The worst GM in the NBA, bad general managers, Isiah Thomas, Rick Sund, Billy Knight, Billy King, Kevin McHale

Who's the worst GM in the NBA?

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Over lunch, I asked a friend of mine, “Who’s the worst GM in the NBA?”

His answer?

“Besides Isiah Thomas?”

Over the past few years, Thomas has certainly staked his claim as the very worst in franchise management, but I don’t think it’s fair to rush to judgment. There are some other perennially awful teams in the league, and in most cases, poor management is to blame. So who else should be in the conversation? I came up with a list of nine GMs who are leading teams that have gotten appreciably worse (or haven’t improved much) over the last few seasons:

Isiah Thomas (Knicks), Kevin McHale (Timberwolves), Billy King (Sixers), Billy Knight (Hawks), Danny Ainge (Celtics), Rick Sund (Sonics), Chris Mullin (Warriors), Bernie Bickerstaff (Hornets) and Larry Harris (Bucks).

For those of you wondering about the sad-sack Blazers, Steve Patterson resigned last week, so he’s out. As for Elgin Baylor, he did a great job of turning the Clippers into a playoff team last season. They gave the Suns all they could handle in the second round, so he has at least a year’s reprieve. (Though he made the mistake of extending Mike Dunleavy and should have traded Shaun Livingston while he had the chance. Potential only gets you so far.)

I don’t think it’s fair to judge someone if they don’t have at least three years on the job. Even if the franchise is in perfect fiscal shape when a new GM takes over – and really, how often does that happen? – it’s still very difficult to turn a team around in such a short timeframe. So, for now, we’ll cross Mullin and Bickerstaff off the list. Plus, with Michael Jordan on board, does anyone really think Bernie is calling the shots in Charlotte?

Looking at their respective rosters, I like the teams that Harris and Ainge have put together, and both would have fared better this season had they not been bit by the injury bug. Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva, Mo Williams and Bobby Simmons have all missed time for the Bucks, while the Celtics lost Paul Pierce, Tony Allen and Wally Szczerbiak for large chunks of the season. I’m not a fan of Milwaukee’s troubling, unrequited love affair with Chauncey Billups, who is probably just flirting with the Bucks so he can get more money out of Joe Dumars. They should just re-sign Mo, who is younger, cheaper and has played at an All-Star level for long stretches this season. Meanwhile, Ainge has drafted well (albeit very young for a guy who says he wants to build around Paul Pierce), but he did make a mistake by trading Randy Foye to Portland for Sebastian Telfair. I’m keeping my eye on these two guys, but for now, I don’t think their names should be in the conversation.

That leaves five: Thomas, McHale, King, Knight and Sund.

So who’s the worst?

Well, one measurement is the cost of each win:

2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 Total
Payroll Wins Payroll Wins Payroll Wins Payroll Wins $ / Win
Hawks 64.4 28 40.7 13 42.9 26 148.0 67 2.21
Sixers 60.4 33 71.9 43 84.7 38 217.0 114 1.90
Timberwolves 70.6 58 70.1 44 61.6 33 202.3 135 1.50
Knicks 89.4 39 102.4 33 126.6 23 318.4 95 3.35
Sonics 52.3 37 53.8 52 48.9 35 155.0 124 1.25
Spurs 46.1 57 47.1 59 63 63 156.2 179 0.87

I included the Spurs because they are widely regarded as the gold standard in NBA franchises. While San Antonio spent $0.87 M per win over the last three years, the Knicks, with Thomas’ out-of-control payroll ($127 million???), have spent an incredible $3.4 M per win during the same span. Zeke’s spending habits make Paris Hilton look frugal.

But GMs don’t directly control wins and losses. They can put their teams in a position to win, but there are several factors (coaching, injuries, luck etc.) that contribute to a team’s record.

Let’s take a look at the 10 biggest moves over the last few years by each GM and score them on a scale of –5 (awful) to +5 (great).

