jordan also traded Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse.  In the short term, the players were comparable in skill but Rip was much younger and complemented MJ a little better.  Jordan wasn’t a disaster but his tenure was certainly below average.

-Kevin McHale:  No GM is all good or all bad.  McHale is proof that the needle can vacillate wildly, as it did during his time with the Timberwolves (1995-2008).  First the good: McHale drafted Kevin Garnett, acquired Tom Gugliotta, and turned an angry Stephon Marbury into Terrell Brandon.  He also signed Chauncey Billups at the absolute bottom of his value and turned him back into a great player.  When McHale couldn’t re-sign Billups, he stole Sam Cassell from the Bucks.

Alas, after years of being considered very smart, McHale became the dunce quickly.  He overpaid for the likes of Michael Olowokandi and Mike Madsen and traded Cassell (and a first-round pick!) for Marko Jaric.  Despite having KG at his absolute peak, the Wolves couldn’t make the playoffs because McHale lost his ability to find good supporting pieces (including a draft day trade of Brandon Roy for Randy Foye).  McHale did leave on a high note, drafting Kevin Love before finally stepping down.  It’s fair to say McHale was two GMs: a great one from 1995 to 2004 and a really bad one from 2004 to 2008.

-Willis Reed:  Reed was the GM of the Nets from 1990 to 1996.  It was a little surprising he got the gig considering he had just presided over a few bad years coaching the Nets in the late 1980s.  Reed’s first decision was to decide what player the Nets should take number one overall in 1990.  He took Derrick Coleman, who was the consensus top pick.  DC had good and bad moments in New Jersey but was an All-Star talent and this pick can’t realistically be criticized.  Reed’s highlight trade was grabbing Drazen Petrovic (and Terry Mills) from the Blazers for a pick (which would become Bryant Stith).  Petro was an immediate star and the Nets had a solid core to build a team with.  Reed also had some nice under-the-radar moves (drafting P.J. Brown, trading for Jayson Williams, and signing Chris Childs and David Wesley).  But Reed also had some very bad moments: he traded Mookie Blaylock for Rumeal Robinson (Robinson did have one nice little spurt with NJ but this was a terrible value play).  Draft-wise, Reed’s two huge misses came in 1994 and 1995, when the Nets had a chance to be decent with a little more talent.  Faced with this opportunity, Reed drafted Yinka Dare (when many ambulatory NBA players were available) and Ed O’Bannon ahead of a long list of solid NBA pros.  The Nets crumbled and Reed had to deal Coleman and Kenny Anderson for parts to rebuild.

The interesting debate will always be if Reed made a mistake in the 1991 Draft.  The Nets were sitting on the second overall pick and had a choice between Anderson, Dikembe Mutombo, and Billy Owens.  Obviously, Owens would’ve been a terrible decision and Reed didn’t seem to consider him.  Reed took Anderson over Mutombo.  Deke was a defensive stud and lasted much longer in the NBA than Anderson.  The argument for Mutombo centered around the fact that the Nets already had Blaylock and could’ve just slotted in a killer defensive lineup with Mookie and Deke (just like the Hawks later did).  Still, it’s hard to kill Reed for taking Anderson instead.  Anderson was only 21 and Mutombo was already 25 coming out of college.  The younger Anderson had, seemingly, limitless potential to be a proto-Chris Paul.  In the end, Anderson was good but never really was a better player than Blaylock.  The fundamental logic behind Reed’s pick, however, was perfectly sound even if it Anderson didn’t hit the heights all had hoped.

Ultimately, the Nets fell apart because of Petro’s untimely death, Reed’s inability to find enough role players (particularly at shooting guard/small forward), and the fact that DC and Kenny weren’t quite as good as hoped.  Reed’s six years as GM were perfectly respectable but not great.

-Bill Sharman/Jerry West:  Sharman and West made up the Laker front office from 1976 to 2000.  Sharman remained in the front office after West was the official GM in 1982, so we can lump them together.  We don’t have to really delve into his record like some of the forgotten GMs. Suffice it to say that the argument can be made that West was the best GM ever.  Sharman was no slouch either.  Here are Sharman’s highlights: he signed Jamaal Wilkes, drafted Michael Cooper 60th overall, drafted Magic, and traded Don Ford for a pick that became James Worthy.

-Isiah Thomas:  The anti-Jerry West.  As with West, there is no need to belabor Isiah’s record albeit for different reasons.  If you really want to revisit signings like Eddy Curry and Jerome James, you can read our report on Isiah from back in 2008.   The quick version: Isiah left two franchises in ruin but we would be remiss if we didn’t at least acknowledge he was a pretty solid drafter.

