What Does it Take to be an NBA GM?
Bob Myers. Danny Ainge. Sam Presti. Daryl Morey. Pat Riley. The GM slot might have as much star power as any on-court position in basketball today, but what makes a good NBA GM? What does it even take to be a GM in the first place?
Pictured above is NBA GM legend, Red Auerbach, who was famous for orchestrating the Celtics era that saw 15 of their 17 banners hung up in TD Garden. He, similarly to other legendary basketball executives such as Jerry West and Joe Dumars, was renowned for his trifecta of talent identification, acquisition, and retention. All three were able to hang both championship banners and players' jerseys alike. Players such as Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Rip Hamilton, Shaquille O'Neal. These guys brought the biggest names to some of the most storied NBA franchises, and were able to become big names in the process.
The fact is, no team is good without talent, which stems from starters to benchwarmers to coaching staff to the front office. The GM puts all these pieces of the championship-hopeful puzzles together, and also is responsible for jamming certain pieces together or throwing others away that don't fit. The GM is the orchestrator, the architect, and, in many cases, fans' favorite scapegoat (we're looking at you, Thunder fans).
Before these men managed the helms of their teams, they had to work their way up and outwork hundreds of individuals at every level to get where they are. One might even argue that it's more difficult to become an NBA general manager than an NBA player, considering there's only 30 GM spots in the big leagues, while there's 450 roster spots for players. So, how does one become a GM and who are today's GMs comprised of?
Surprise, surprise- it takes a lot of working through the ranks and a history around the sport of basketball. Of the current 30 NBA General Managers, 22 played in college or overseas, with 6 having played in the NBA. I know what you're probably thinking because I thought it once too- I even said it to Hall of Fame Basketball Executive Donald "Dee" Rowe- "NBA GMs are really just a boys' club, huh?" To which he scoffed at me and told me "if being in a boys' club means knowing and giving a damn about what they're doing, then sure."
Simple and blunt as it may have been, Dee's quip could not have been more spot on. So many former players end up running franchises because they know what they're talking about- because they get it- not because the league wants to send a big "F you" to all the prospective outsider candidates. Take James Jones for example- say what you will about his game, but that man knows how to win? Don't believe me? Just ask his three bright and shiny NBA Championship rings. On top of that, he's a graduate from *The* University of Miami with a Bachelor's Degree in Finance, and he's worked with some of the greatest basketball minds, including LeBron James, Bryan Colangelo, Larry Bird, Mike D'Antoni, and Pat Riley.
Another under-the-radar, "nobody" GM is Minnesota's Scott Layden (please don't persecute me, Timberwolves fans), who recently united long-time best friends D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns as part of an active trade deadline that will hopefully resurrect the franchise. A much less controversial move that might be considered his claim to fame, however, came when he was a scout in the 80's: he found this up-and-coming, unknown point guard from the West Coast Athletic Conference who averaged 20.9 PPG and 7.2 APG. He went to become a franchise cornerstone for years to come- 19, in fact. His name was John Stockton.
Then you look at Andy Elisburg. Who on earth is that you might ask? He's the GM of the Miami Heat, and he's been the head honcho since 2013 now. What's Pat Riley then, chopped liver? Not quite- he's the Team President instead of the GM, but let's not get lost in semantics. Andy never played basketball at any notable level, but he's known the game, and more importantly, the Heat franchise, for over two decades now. He worked his way through the ranks from Public Relations Assistant in 1988, all the way up to General Manager in 2013.
Who might the next Andy Elisburg be? Well, I referred to NBC Washington's list of "10 Names to Watch in the Wizards' GM Search" from early 2019 to see who the top candidates for the average bottom-feeder team are. Every single candidate was a high-ranking front office executive, or in the case of everyone's favorite pushover David Griffin (you know, the guy that took the backseat to LeGM James), a former "GM." The class was highlighted by the heirs to the throne of some of the leagues top GMs, including Danny Ainge's, R.C. Buford's, Jon Horsts', and Sam Presti's next-in-line. Understandably enough, the top candidates for GM openings are the pupils of the league's current pioneers.
So, what does it take to be an NBA GM? Who are our current GMs and who are the GMs of tomorrow? Well, just like Dee said, they're guys who know what they're doing and give a damn about it too. We see NBA players and coaches sticking around in the league in front office roles, and even as general managers because they know basketball. They know the league. James Jones is the same as Andy Elisburg in that they both started at the bottom of the league, as a benchwarmer and unknown assistant, respectively, and worked their way up the ranks over decades of hard work.
The Bulls are rumored to be considering a general manager change by this offseason, and I can make three guarantees about whoever ends up in charge: 1) They will have a lot of experience with basketball as a sport, be it playing, analyzing, coaching, scouting, managing, or any permutation of the possibilities. 2) They learnt and absorbed information from all-time greats along the way. 3) They've worked their asses off to be where they are.
In reality, the most important part of trying to become a GM, and the most difficult part of that process, is getting your foot in the door. But once you do, you have to seize it and draw from the greats around you. Player, coach, front office; it doesn't matter. Power conference, Ivy League, or Division III either. What matters is you get the opportunity, you learn the game, you learn the league, and you give a damn about what you're doing.