clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Which NBA GM Is the Biggest In-Season Wheeler and Dealer?

We ranked every team’s lead decision-maker by how active (or inactive) they are on the trade market heading into the deadline

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The fake trade ecosystem, so popular at this time of year, has one major problem: Not every general manager or president of basketball operations approaches trades in the same way. Fans might wish for a blockbuster involving their favorite team, but if their favorite team’s lead executive prefers to tinker around the edges rather than mess with his roster and team chemistry during the season, that earth-shaking deal won’t come to fruition.

So with the trade deadline just two days away, it’s worth examining the track records of the executives in charge of all 30 teams’ transactions. How do they typically handle the deadline? Do they hoard picks or hand them out freely? Will they trade meaningful rotation pieces for a chance at an upgrade? And, most of all, how might their histories aid our understanding of what’s in store around the league before noon PT on Thursday?

Let’s rank them all by their level of in-season trade activity.

Here are the ground rules. For every trade an executive makes during the regular season, he earns points:

  • 3 points for a rotation player (defined as playing at least 20 minutes per game)
  • 3 points for a first-round pick
  • 2 points for a pick-swap option
  • 1 point for a non-rotation player
  • 1 point for a second-round pick

The process is simple from there: Add up the point totals for every executive’s career, both for players and picks gained and for players and picks lost; divide by the number of seasons they’ve been in charge of one or multiple teams; and then rank them. Note that we will not be including any trades made during the 2021-22 campaign to date, because this trade season has only just begun. And unless otherwise detailed, we’ll go with Basketball-Reference’s assessment of the lead executive for every team.

Before we get to the ranking, we’ll first exclude the four executives in their first seasons: Joe Cronin (Trail Blazers), Sachin Gupta (Timberwolves), Nico Harrison (Mavericks), and Brad Stevens (Celtics). We’ll also separate out the five executives who have spent one full season in charge. This latter group doesn’t have enough of a sample size to make comparisons fair, and they oversaw their new teams during the busiest deadline season in league history, so all of their point totals are inflated. Here’s a mini-ranking of this quintet:

  1. Rafael Stone, Rockets (62 points)
  2. Arturas Karnisovas, Bulls (24 points)
  3. Monte McNair, Kings (20 points)
  4. Troy Weaver, Pistons (18 points)
  5. Leon Rose, Knicks (14 points)

It turns out that trading James Harden for four first-round picks and four pick swaps would help a GM lap the field. Who knew! And now, on to the full list of the 21 remaining, active lead executives ranked by in-season trade activity:

1. Koby Altman, Cavaliers

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 25
Gained: 17 players (9 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 13 second-round picks
Lost: 20 players (7 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 6 second-round picks

Remember, these calculations don’t include trades in the 2021-22 seasons yet—which means Altman topped the list even before striking a three-team trade for Rajon Rondo and sending three picks (including one first-rounder) to Indiana for Caris LeVert.

While some GMs are active when their team is a contender but quiet otherwise, or vice versa, Altman leaps into the fray no matter his team’s quality. In 2018, he remade an eventual finalist’s roster at the deadline, replacing Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, and Jae Crowder with George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Rodney Hood. Then he spent three seasons veering in multiple directions at once: In 2019, he made trades involving Hill, Hood, Brandon Knight, and Alec Burks, whom he brought in and shipped out in the span of four months; in 2020, he gambled by adding Andre Drummond; and in 2021, he sneaked into the Harden mega-trade to steal Jarrett Allen.

And now in 2022, with a surprise contender on his hands, he’s already making moves. It’s possible that LeVert will be his main target this season—but given Altman’s history, would it be any surprise if he made more noise before Thursday’s deadline?

2. Lawrence Frank, Clippers

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 17.8
Gained: 13 players (6 rotation), 3 first-round picks, 5 second-round picks
Lost: 13 players (5 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 1 pick swap, 4 second-round picks

Altman and Frank topped these rankings already, so it’s fitting that the Cavaliers and Clippers have been the most active buyers in this trade season, with the latter adding Norman Powell and Robert Covington for a shockingly light return last week. But that was nothing new for Frank, who has both added and subtracted a rotation player in every season since he became the Clippers’ president of basketball operations.