-Wes Unseld:  It’s easy to associate Unseld with Reed.  Rival big men from the 1970s, who started off as not so great coaches but then, despite lack of success as coaches, they were made GMs anyway.  Reed wasn’t bad in the GM role.  Unseld’s GM record is not good.  Before we hit Unseld too hard, it is important to provide some context for his GM hiring.   The Bullets had been pretty bad since Unseld retired in the early 1980s.  Unseld was named coach in 1987 and never won more than 40 games in a season, and had only 202 wins in seven seasons as a coach.  Unseld was gently swept to the front office (he was, after all, a Washington legend) and the Bullets started over in 1994-95.  The rebuild had a nice start on paper.  The Bullets drafted Juwan Howard in 1994, traded for Chris Webber, and drafted Rasheed Wallace in 1995.

The team did not gel well and Webber suffered major injuries in both 1994-95 and 1995-96 and the team missed the playoffs both times.  Unseld was installed as GM after the 1995-96 season and aimed to get this young team to the playoffs.  He traded Wallace (who was a behavior problem as a rookie) for vet Rod Strickland (who was also a pain for Portland).  Strick was pretty good for a few years for the Wiz and the team did eke into the playoffs in 1996-97, before they were knocked around by MJ’s Bulls.  Trading Wallace for Strickland wasn’t a great idea (Strick was probably available for much less and Wallace ended up being a young star) but the move was defensible to get the Bullets to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

This is where Unseld went off the rails.    Washington narrowly missed the playoffs in 1997-98 and Webber and Howard were perceived to be the problem because of off-court distractions while the team floundered.  During the stretch run for the playoffs, Webber and Howard were accused of sexual assault late in the season and blamed for the resulting tumult.  The accuser was ultimately found to have been untruthful (Howard won a defamation case against her as well) but Webber also was hit with marijuana possession and traffic offenses a few month earlier.

Because of the team’s failure to make the playoffs and his off court issues (not all of which were his fault) Webber was persona non grata to Bullets management by the end of the season.  Even accepting that C-Webb should be let go, trading a 24-year old star only makes sense if the return is sufficient.  The C-Webb return was really bad: a 33-year old Mitch Richmond (and Otis Thorpe).  Richmond was a star player but there was no way he would be able to help a team that wasn’t really playoff caliber without Webber.  Indeed, Richmond immediately declined to average-ish shooting guard on a terrible Washington team.  The Wiz bottomed out in 2000 and Unsled was let go and MJ was brought in to run the show.

One interesting quirk of Unseld’s tenure as GM is that in four seasons he had only one first round pick (they were dealt to Golden State in the trade to get Webber to town).  Unseld’s only first rounder was Rip Hamilton, seventh overall.  Not a bad pick but it’s hard to miss when the next three picks were Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, and Jason Terry.  Overall, Unseld had a troubling habit of discarding young assets for established players who did not really fit the team’s needs.

So, where has the review of franchise icons, turned GMs taken us?  Let’s group them by accomplishment:

Smashing Success

-Bill Sharman/Jerry West combo:  Hard to do any better than these two.  Jerry Buss deserved some credit for maintaining stable ownership as well.  If Jeannie Buss follows in his footsteps, perhaps Magic can channel this model.

Very Good GM

-Larry Bird:  Bird has shown a nice touch for finding talent for two separate building cycles so far.

Journeyman GM

-Willis Reed:  He had a chance to make a very nice team but bad luck and a few bad moves show how slim the margin of error can be between success and failure.

-Dave DeBusschere:  On the other end, DeBusschere didn’t do much well but just getting Bernard King carried him for a while.

-Michael Jordan:  His only major move (Kwame Brown) was really bad.  Some decent minor free agent signings.


-Isiah Thomas: Let’s not pile on too much but it is fair to say he left ashes and ruin everywhere he went as a GM.

-Wes Unseld:  In contrast to DeBusschere, his one big move was a total failure.  His small moves weren’t great either.

Hybrid Great/Terrible

-Kevin McHale:  A very complicated picture to assess.  Ultimately, he has to be called a success but he plummeted like a rock after a really nice decade.

Too Much Going On

-Elgin Baylor:  Working for Donald Sterling makes it hard to give him a definitive grade.  There were some really bad moments and a few good ones.

Leave a Reply