The Underrated Executives

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Last week, Basketball Insiders ranked who was the best of the best of each position in the NBA, including executives. This week, Basketball Insiders is taking a look at who are among the most underrated executives in the NBA.

What makes an executive underrated? It’s actually a pretty loaded question. Their work may have led to a much better team than we all anticipated. Maybe their team isn’t that good, but they’ve made some brilliant moves to make the most of a bad situation. Maybe they have a more promising future than people give them credit for.

Take the Chicago Bulls front office, for example. Gar Forman has brought in some nice young talent, they have productive vets and showed some progress last year. If the Bulls were any good this season, he’d be on this list. Lo and behold, they stink, and he’s no longer running things. Even worse, one of the primary factors as to why they stink is keeping Jim Boylen as their head coach when many are pointing to him being the driving factor. They’re making the efforts to get past their turmoil, but until they get past it, they won’t make an appearance.

To answer who the most underrated executives in the game are, we’re going to approach this as if you asked this executive why they were labeled underrated, this would be their answer. Also, this based on their performance this season, not on their reputation.

“You didn’t think we’d be this good. Nobody did, really.”

Zach Kleiman, Memphis Grizzlies

Full disclosure: Kleiman was the toughest omission from the top executives list from last week. He’s done a perfect job rebuilding the Grizzlies because, in just a year’s time, it looks like the future is already here for them. The reason he was off the list was that, even though they’ve tremendously defied all odds from pretty much the very start, they’re a merely average team and not much else. The other executives on the list run teams that are all firmly at least one level ahead of Memphis.

Because Memphis has been leaps and bounds better than we all thought they would be, albeit still a fringe playoff team at the end, Kleiman gets the nod as the most underrated executive in the league.

He’s drafted both his franchise big and his franchise point guard. He’s surrounded them with complementary personnel. He even managed to acquire more young talent for pennies on the dollar. Can someone explain how he came away with Justise Winslow after the Andre Iguodala saga? Or how Josh Jackson was just a throw-in when Memphis originally acquired him? Following the anticlimactic end of Grit-and-Grind, so much is going right so soon for the Grizzlies, with a lot of it having to do with Kleiman’s work.

It could be a very different story this time next year. For all we know, the Grizzlies could be right back on top of the West. Should they find themselves there, Kleiman would absolutely deserve a spot among the best executives in the game. Last year, this writer talked about how hard it is to rebuild a winner after blowing up a glorious era for small markets like Memphis. Kleiman has done everything to prove that notion wrong.

“I did everything I should have done. It just hasn’t paid off yet.”

David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans

If Zion Williamson had been playing the whole season, Griffin wouldn’t show up here. Because New Orleans has been frost-bitten by the injury bug for what feels like the millionth time, their *technically* below-average record has made the work that Griffin’s done fall under the radar.

When you have a potential all-timer just starting out his career as a pro, it’s imperative that you build around him the right way. No one knows this better than New Orleans. That’s because they’ve seen firsthand what happens when you don’t do that. With Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, the Hornets/Pelicans built some good teams around those guys, but not on a consistent basis. When they got the first overall pick last year, they knew they had to avoid the same fate with Zion at any cost.

Griffin has done a phenomenal job with that. He’s acquired Zion’s All-Star running mate and certified No. 2 in Brandon Ingram, a young talent who’s seemingly quite complementary with Zion in Lonzo Ball, as well as stingy veterans — JJ Redick and Derrick Favors — and they all were brought on to a team that already had Jrue Holiday, among others.

Things started picking up when Zion made its entrance. That should give you a good idea of how good this team could have been if it had a clean slate of health the whole season. It should also tell you how scary they should be for years to come. As long as they don’t see a repeat of this past year’s string of bad injury luck, New Orleans should be well in the thick of the playoff picture. If their progress continues to trend upward, Zion will more-likely-than-not stick around. Griffin deserves a fair amount of the credit if and when that happens.

“We made the most of a really bad situation. Even if it won’t lead to much.”

Neil Olshey, Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers’ struggles this year should fit under the “surprised, but not surprised” file. They are coming off of an impressive Western Conference Finals trip, but they lost their starting center and their best perimeter defenders this offseason. To add insult to injury literally, they then lost one of their rotation players on top of all that midseason. Guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Rodney Hood are not easily replaceable. That didn’t stop Olshey from trying.

He didn’t take any of the Trail Blazers’ losses personnel-wise lying down. When Portland needed a starting center, Olshey brought in Hassan Whiteside. When Portland needed another scorer, Olshey brought in Carmelo Anthony. When Portland needed perimeter defense, Olshey brought in Trevor Ariza. None of those guys have been the missing piece that magically turned Portland’s fortunes around, but Portland would be in much worse shape if Olshey hadn’t acquired them.

An executive earns the label of good by doing everything he can to help further his team. That includes making the necessary adjustments during a down year. Olshey did just that. It didn’t get the results that everyone in Portland wanted, but he made the conscious effort to do everything in his power to make the Trail Blazers a winning team.

It’s a shame that in the end, Damian Lillard’s best season is more-likely-than-not going to waste. No one should be blamed for what’s happened to Portland this season, but if there is, none of it should be placed on Olshey.

Tommy Sheppard, Washington Wizards

It’s been brought up before that Sheppard will probably be on the hot seat since the Wizards are out of the playoff picture, for one, and Bradley Beal is losing his patience in addition. That is the nature of the business. When the team is in a funk that they can’t get out of, everyone looks to the executive to resolve their issues.