In 2018, Frank traded Blake Griffin while adding Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley. In 2019, he traded Harris and Bradley while adding Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac. In 2020, he traded Maurice Harkless while adding Marcus Morris. And in 2021, he traded Lou Williams while adding Rajon Rondo.

3. Jeff Weltman, Magic

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 12.8
Gained: 7 players (5 rotation), 3 first-round picks, 1 second-round pick
Lost: 7 players (6 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 2 second-round picks

Weltman would have ranked toward the bottom of this list if we’d made it a year ago, with just 16 trade points in three seasons; his biggest move through that juncture was sending Jonathon Simmons and a first-rounder to Philadelphia for Markelle Fultz. Then in a single day, he added 35 points to his total as he traded Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Vucevic for a smorgasbord of picks and players.

Which direction will Weltman take this year? The last-place Magic don’t boast nearly the same level of enticing talent that they did last season, but in Terrence Ross and Gary Harris, they at least have a couple of wings worth monitoring.

4. Daryl Morey, 76ers

Full seasons: 14
Points per season: 12
Gained: 37 players (6 rotation), 4 first-round picks, 1 pick swap, 8 second-round picks
Lost: 48 players (10 rotation), 4 first-round picks, 17 second-round picks

Morey might have been the favorite to rank first in this exercise before running the actual calculations, and he certainly wins the prize for most total players and picks involved in trades. The reason he ranks only fourth, however, is that most of the players involved in Morey’s deals are filler rather than integral members of a rotation. Only 16 of the 85 players, or 19 percent, involved in Morey’s trades were rotation players for his teams. Across the whole sample of active executives, that figure was 34 percent.

While Morey has taken some big swings—Kyle Lowry for Rafer Alston, Robert Covington for Clint Capela—most of his in-season moves haven’t been quite so momentous. Look at the breakdown of Morey’s lost picks for another indication of his uniquely cautious-while-aggressive modus operandi: Just four of the 21 picks Morey has traded (19 percent) are first-rounders, versus the full-sample ratio of 35 percent. Still, activity is activity, and in 13 of his 14 full seasons, Morey has made at least one in-season trade, so expect some 76ers activity, even if it’s not Ben Simmons–sized, by Thursday.

But here’s another fun Morey fact: The only exception to his trade streak came in 2017-18—when the Rockets won 65 games and led the Warriors in Game 7 in the conference finals. In other words, the only time Morey felt he didn’t need to make a deal was with the best team he’s ever had.

5. Jon Horst, Bucks

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 11.5
Gained: 7 players (3 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 2 second-round picks
Lost: 9 players (0 rotation), 4 first-round picks, 7 second-round picks

As the GM of a contending team with maybe the best player in the league, Horst doesn’t mess around with his trades. He doesn’t want to make his current roster weaker, so he has never traded a rotation player—a notable fact given the ongoing Donte DiVincenzo rumors. On the other hand, he’s not afraid to sacrifice future value for present production, shipping out lots of picks for the likes of Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Nikola Mirotic, and P.J. Tucker. (The Jrue Holiday trade came in the offseason, with even more picks.)

Due to all those pick losses, as well as the second-rounder forfeited in the Bogdan Bogdanovic saga, Horst doesn’t have that many more to work with at this deadline—but with the 34-21 Bucks sputtering relative to recent seasons, don’t count him out for yet another win-now trade.

6. David Griffin, Pelicans

Full seasons: 5
Points per season: 11.4
Gained: 7 players (5 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 4 second-round picks
Lost: 11 players (1 rotation), 5 first-round picks, 2 second-round picks

Like Altman after him, Griffin was always trade-happy in Cleveland, as he tried to round out a championship rotation and compete with the juggernaut in Golden State. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, and Kyle Korver were all important additions in those years—Mozgov cost two first-round picks!—but Griffin has sheltered all his activity in the offseason in New Orleans. (See: the Anthony Davis and Holiday trades.) He hasn’t traded away a single rotation player or first-round pick during the season with the Pelicans, nor has he acquired a first or a 20-minutes-per-game player other than James Johnson.