Rick Sund (Seattle Supersonics)

[trade: +5, re-sign: +3] 2/03 – Sund took advantage of the Ray Allen/Michael Redd situation in Milwaukee by stealing Ray Ray away, only giving up a washed-up point guard (Gary Payton) and a guy who still can’t shoot (Desmond Mason). However, Allen is a guy who commands max money but doesn’t provide max results, which is why the ’05 Allen re-sign gets a +3.

[+1] 7/03 – He did a fair job landing two serviceable players in the unspectacular Nick Collison (#12) and the wispy Luke Ridnour (#14), but neither guy has developed into an established starter. In that draft, Sund passed on the likes of David West, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard. He’d trade both Collison and Ridnour for any of those guys in a heartbeat.

[-14] – In the next three drafts, Sund picked three project centers: Robert Swift (#12) in ’04, Johan Petro (#25) in ’05 and Saer Sene (#10) in ’06. In drafting these guys, he passed on Al Jefferson, Josh Smith, Delonte West, Tony Allen, Kevin Martin, David Lee and Marcus Williams. Swift is injured while Petro and Sene are combining for a dreadful 7.5 points and 5.4 rebounds this season. What a brutal draft run.

[trade: +3, re-sign: +1] 2/06 – Turning short timer Vladimir Radmanovic into Chris Wilcox was a nice move, though he hasn’t developed into a 15/10 guy like the Sonics hoped. The team may eventually regret re-signing him last summer.

[+1] 2/06 – Sund acquired Earl Watson for Reggie Evans, trading toughness in the frontcourt for toughness in the backcourt. I’m convinced that Watson can anchor a bench, but he’s not yet a starter.

[-5] 2/07 – Sund’s biggest mistake was not to trade Rashard Lewis before the deadline after deciding not to sign him to an extension before the season. Now it looks like Lewis will opt out this summer, which means the Sonics may get nothing in return for their stud swingman.

Final score: -5

In fairness, Sund has had to deal with franchise’s fiscal problems and potential ownership change, though it’s clear he’s better at trading players than he is at drafting them. And that Lewis debacle is going to hurt.

Billy Knight (Atlanta Hawks)

Josh Childress

[+4] 7/03 – Knight did a nice job in the ’03 draft, landing Boris Diaw (#21), while just two of the next eight picks turned into players (Josh Howard, Leandro Barbosa).

[-2] 10/03 – Signing the troublesome Steven Jackson is always a bad move.

[+2] 2/04 – Knight’s series of trades that turned Shareef Abdur-Rahim into Josh Smith has proven to be a good one. In the process, he did help the Pistons win the title by sending Rasheed Wallace their way.

[+3] 6/04 – In the ’04 draft, Knight passed on Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala to select the big-haired Josh Childress (#6), who’s turning into a good player, but isn’t quite on their level. Josh Smith (#17), who came straight from high school, is on his way to becoming a star. Just one of the next six picks (Jameer Nelson) has turned into an established starter.

[+2] 7/04 – Knight made up for the Jackson signing by trading him a year later for Al Harrington, who isn’t a great player, but at least he has some value. Jackson? Not so much.

[-5] 8/04 – Jason Terry isn’t a pure point guard, but he’d fit in pretty well with their current lineup, so sending him along with a first round draft pick to Dallas for Antoine Walker was a mistake.

[-4] 6/05 – In the ’05 draft, Knight elected to select another forward, Marvin Williams (#2), while two point guards – Deron Williams and Chris Paul – were taken with the next two picks. Marvin could turn into a great player, but the Hawks are still trying to find a point guard, and would be so much further along if Paul were running the show.

[-2] 8/05 – In Diaw, Knight paid a big price for Joe Johnson, and they still need to send two draft picks to Phoenix. JJ is a great player, but only time will tell if the Hawks got the better end of this deal. Right now, it’s not looking too good.