Sheppard didn’t create this mess, but you can definitely tell he’s doing everything to clean it up. For what it’s worth — and sadly, it’s not really worth much at all — Sheppard has been doing a pretty darn good job. He stole Davis Bertans from San Antonio. He stole Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga from Los Angeles. He signed Thomas Bryant and Ish Smith to bargain deals. He drafted the very exciting Rui Hachimura. And you know what else? Bringing in Isaiah Thomas was a fun, albeit ineffective, experiment!

All of this has culminated in another porous season that still leaves more questions than answers. How is Washington going to get better? What are they going to do about John Wall? How will they appease Bradley Beal?

Sheppard’s got much bigger fish to fry both this summer, but he’s shown thus far that he’s a competent executive capable of making a good move when it’s available to him. He’s got his work cut out for him, but he’s done enough to encourage Washington to keep him around.

“We’re not good right now, but our youth movement is more promising than people think.”

Mitch Kupchak, Charlotte Hornets

Make no mistake. The Hornets are as unremarkable as they’ve ever been. They’re 23-42. They have the fourth-lowest net rating in the league — minus-7.0 — and their cap flexibility is still limited by the money they owe to the role players they overpaid. It’s not like things were great before, but they were certainly better then than now.

Even if this season is going to be the worst Charlotte’s been through since the Lance Stephenson experiment, there is a glass-half-full side of things. This is the most athletic team we’ve seen in Charlotte in quite some time. P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges have given Charlotte a little extra bounce that they haven’t seen in years. Dubbing either as stars would be jumping the gun, but man are they a fun watch.

We’ve also seen a fair amount of progress among Charlotte’s younger players. Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, and Malik Monk have all played remarkably better this season compared to last. Terry Rozier hasn’t lit the world on fire, but he has given the Hornets his all with the role that they’ve given him. And who knows what the Martin twins could do in the long-term?

Kupchak has assembled a team with the label “not good, but fun.” The Hornets have a long way to go because the holes they had even before Kemba Walker left still need to be filled. The state of the team is definitely not good, but it’s not as hopeless as it may look on paper. With another lottery pick, and Nic Batum approaching a contract year, Charlotte may take a much bigger step next season. Don’t expect a lot from them, but because of Kupchak, you shouldn’t sleep on these guys either.

“Players influenced why we’re great, but that doesn’t mean we had nothing to do with it!”

Rob Pelinka, Los Angeles Lakers
Pat Riley, Miami HEAT

Last week, this writer talked about how certain executives couldn’t be ranked as the best at their positions if their team’s newfound success came primarily from their newly acquired stars who were swayed to go there by their teammates’ influence. Luckily, what can make an executive qualify for the underrated label is if he is responsible for other players that he brought in playing their part in their team’s success. Hence, both Pelinka and Riley deserve to be named here.

It’s definitely weird to link Pat Riley with underrated because just about everyone who pays attention to the NBA knows who he is and what he’s done. He may not have been the one who convinced Jimmy Butler to sign with Miami, but he put in the framework to get a deal done to both get Butler onboard and expand Bam Adebayo’s role by trading the mercurial Hassan Whiteside. Work like that shows an executive that knows exactly how to get things done.

The same credit can be applied to Pelinka. He may not have been the one to convince Anthony Davis to come to LA, but he made the necessary deals to get The Brow there. The Lakers had to finesse their salary cap situation to make room for Davis this past summer, and that’s exactly what Pelinka did. He put in the necessary work to make the dream duo become a reality.

Those aren’t the only reasons why the work from these two are underrated.

Riley has brought in a very exciting youth movement with Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, among others, to round out the edges. Butler might be the reason why the HEAT are a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, but without the aforementioned players, how much better would his team be than the last ones he had in Chicago? Again, the credit goes to Riley there.

Pelinka has done basically the same just with castoff veterans. Dwight Howard has finally embraced his role as a second-string center (took him long enough!) and Avery Bradley has been having his most effective season since his days in Boston. We haven’t seen too much to say anything definitive yet, but the returns on Markieff Morris and Dion Waiters are promising. Pelinka’s work put a good roster around LeBron and Davis.

These two might wind up second-guessing some of the moves they made. Riley traded the young Justise Winslow for the older Andre Iguodala. Pelinka traded a lot of assets for Davis whose long-term status with the Lakers is up in the air. Still, they played their part in creating winners. They shouldn’t be written off.

As you can see, much like players and coaches, there are so many different ways in which an executive’s work can be underrated. It doesn’t honestly take much to earn that label. It also doesn’t take much to lose that label, too. Take Jerry Krause.

Krause’s work with the Bulls during the Michael Jordan era is, in fact, underrated because when we discuss Chicago’s reign in the 1990s, many love to praise Jordan for being the greatest player of all time, Scottie Pippen for being the perfect sidekick or Phil Jackson for running an excellent system during their heyday. Not many stop to think that it was Krause who got the whole gang together. Usually, he’s the last one to get the recognition. In fact, it seems as though Krause is better known for his issues with everyone on that team than his work in getting them there.

If you’ve been watching The Last Dance, you’d know how much that bothered Krause. It bothered him so much so that he elected to blow up the team piece-by-piece rather than keep it together for another run. By doing that, he arguably may have screwed Chicago out of another run, and after getting rid of everyone on that team, they never came anywhere close to what they were ever again under Krause.

This is all brought up not to take a swing at the former Bulls executive — RIP Mr. Krause — but to show that an executive’s effort can go underappreciated to much-disparaged in an instant.

The work that these executives have done this season deserves more appreciation, but their work can be undone. If it is, it may not matter how much good they’ve done. They could still wind up being as collectively hated, arguably undeservedly, as one Jerry Krause.

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