7. Tim Connelly, Nuggets

Full seasons: 8
Points per season: 11.1
Gained: 21 players (6 rotation), 4 first-round picks, 4 second-round picks
Lost: 19 players (3 rotation), 3 first-round picks, 6 second-round picks

No real pattern emerges from Connelly’s trade history, as it does with the other executives around him on this list. Plenty of good players have been involved in a midseason trade with Denver since Connelly took over for Masai Ujiri—Arron Afflalo, Will Barton, Jusuf Nurkic, Gordon and Harris last year—but no true star. He’s not afraid to exchange rotation players or juicy picks, but he’s not as bold as Altman, either. In a way, his activity level reflects the Nuggets’ state as a franchise during his tenure: consistently close to contention, but never quite at the top.

Los Angeles Clippers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

8. Sean Marks, Nets

Full seasons: 5
Points per season: 10.8
Gained: 9 players (2 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 4 second-round picks
Lost: 9 players (4 rotation), 3 first-round picks, 4 pick swaps

Marks is a lesser version of Weltman here, with one big day overriding years of placidity. The Nets GM collected more trade points with the Harden deal alone than he had in his entire GM tenure until that point—when, admittedly, he was hamstrung by his predecessor’s disastrous Celtics trade. In fact, until the Harden deal, Marks had never traded a pick during the season; then he surrendered three firsts and four swap options at once, going all in for the former MVP. And now Harden is in trade rumors once again, just a year later. Welcome to the NBA in the 2020s.

9. Travis Schlenk, Hawks

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 9.8
Gained: 12 players (3 rotation), 4 second-round picks
Lost: 7 players (1 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 5 second-round picks

Schlenk has been active at every deadline of his career, but for more minor moves than anything on the likes of, say, adding Ben Simmons or trading away John Collins. Only 21 percent of the players involved in Schlenk’s midseason trades have been in the rotation, putting him nearly as low as Morey by that measure, and Schlenk’s deals have included only one first-round pick—incidentally, going to Morey, in the Capela deal. (His one trade from this season so far, which sent Cam Reddish to the Knicks, also brought back a first-rounder.)

10. Sam Presti, Thunder

Full seasons: 14
Points per season: 9.4
Gained: 29 players (8 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 10 second-round picks
Lost: 30 players (10 rotation), 5 first-round picks, 5 second-round picks

While Presti has gained a reputation as a shrewd bargain-hunter, he has somehow acquired only two first-round picks during the season—and did so in 2008 and 2009, meaning a dozen years have passed without another. Of course, Presti has acquired roughly 397 first-rounders in offseason deals, but during the season, he tended to be more active as a buyer, when his team had Kevin Durant, than as a seller. From 2008 through 2016, Presti averaged 10.6 trade points per year; since then, he’s down to just 7.2.

Forget the Westbrook-for-Paul trade or all his other recent dealings, though. The most amazing trade of Presti’s career might be when he plucked a first-rounder from Denver in exchange for Johan Petro in January 2009. Petro went on to play just eight minutes per game for the Nuggets in that regular season, and just 2.6 per game in the playoffs.

11. Danny Ainge, Jazz

Full seasons: 18
Points per season: 9.3
Gained: 31 players (13 rotation), 6 first-round picks, 14 second-round picks
Lost: 41 players (14 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 4 second-round picks

Even though Basketball-Reference lists GM Justin Zanik as Utah’s lead executive, Ainge has appeared to have the final say in transactions since joining the front office in December. In Boston, “Trader Danny” lived up to his nickname in at least one respect: With his in-season trades, Ainge netted four first-rounders and 10 second-rounders, giving him 14 extra picks, double the amount of anyone else on this list. (To be fair, longevity plays a role in this stat: Second place is the Warriors’ Bob Myers, who’s on the same pace as Ainge with seven extra picks in nine years.)

But Ainge didn’t create such advantages with player trades, which knocks him down a few spots on this list. While he was good for a big, knotty trade once a year as a younger GM, he learned some measure of hesitance in his second decade—or at least shifted his activity to the offseason. From 2016 to 2020, Ainge completed only one in-season trade, and swapping Jabari Bird for a heavily protected second-rounder in 2019 didn’t quite register as a blockbuster.

12. Tommy Sheppard, Wizards

Full seasons: 2
Points per season: 8.5
Gained: 4 players (2 rotation)
Lost: 5 players (2 rotation)

Sheppard’s two deadlines to date have been rather quiet. No picks of any kind changed hands, and even the rotation players—post-prime Isaiah Thomas, Jerome Robinson, Jordan McRae, and Shabazz Napier—aren’t particularly exciting. Barring a surprise this week, like a Bradley Beal reversal or Domantas Sabonis addition, one imagines that trend will continue for the Wizards’ GM.