[-5] 7/06 – Knight’s decision to draft Shelden Williams (#5) was a mystery to many. He wanted frontcourt toughness, but Brandon Roy or Randy Foye would have filled a bigger need at point guard.

[+1] 8/06 – Scoring a late first round pick for Harrington is a bonus after it looked like they weren’t going to get anything for him.

Final score: -6

Given the fact that Knight has been handcuffed in free agency by the ownership problems in Atlanta, he hasn’t done all that bad of a job. Had he taken Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams, the Hawks would probably be fighting for a playoff spot in the mediocre East.

Billy King (Philadelphia 76ers)

Andre Iguodala

[+1] 7/03 – The ’03 draft has to be considered a success. King acquired a serviceable player (Korver) with just a 2nd round pick to work with.

[Big Dog: -2, C-Webb: -5] 7/03, 2/05 – King struggled trying to find a second star to play with Iverson. Both Glenn Robinson and Chris Webber were busts.

[+4] 9/03 – Re-signed Allen Iverson. What can you say? He had to keep The Answer in town.

[+5] 7/04 – Andre Iguodala (#9) has really blossomed since Iverson left the team, and it’s tough to argue that King could have done any better in the ’04 draft.

[-3] 8/05 – He signed Dalembert to a huge contract, but the big fella hasn’t really developed much in the last two seasons, and there are rumors that the team wants to move him.

[+1] 7/06 – King drafted Thabo Sefolosha (#13) and traded him for Rodney Carney. It’s tough to say, but at this point, Carney still looks like a good prospect.

[-4] 7/06 – Mysteriously, King allowed John Salmons to enter free agency and didn’t get anything in return. With Iverson on the way out, Salmons could have been a valuable piece to the get-back-to-respectability puzzle.

[-1] 10/06 – King could have done better than Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first round picks for AI. The picks are nice, but Miller is a little old to be the point guard for a team in the early stages of a rebuilding effort.

[-4] 1/07 – Waiving Chris Webber guaranteed that the Sixers wouldn’t get anything in return for him. His huge salary made it almost impossible to move him, but had they held on, his expiring salary might have led to a productive trade this summer.

Final score: -7

King is justifiably considered one of the worst GMs in the league. His draft picks have worked out pretty well (Iguodala is becoming a star), but the Big Dog and C-Webb signings were nothing short of catastrophic.

Kevin McHale (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Kevin Garnett

[+4] 6/03 – Trading Joe Smith for Sam Cassell (four years ago!) was McHale’s last good trade or free agent signing.

[-5] 7/03 – His ‘03 draft was a disaster. Ndudi Ebi (#26) is out of the league while Barbosa and Howard went in the next three picks.

[-4] 7/03 – The Michael Olowokandi signing was a very bad move. The team had to take on Mark Blount’s bloated contract just to get rid of the guy.

[0] 7/03 – He acquired Latrell Sprewell for Terrell Brandon and Marc Jackson. Hey, at least Spree didn’t try to kill anyone in Minnesota.

[+5] 10/03 – Re-signed Kevin Garnett. This is both a blessing (his talent) and a curse (his salary).

[-4] 7/05 – Rashad McCants (#14) has been somewhat serviceable, but he can’t stay healthy. Considering that Danny Granger, Gerald Green and Hakim Warrick were all there for the taking, the ’05 draft has to be considered a failure.

[-5] 8/05 – The decision to ship Cassell and a first round pick to the Clippers for Marko Jaric – only to completely give up on the guard a few months later – is a serious head-scratcher.

[-3] 1/06 – McHale acquired Ricky Davis, Marcus Banks and Mark Blount for Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi. Sorry, I can’t get past the “acquired Ricky Davis” part. Isn’t that the guy that tried to shoot at the opponent’s basket so he could get his 10th rebound for a triple-double? And you’re trading for this guy?

