clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Top 5 Executives in the NBA

The qualities that make up a good general manager or president of basketball operations may be up for debate, but these guys have all ascended to the top of the league in their own ways

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

5. Lawrence Frank, Clippers

Lawrence Frank’s career trajectory is truly something to behold. His peak as a coach came during the first 13 games of his head coaching career, when he went 13-0 with the then–New Jersey Nets in 2004. Then, after bouncing from New Jersey to Boston to Detroit, Frank ended up back on the Nets’ bench as an assistant in 2013. The head coach at the time? Jason Kidd, whom Frank had coached 10 years prior. The relationship ended poorly and Frank bolted to the Clippers, who hired him as an assistant coach before moving him to their front office. In the past four years, Frank has not only risen to president of basketball operations, but he’s made some of the shrewdest moves in the league.

His crowning achievement came last summer, when he managed to land Kawhi Leonard in free agency and Paul George via trade. The Clippers were suddenly the team with not one, but two superstars. Thanks to Frank and Co., they have forced themselves into relevancy. Now they’re hoping they can force their way to a title, too.

4. Sam Presti, Thunder

While Frank has taken risks to get where he is, Presti is someone who’s capitalized on others’ risks. After watching the core of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook disassemble in front of him, Presti punted on the core’s last remnants by sending George to L.A. and trading Westbrook to Houston. In return, he got an aging point guard, a promising young point guard, Danilo Gallinari, and more draft picks than he has pairs of hipster glasses.

From the Harden trade to Durant’s departure, it’s safe to say that Presti’s original experiment unequivocally failed. But it seems his ability to recover is his calling card. Chris Paul suddenly looks revitalized with a new purpose. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a potential star. And those picks? Well, who knows, they might be able to net Presti the next superstar on the market—or the next Durant in the draft.

3. Danny Ainge, Celtics

Between you and me, I object to Ainge’s inclusion on this list as well as his top-three placement. That’s not to say that he isn’t good, or by far one of the savviest executives in the league. It’s more about the fact that there are more deserving candidates. Bob Myers helped put together one of the best teams in the league’s history and signed Kevin Durant on the way to three titles. Like Frank, Sean Marks has helped a little-brother team like the Nets land two superstar free agents. David Griffin orchestrated a title in Cleveland, and may have helped save basketball in New Orleans.

Ainge’s high point came with the 2008 title team he constructed, but his reputation has grown since. He’s made his money, or rather his fame, off sneaky moves like trading down to take Jayson Tatum, and constantly being in rumored trades he almost never executes. He’s drafted Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, who are the type of players you need to have around a superstar during a championship run. Ainge believed Kyrie Irving was that superstar, but he was wrong. Kemba Walker was a suitable stopgap, but to get to where Ainge really wants to go, he likely needs to make another move or two and hope that Tatum turns out to be an All-Star for years to come.

2. Daryl Morey, Rockets

In similar fashion to Ainge, Morey is the kind of executive whose reputation—or at least his publicized reputation—precedes him. What the internet has made Morey out to be has become muddled with what Morey actually is as an executive. Even so, Morey’s résumé deserves recognition. He has yet to win a title, but in the past few years, he has been one of the few front-office execs willing to go all out to build a team that could challenge the Warriors.

His ability to entertain by executing complicated, multiteam trades never fails, and his willingness to build a radical team that takes more and more 3s by the year is unique. This feels reductive to say, but like the Suns teams of the 2000s, Morey probably won’t get his full validation until he wins a ring.

1. Masai Ujiri, Raptors

Few things are harder to balance in an NBA front office than boldness and caution. And nobody has done that better than Ujiri. He has ascended up the executive ladder with precision—every decision he’s made feels like it has a clear purpose behind it, including the one not to leave Toronto after last season’s success.

Masai not only traded for Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018, he also furnished the rest of the team with ideal complementary pieces, created the perfect environment for Kawhi to feel comfortable, and put the franchise in the position to capitalize on its situation and win its first title. Kawhi bolted after one season, but Ujiri stayed, and the Raptors are somehow legitimate East contenders this season, too. With Giannis’s free agency on the horizon and Pascal Siakam only getting better, Masai and the Raptors don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

Others receiving multiple votes: Bob Myers, Pat Riley, R.C. Buford, David Griffin, Sean Marks, Donnie Nelson, Zach Kleiman, Kevin Pritchard