New GMs don't have it as easy as they may think
This column appears in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Congratulations, Kevin Pritchard and Sam Presti. As newly anointed GMs of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle SuperSonics, respectively, you've both just landed a surefire future Hall of Famer merely by standing by as Lady Luck smiled upon you in the lottery. And now, while the rest of the league tries to sort the next Tony Parkers from the next Joseph Fortes, you can just wait until June 28 to haul your franchise cornerstones home, watch the season ticket sales climb and ready the banners for unfurling ... That sound you hear is knowing laughter from every other GM who has ever been "blessed" with a player who was written into the record books before he was even assigned a locker. "It's hard when you get a guy whom everyone has already labeled a superstar," says former Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who had Carmelo Anthony drop into his lap. "It's your job to make sure he becomes one."
Of course, that job often falls to a front office that has built a team talentless and dumb enough to find itself at the top of the lottery in the first place. All of a sudden, that front office has to be a shrewd and meticulous builder of an incubator that will grow a basketball preemie into the franchise player he was born to be. Kind of makes you want to call Social Services, doesn't it? Good thing even the most cutthroat movers and shakers in the NBA know it doesn't do any good to see great talent go to waste. Here are their rearing tips:
Show him you care
The Spurs couldn't have dreamed up a better home for Tim Duncan than the San Antonio squad he joined in 1997: a hardworking, straitlaced superstar (David Robinson) to set an example and share the load, a one-team town far from the bright lights of bigger markets, and a collection of complementary players who welcomed the new guy. But the Spurs will tell you that the reason their franchise player re-upped as a free agent in 2000 and again in 2003 and accepted some blue-collar duties so players like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker could blossom is that Gregg Popovich long ago flew to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, to play beach bum with his just- chosen rookie. After the visit, Duncan, in a move rare for a No. 1 pick, agreed to play on the Spurs' summer league team, and Popovich, in a move rare for a head coach, agreed to run it.
The result is that Pop, from the start, was able to bust on Duncan for screwing up a defensive rotation or missing a crucial free throw without worrying that his star would take offense. TD, in turn, could trust completely that anything Pop asked him to do would be for the good of the team. "I've always believed they were kindred spirits anyway," says Spurs GM R.C. Buford. "But that time spent together right away put them on a level of understanding and comfort that proved invaluable."
So the Blazers must ... take advantage of Nate McMillan's player's mentality. He won't get a Caribbean vacation out of it, but both he and Greg Oden will spend most of August together with Team USA in Las Vegas as they try to help the team qualify for next summer's Beijing Games. If that doesn't give them the one-on-one time they need, McMillan would be well-served to sharpen his Mario Bros. skills and get set to enjoy some summertime humidity in Indianapolis and Buffalo, Oden's boyhood haunts.
So the Sonics must ... name a coach! But in the meantime, look for Presti, the freshly minted 30-year-old GM, to spend some quality time with Kevin Durant in suburban Maryland. "It goes bad for everyone, even superstars, at some point, especially early on," says one Eastern Conference scouting director. "Michael Jordan broke his foot, Kobe missed all those threes against Utah. And when things go bad, we all turn to someone. You want to make sure you've developed the kind of relationship that lets them be comfortable turning to you."
Disown the black sheep
The Timberwolves already had an inside-outside tandem in Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider when they made Kevin Garnett the first high school player drafted in 20 years, in 1995. But coach Flip Saunders made what was then a bold move by inserting his No. 5 pick into the starting lineup 32 games into Garnett's rookie season. Laettner and Rider couldn't hide their jealousy. "Those two were still young and felt they should be the guys the franchise was built around," says Sam Mitchell, the Raptors coach who witnessed Garnett's first seven seasons as a teammate. "They'd do things to make Garnett not feel welcome. They weren't going to show him how to conduct himself or how to come ready for practice. You could just see it wasn't going to work."