[+3] 7/06 – In Brandon Roy (#6), McHale probably traded the better player away, but still ended up with a pretty good guard in Randy Foye. Second round pick Craig Smith (#36) has been decent in limited minutes.

[-2] 7/06 – Don’t feel bad, Kevin. For what it’s worth, I thought the Mike James signing would work out better.

Final score: -11

McHale has given Sund a serious run when it comes to poor drafting. Of course, the Joe Smith debacle has had something to do with it. The team had to forfeit multiple first round picks over the last several years as punishment for a secret deal they made with Smith.

Despite his second-worst finish here, in many ways McHale’s performance has been the most disappointing because he’s completely squandered a superstar’s prime. (Please demand a trade, KG!)

Isiah Thomas

Stephon Marbury

[-5] 1/04 – He acquired Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway for Howard Eisley, Charlie Ward, Antonio McDyess and two first round picks. When looking at Isiah’s trades and signings, it’s important to consider the financial implications of each move. He usually gets the better end talent-wise, but always seems to take on huge contracts without considering the consequences. Marbury is gifted, but he’s not a team guy and his selfish play has hampered the Knicks’ chances. Two first round picks was too high of a price to pay, especially considering the eye-popping $42 M he’s due to make over the next two seasons.

[+3] 7/04 – Landing the talented Trevor Ariza in the 2nd round (#43) of the ’04 draft has to be considered a success. Too bad he traded him away less than two years later.

[+3] 8/04 – Jamal Crawford is still struggling with his shot selection, but the trade Thomas made for him in ’04 – Frank Williams, Othella Harrington and Dikembe Mutomobo – looks pretty good right now.

[-1] 6/05 – He acquired Quentin Richardson and Nate Robinson for Kurt Thomas and Dijon Thompson. Richardson has been pretty productive at times, but his expensive contract runs through 2009-10 and he’s had trouble staying healthy.

[+4] 7/05 – In the ’05 draft, Thomas made a solid pick (Channing Frye, #8) and a terrific pick (David Lee, #30). Neither guy is a superstar, but both players should be solid contributors for years to come.

[-2] 10/05 – The Eddy Curry trade (two first round picks) looked awful when it happened. But he’s playing pretty well this season, although he’s a below average center in all the important stats except for points and rebounds. How this trade works out depends on Tyrus Thomas’ development in Chicago and how the Knicks finish the season. If they tank, Chicago is going to get a really good pick this summer.

[-5] 2/06 – He acquired Jalen Rose and a first round pick for Antonio Davis, which was just what the Knicks needed – another me-first player.

[-5] 2/06 – Thomas now claims that former coach Larry Brown talked him into acquiring Steve Francis for Penny Hardaway and Trevor Ariza. Even if he did, it was ultimately Thomas’ call and it was a bad one.

[-2] 7/06 – Thomas passed on four pretty good point guard prospects – Rajon Rondo, Marcus Williams, Kyle Lowry and Jordan Farmar – to select Renaldo Balkman (#20) in ’06. Note to Zeke: you may want to plan for life after Starbury.

[-3] 10/06 – Thomas’ decision to waive Rose eliminated the possibility of trading his expiring contract for a young prospect or a draft pick.

Final score: -13

As it turns out, not only is Isiah Thomas poor at salary cap management, he’s also the worst decision maker in the league. Having won two NBA titles in his days in Detroit, you’d think he’d understand the concept of chemistry. You didn’t see the Bad Boys trying to play three ball hogs in the same backcourt.

Last summer, Knicks’ owner James Dolan said that this was Thomas’ ship and that he had a year to turn it around. Thanks mostly to the terrific play of David Lee, the Knicks have fared better than expected, but at 28-33, they’re still not in the playoffs.

Not bad for a team with a payroll of $139 M, almost $47 M more than the team with the next highest payroll. Oh yeah, and that team – the Mavs – is 50-9.

So who’s the worst GM in the league?

Maybe you should stick to coaching, Zeke.

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