13. Masai Ujiri, Raptors

Full seasons: 11
Points per season: 8.4
Gained: 18 players (11 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 1 pick swap, 4 second-round picks
Lost: 22 players (6 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 6 second-round picks

It makes sense that many executives wait until the offseason for their most ambitious transactions. Games don’t get in the way, finances are easier to manage, and after the draft, there’s not much scouting to distract from roster overhauls, either. Ujiri doesn’t care about any of that, though—his trade history in both Denver and Toronto shows that he’ll strike at any point in the calendar.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard came to Toronto in the summer, but Ujiri has also finalized major trades in December (Rudy Gay to Sacramento), February (Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks; Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker, and Marc Gasol to Toronto in various deals), and March (Norman Powell for Gary Trent Jr.). He’s not the most active executive overall, but always beware a sudden game-changer.

14. Pat Riley, Heat

Full seasons: 13
Points per season: 8
Gained: 18 players (7 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 5 second-round picks
Lost: 27 players (10 rotation), 2 first-round picks, 1 pick swap, 9 second-round picks

Across Riley’s first half-decade, he made only one in-season trade that involved a rotation player or a first-round pick: the Shawn Marion–Jermaine O’Neal swap in 2009. He didn’t make any meaningful in-season roster tweaks during LeBron James’s entire four-year tenure in Miami.

But after LeBron left, Riley became much more aggressive, or it might be more accurate to say that Riley has always been aggressive, and now that trait is manifesting in-season because his rosters aren’t as dominant without LeBron to lead the way. In 2015, Riley swapped two first-round picks for Goran Dragic. In 2019, he traded Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington to Phoenix for Ryan Anderson. In 2020, he added Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. And in 2021, he brought in Trevor Ariza and Victor Oladipo. If that pattern continues, expect the Heat—who have been curiously absent from most trade rumors this year, despite holding the East’s best record and a favorable remaining schedule—to strike by Thursday.

15. Zach Kleiman, Grizzlies

Full seasons: 2
Points per season: 5.5
Gained: 4 players (0 rotation), 1 second-round pick
Lost: 4 players (1 rotation)

Basketball-Reference lists Jason Wexler as the Grizzlies’ lead executive, but Kleiman runs the basketball operations department. The latter doesn’t have much of a track record, and what little history does exist suggests that Memphis might well sit out the deadline. His few in-season trades don’t include any first-round picks, and Crowder is the only rotation player to change teams. (Iguodala, remember, wasn’t playing in Memphis.) Of course, Kleiman’s first two seasons at the helm came while the young Grizzlies were around .500, and now they’re the West’s no. 3 seed, so perhaps the altered context will propel him to greater activity this week.

16. Rob Pelinka, Lakers

Full seasons: 4
Points per season: 5.3
Gained: 4 players (2 rotation), 1 first-round pick
Lost: 5 players (2 rotation), 1 second-round pick

Note that for Pelinka, we’re also including the two years he collaborated with Magic Johnson, even though Basketball-Reference credits those transactions to Johnson alone. In fact, we need to do that or else Pelinka would have zero points: Until last month’s Rondo three-teamer, the Lakers hadn’t made an in-season trade since inexplicably giving the Clippers Zubac in exchange for 17 games of Mike Muscala.

In any case, for all the frenzy that surrounds the Lakers every summer, there is surprisingly little precedent for similar in-season upheaval, even before Pelinka and Johnson took over. A potential Russell Westbrook trade this week, for instance, would represent the Lakers’ biggest during a season since they added Pau Gasol in February 2008.

17. Bob Myers, Warriors

Full seasons: 9
Points per season: 4.6
Gained: 5 players (2 rotation), 1 first-round pick, 7 second-round picks
Lost: 13 players (4 rotation), 1 second-round pick

Don’t expect any fireworks in Golden State this week. Unlike Horst in Milwaukee, Myers is loath to sacrifice future picks in win-now deals to aid his team’s title push; the only pick he’s ever traded during the season was a heavily protected second-rounder in last season’s Brad Wanamaker salary dump.