Kevin McHale, VP of operations, took the addition-by-subtraction route and wasted little time doing it. By the following season, Laettner and Rider were gone, leaving a trio of old heads and solid pros -- Doug West, Terry Porter and Mitchell--to be KG's security blanket. "The middle of his second year, he got tired of being called Da Kid," Mitchell recalls. "I told him, 'When you start wearing a suit and looking reporters in the eye, they'll stop calling you Kid." He did and they did, and KG has been known as the Big Ticket ever since. Then again, the team has yet to put the rest of the puzzle together and make KG a winner.
So the Blazers must ... figure out how to unload Zach Randolph. The forward -- a perfect blend of Laettner and Rider as a quick-to-pout big man who is no stranger to the inside of a courtroom -- has been starring in trade rumors since the draft lottery. Pritchard is also keeping his fingers crossed that Darius Miles, the same guy the Cavaliers jettisoned during LeBron's rookie season, will listen to his knees and retire.
So the Sonics must ... make a decision about Rashard Lewis. A free agent, Lewis has a game that is very similar to Durant's. "The pecking order will be Ray Allen, Rashard, Kevin," says one East head coach. "But what happens when Kevin's talent begins to show and the order has to change?" Good teams don't wait to find out. The Sonics are, in fact, exploring sign-and-trade deals for their No.2 scorer, more for cap issues than for chemistry. No one will remember if they end up doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
Don't think of him as an only child
The Bucks traded for big Jamaal Magloire after making Andrew Bogut the No. 1 pick, only to deal him away again as soon as Bogut developed the stamina and confidence to handle both ends of the floor. Conversely, the Clippers instantly asked Michael Olowokandi to anchor a front line that featured cruise-control artists Maurice Taylor and Lamond Murray. How did that work out?
Carmelo Anthony's rookie season was a resounding success--a playoff berth and a close second to LeBron in the ROY race--because he joined a team suited to hide his flaws. Shotblocking machine Marcus Camby erased his defensive mistakes, Nenê set wide-bodied screens to shake him loose, and point guard Andre Miller relieved Melo from having to create his own shots.
So the Blazers must ... get another low-post scorer (unless LaMarcus Aldridge is ready to fill the void). After towering over most college foes, Oden needs time to figure out how to get his shot against big men who stand eye to eye with him. And Portland should hang onto Joel Przybilla to play on-the-ball D against the opposition's biggest threat on the block. Oden will make his presence felt immediately as a shotblocker and a rebounder, but it's too much to ask him to shut down more-mature bigs every night.
So the Sonics must ... use Denver's blueprint. On the wish list: a defensive swingman who can relieve Durant from chasing the opponent's best scorer. But most of all, they have to find a first-rate point guard (read: not Luke Ridnour or Earl Watson) who can find Durant on the move rather than leaving him to break down his opposite number on every possession.
Don't spoil the kid
There's not much a GM can do about the attention created by his new star's shoe deal, but you don't want to overdo it. It's one thing for Nike to plaster LeBron on a building across from The Q, but it would be another if all you saw inside the arena was images of King James. "You have to fight against it being all LeBron all the time," says Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry. "You don't want to wear the guy out, and you don't want the rest of the team feeling alienated." Hence the oversize portraits of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and every other Cavalier that hang from the ceiling around the floor-level exclusive club; LeBron's doesn't stand out from the rest. Says Ferry: "Some of your biggest battles are actually with the media and internal marketing teams."
So the Blazers must ... play up ROY Brandon Roy and diminish the demands on and for Oden. And you know what would really help? If they worked a deal that put them in position to take Oden's Ohio State running mate, Mike Conley Jr. Their longtime friendship would shift the focus of the story to a feel-good boys-to-men saga.
So the Sonics must ... protect Durant from getting caught in the crossfire of the Sonics' uncertain future in the Emerald City. Don't parade him, as some would do, in front of voters as the reason to subsidize a new arena. Getting a Hall of Fame career on track is hard enough; adding the task of helping sort out a club's financial situation is just piling it on.
Is it possible that Pritchard and Presti actually have the hardest jobs of all? Will anything but a Duncan-like dynasty be a letdown to their cities, the league and every basketball fan in the world? Of course not. Success means different things to different franchises. Still, if they think all they have to do is kick back and reap the rewards, there aren't likely to be any--nor will they be around to find out.