CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Top executive race close -- but Riley the front-runner

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The thrilling first round of the NBA playoffs and its dizzying array of drama began nine months ago with "The Decision." How the free-agent choices of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will play out in May and June remains to be seen, but one outcome seems all but guaranteed: a very strong push for Executive of the Year honors for Heat president Pat Riley.

Securing three of the league's top free agents in the same offseason has Riley neck-and-neck with GM Gar Forman of the Bulls for the trophy awarded annually to the NBA's best executive, according to votes tabulated by CBSSports.com. With 20 of the NBA's 30 general managers responding to the survey, Riley has eight first-place votes compared to seven for Forman. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri's expert handling of the Carmelo Anthony trade earned him two first-place votes, while Thunder GM Sam Presti received one. Two GMs responded but declined to disclose their votes.

Pat Riley's unprecedented offseason moves should earn him some postseason hardware. (Getty Images)  
Pat Riley's unprecedented offseason moves should earn him some postseason hardware. (Getty Images)  
Ballots listing the top three choices were due at the league office April 15, and the winner of the award -– last season it was Bucks GM John Hammond –- will be announced in early May.

One GM who cast his first-place vote for Riley said the only thing that will keep the Heat president from winning is "jealousy."

"It should not be a close vote," the GM said. "Pat Riley was by far the best. ... To add three of the top 20 players in the NBA in one offseason has never been done before or likely again."

Another executive said, "We can say what we want to say and hate who we want to hate, but that was a pretty good job what [Riley] did, putting that team together."

Some GMs who voted for Forman stipulated that John Paxson, who remained the Bulls' executive vice president of basketball operations when Forman was promoted two summers ago, should receive some of the credit. Chicago voters mentioned how the Bulls front office didn't panic after getting shut out in the James-Wade sweepstakes and instead added Carlos Boozer, who was "a very, very good fit" with point guard Derrick Rose, according to one voter. Forman and Paxson also resisted the urge to trade Luol Deng, and one GM who voted for Forman praised his refusal to become entangled in the Anthony trade sweepstakes -- even after it became known in league circles that Chicago was one of the teams Melo would extend his contract with if traded.

"They played well without [Joakim] Noah for 30-something games and without Boozer for 20-something," an executive who voted for the Bulls said. "They didn't make any major moves at the deadline, but they put a team together and had confidence in that team."

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Ujiri, who extracted three rotation players, a 7-footer and draft picks from the Knicks in the Anthony trade, was in the mix on most ballots revealed to CBSSports.com. Aside from the haul of assets Ujiri got from the Knicks, execs were impressed with his handling of the lengthy and high-stakes trade negotiations.

Presti building the Thunder for what could be a deep playoff run despite a youthful roster and small-market budget may have amounted to a winning résumé if not for Riley's once-in-a-lifetime free-agent coup. Aside from keeping the flexibility to soon re-sign rising star Russell Westbrook and valued reserve James Harden, Presti parlayed Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic into starting center Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline -- and quickly signed Perkins to a four-year extension. Presti also locked up important reserve Nick Collison with a creative four-year deal with declining annual salaries -- made possible by giving Collison a hefty signing bonus that didn't have to be prorated for cap purposes because the Thunder were under the cap at the time of the deal.

When all the votes are tabulated and the trophy is awarded -- most likely to either Riley or Forman -- two key questions will present themselves. If Riley loses, will the ill will from some executives envious of his free-agent achievement be justified? If he wins, will the award be tainted by a belief among some basketball people that Riley wouldn't have been able to sign the Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh without some level of tampering -- as difficult as that will ever be to prove?

The Cavs have retained legal counsel to investigate whether tampering was involved in meetings among the Big Three while James and Bosh were still under contract with their previous teams. At least one of those meetings, involving James and Wade, reportedly was attended by Riley. As of last week, commissioner David Stern said no formal tampering complaint had been filed with the league office. It's a fair bet none ever will, or at the very least won't be proven. Either way, love him or loathe him, Riley could very well be hoisting the executive of the year trophy for his trouble.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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