It’s no secret that not all NBA teams are created equally. Talent isn’t doled out to meet a quota on the court or off of it, and for every draft that contains a Hall of Famer there are others that can’t even claim an All Star. The same is true for front offices, and when ESPN decided to run its second annual survey of its Front Office Rankings, the spots at the bottom and the spots at the top seemed remarkably similar to the year prior.
At the top, unsurprisingly, were the San Antonio Spurs — nearly two decades of Tim Duncan will have a tendency to do that to your reputation — and at the bottom? The Knicks. Nearly two decades of Jim Dolan will do that to your reputation, too. The differences are almost too obvious to be listed, but the level of detail is important to note: Donald Sterling was an awful owner who maintained a front office that was fairly uninterested in putting a competitive basketball team on the floor, but Doc Rivers the GM has largely been a problem for Doc Rivers the head coach, so the entire package must be considered together. This time last year, the Knicks were thrashing through a losing season while dealing with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Now they have Phil Jackson, but nothing seems to be changing for the denizens of Madison Square Garden.
To some degree this is a little unfair. The Knicks have not-so-secretly maintained that this season was always going to be a bridge year to the summer of 2015, when they’ll have a ton of money (and the prestige of playing in NYC) to throw at free agents. The other teams at the bottom of the list are, mostly, not so lucky. Who else rounds out the bottom of the barrel, and why are they there? Let’s explore.
The Nets represent the biggest drop off in ESPN’s rankings, plunging 14 spots to the second-to-last place on the totem poll. Are they as gloriously incompetent as the Knicks? No — consider, the Nets were able to bring together a title contender just two years ago, and rolled out a starting five that, on paper, looked like one of the favorites heading out of the East. That was when they could’ve started Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez.
Of course, there’s a reason the games aren’t played in the hypothetical, and Brooklyn’s Championships Now experiment, which included trading away more or less every single draft pick they could (a look at the ever-handy RealGM future draft picks reference page reinforces that), lists toward the high risk half of the high-risk high-reward equation, add in an owner who is lukewarm enough to consider selling the team alongside longtime NBA GM Billy King, and you’ve got a pretty uninspiring situation.
Above the Nets and the Knicks are the Los Angeles Lakers. This is unsurprising, mostly because the Lakers have taken to being rudderless almost as well as they take to being championship contenders. That seems to be the recurring theme for the bottom five (filled out by the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets): a lack of direction coupled with an expectation of futility.
For the Nuggets, the bottom dropped out when they lost two of the pillars of their organization: Masai Ujiri, the general manager, who decamped to Toronto in 2013 after winning the NBA’s executive of the year award, and George Karl, who was fired after winning Coach of the Year. It’s worth pointing out that the Nuggets are terrible this year and the Raptors are looking at their second season atop the Atlantic Division. This is not coincidence. The Nuggets ownership fired their exec and their coach, kept the roster intact, and learned exactly what a competent head coach and front office actually do for a franchise.
The Timberwolves, meanwhile, just keep striking out with power forwards named Kevin. The franchise, an expansion team that came into the league in 1989, have continually mismanaged the basketball talents that have come their way. For a while, former General Manager David Kahn operated as shorthand for managerial ineptitude, and was fodder for pieces with titles like “This is why David Kahn should never be an NBA GM again.” This is a guy who got fired from a job that tolerates all sorts of failure (only one team can win a championship each year, injuries happen, free agency swindles, and so on), and Minnesota is still languishing in his shadow.