In 2014, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge got a single first-place vote for Executive of the Year and finished seventh. At the time, no one thought twice about it. The Celtics were at the start of a rebuild and went 25-57, missing the playoffs.
But that was the season Ainge executed one of the trades of the decade — three first-rounders and two pick swaps in a deal that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets — and hired Brad Stevens to be coach.
As the haul from that trade materialized over the next four years — picks that became Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and assets that led to the acquisition of Kyrie Irving — Ainge never finished higher than fourth in the voting. Only once did he get more than one first-place vote (in 2017) even as the Celtics grew into a 55-win team.
In an era of superteam construction where champions often rise and fall in the summer transaction season, the quality of a franchise’s management and its ability to make huge moves defines its championship hopes. That makes the Executive of the Year Award a kind of Management MVP — winning it doesn’t guarantee anything, but being at the top of that field often gives your team a chance.
It’s an award whose voting is sometimes rife with jealousy, pettiness and even occasional low-key insults. It’s the only major NBA award that is voted on by peers and the only one where the balloting remains secret (one vote per franchise; you can’t vote for yourself).
In 2013, Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets finished third after trading for James Harden and outmaneuvering competitors to create poison pill contracts that pulled Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik out of restricted free agency.
In 2016, Sam Hinkie was on three ballots after he had resigned midseason, seemingly forced out when Philadelphia 76ers management hired an executive over him.
Attention and eyeballs are perennially trained on the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year race, even when it doesn’t amount to much of a contest. But the Executive of the Year is often where real drama can be found.
Which brings us to the 2019-20 edition of the award. After several blockbuster deals before this season — with several teams either going after multiple stars or for Ainge-like asset acquisition domination — this year’s voting presents a chance for a referendum: Do NBA executives believe great management is based on immediate opportunity or savvy long-term planning?
Is it all about getting stars? That’s what the Los Angeles Lakers did in landing Anthony Davis. It’s what the LA Clippers did in getting Leonard and Paul George. Though they barely played, the Brooklyn Nets scored big in signing Irving and Kevin Durant in what seemed like an upset over the crosstown New York Knicks.
Is it about collecting assets to set up the future? That’s what the Oklahoma City Thunder did. Faced with trade requests from both George and Russell Westbrook, general manager Sam Presti acquired six future first-round picks and Chris Paul, who might be tradeable for more assets in the future. And his team made the playoffs.
The New Orleans Pelicans got three first-round picks plus Brandon Ingram, who became an All-Star, and franchise point guard Lonzo Ball after Davis’ trade demand. They are set up to build around No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
“Typically, you don’t get credit for building the farm. You get credit for trading it,” one general manager said. “Even though all of us really are responsible for building the farm every day of the year.”
Or is it more important to execute across the board? The Miami Heat landed Jimmy Butler and cleared out space for developing players. Their move to offload Hassan Whiteside helped open room for Bam Adebayo to become an All-Star, and they identified and developed Kendrick Nunn and 3-point shooter Duncan Robinson. Their trade deadline move to get Andre Iguodala both reduced their payroll and opened up cap space next summer, offloading Dion Waiters‘ and James Johnson’s undesirable contracts.
Rarely have there been so many good candidates.
When speaking to several front office executives in recent days — after the deadline for voting had passed — the sentiment was largely consistent: Despite the changing perspective over the last decade in asset acquisition, the focus is still on landing superstars at all costs.
Several executives mentioned Ujiri, whose Raptors managed to remain contenders with essentially the same roster after losing Leonard in free agency after he wasn’t recognized much for getting Leonard.
Presti is likely to get significant votes after he re-made the Thunder roster under duress. In 2018, after Presti engineered a shocking trade to land George and then locked up Westbrook on a long-term extension, he finished 10th in voting.
Last year, after he was unexpectedly able to re-sign George, he finished 13th.
It seems Presti will get more credit for trading those stars than he did for acquiring or keeping them, which fits in perfectly with the nature of the voting for this award. Perhaps the GMs prefer to recognize their peers when they’ve been the victim of a star demanding a trade. Or maybe they are willing to give them notice when it seems their teams are less of a threat. Either way, it’s consistent with this award over the years.
The Heat, who were begrudgingly given credit a decade ago for their massive summer, received significant support this season. The Pelicans, another small-market team that lost a star, were routinely mentioned along with the Utah Jazz.
Many of the executives who were willing to disclose their vote said that Lawrence Frank of the Clippers ranked at the top of their ballot. The primary reason given was his ability to build an asset base which allowed LA to attract Leonard and trade for George while maintaining a deep roster.
“This award sometimes is really a two-year award, it covers small moves that set up big moves,” an Eastern Conference GM said. “Lawrence, [GM Michael] Winger and their staff really built toward this for years.”
So this year, getting Leonard might be deemed worthy of winning the honor. There is also the factor that Frank, an NBA lifer, is well liked by his peers. And no doubt, the Clippers front office would be a very worthy winner after pulling off the maneuvers to land both Leonard and George.
But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of animosity out there.
Among the voting constituents sampled, there seemed to be little support for the candidacy of Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka, who helped a massive turnaround to vault the Lakers into the top seed in the West. In back-to-back years, Pelinka landed top-10 players in James and then Davis. He cleared out cap space and pivoted fast to get key supporting players such as Danny Green and Avery Bradley after holding out for days waiting to see if Leonard would sign with the Lakers. And he helped hold the team together after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, who was one of Pelinka’s closest friends.
But some of his peers, many of whom had a history of dealing with Pelinka as an agent, seem to not want to pass much credit his way. Some cited the role of Rich Paul, the agent for James and Davis, in putting the team together. Others pointed to the Lakers being accused and fined for tampering for recent years.
The league will announce the results sometime during the playoffs, where they will likely get moderate attention on the surface. Peel it back, though, and the ballot returns promise once again to be a topic of whispered outrage within the league.
“Honestly, we should give the award to [commissioner] Adam Silver this year,” one executive said, citing the preservation and restart of the season as the year’s greatest achievement. “Everyone would get behind that.”