That lesson seems especially true with Golden State eyeing a title. Just as Morey didn’t add to the 2017-18 Rockets and Riley didn’t add to the LeBron-era Heat, Myers adopted a hands-off approach during the Warriors’ dynastic years: Golden State didn’t complete a single in-season trade from 2015 to 2019. Most of Myers’s trade points are concentrated in the 2019-20 season, when the worst Warriors team of the decade flipped D’Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick.

Yet all of these quiet championship seasons are a reminder that deadline deals rarely move the championship needle. The vast majority of top-flight contenders are already whole before the season starts.

18. James Jones, Suns

Full seasons: 3
Points per season: 4.3
Gained: 5 players (2 rotation)
Lost: 2 players (1 rotation)

As with Myers, don’t expect any splashes from Jones, even though his team is a leading contender in the West. Jones has never traded a pick during the season, and his only notable player deals came in his first months as GM, when the Suns were a last-place team. Last season, his only move was to add Torrey Craig for cash.

19. Kevin Pritchard, Pacers

Full seasons: 7
Points per season: 3.4
Gained: 7 players (2 rotation), 2 second-round picks
Lost: 5 players (3 rotation)

Pritchard, who spent three seasons as Portland’s head executive and is in his fifth with Indiana, is already breaking new ground: Sunday’s LeVert trade gave Pritchard his first acquisition of a first-round pick during the season. Typically, the GM has been far quieter, only reaching as far as the likes of late-career Marcus Camby, and only ever selling a cornerstone in last season’s Victor Oladipo trade, which originally brought LeVert to Indiana. If the LeVert trade signals a busy deadline for the Pacers, with Domantas Sabonis and the currently injured Myles Turner also rumored to leave, Pritchard will be in unfamiliar territory all week.

20. Mitch Kupchak, Hornets

Full seasons: 19
Points per season: 3.3
Gained: 12 players (3 rotation), 7 second-round picks
Lost: 14 players (3 rotation), 5 first-round picks, 1 pick swap, 1 second-round pick

You might be noticing a pattern as we near the end of this list: Morey aside, longer-term executives tend to rank lower than their less experienced counterparts. That’s probably because of an era effect: There are many more trades in the NBA today than a decade ago, so all those uneventful deadlines drag down the per-season averages of GMs like Kupchak.

Looking specifically at deadline deals, via an analysis of data, 58 percent more players have been traded at each deadline in the 2020s than in the early 2010s, and 112 percent more than in the late 2000s.

Or it might be that a GM like Kupchak, who came of age in a less frenetic trade environment, is himself inherently more cautious. Even with the trade rate rocketing upward, Kupchak has made a grand total of one in-season trade in three full seasons in Charlotte: adding Wanamaker while swapping two heavily protected second-round picks at last year’s deadline.

It doesn’t help that Kupchak is in Charlotte now, rather than Los Angeles—in a much smaller market, he likely feels more protective of all his picks. It might not be a coincidence that the last three spots on this list all belong to executives who work in some of the league’s smallest markets.

21. Brian Wright, Spurs

Full seasons: 2
Points per season: 1
Gained: 1 player (0 rotation)
Lost: 1 player (0 rotation)

Is anyone surprised that the Spurs would place last on a list ranking the most active traders? Wright is last by a huge margin, with less than a third of the average seasonal point total as the next-lowest executive. To be fair, the Spurs’ situation is tricky—Basketball-Reference still lists longtime GM R.C. Buford as the team’s lead executive, although Wright became the GM in 2019 as Buford ascended to a more business-oriented CEO role. (Gregg Popovich has also long held the title of president of basketball operations.)

If we counted Buford as the man in charge, the Spurs would still rank in last place here, with a measly 1.8 trade points per season. From a 2022 vantage point, Buford did make some curious trades back in the day, such as sending a first-rounder for Kurt Thomas and two protected first-rounders for Nazr Mohammed. (Mohammed helped the Spurs win a title, but imagine the reaction if a team gave, say, two firsts for Dewayne Dedmon now.) But Buford made very few trades overall while overseeing the most successful franchise in the league. Such is the Spurs way.

And Wright has followed in that path since assuming GM duties, even while participating in a minor three-team trade last month. The Spurs made just one trade during Wright’s first two full seasons: swapping Cady Lalanne’s draft rights for Marquese Chriss. That was San Antonio’s first in-season trade in seven years.

An earlier version of this piece misidentified the Grizzlies’ lead decision-maker. It is Zach Kleiman, not Jason Wexler.