|Will former Suns GM Steve Kerr ditch the broadcast booth to run another team? (US Presswire)|
It's the time of year when contenders gird themselves for the playoffs and the pretenders try to get in. And also, 'tis the season for the second-class citizens of the NBA to get ready for another trip to the lottery and, quite possibly, a summer of upheaval.
Portland already is searching for yet another general manager, and more teams will follow -- be it after missing the playoffs again or enduring a disappointing end to the postseason. Big changes could be coming in Orlando, Washington and Indiana (if Larry Bird decides to step down). What happens with Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers, or in the Knicks' front office, where everyone is on the last year of their contracts and interim coach Mike Woodson can see the shadows of Phil Jackson and John Calipari hanging over him despite winning 11 of 15 games since replacing Mike D'Antoni?
If the Lakers part ways with Kupchak, his name certainly would join the free-agent fray. But for now, with the usual potential for tumult in the air, here's a rundown of the top free-agent executives and those on the rise who could make a difference for teams looking to rebuild or simply change direction:
Donnie Walsh: The Knicks' former president and current advisor has a contract that expires June 30, but has received permission from Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan to speak with other teams about executive positions. Walsh, 71, brought the Knicks back to respectability and has conquered several health challenges over the past few years. He's nowhere near wanting to remain in a permanent state of retirement. With Bird believed to be on the way out in Indiana, owner Herb Simon could keep the structure mostly intact by keeping GM David Morway, making Kevin Pritchard's role more permanent and bringing Walsh back to oversee the front office. There also are indications that the Magic could be interested, which would be a coup for an organization looking to create an atmosphere of respect and accountability to calm the Dwight Howard drama, which has not been extinguished but only delayed. Unless Howard is completely out to lunch, he'd have to recognize that putting Walsh in charge -- with a proven day-to-day GM like former Hornets executive Jeff Bower -- would put the Magic on solid footing.
Bower: The former Hornets exec is one of the understated talents in the league, with a keen eye for personnel, the mechanics of managing the ever-more complicated cap and tax rules and putting together creative trades. Bower was on the short list of candidates Walsh had planned to interview for the day-to-day GM job in New York if Dolan had ever signed off and let him hire one. He was able to put a winning team on the floor with a shoestring budget in New Orleans, a talent that is more valuable than ever under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Tony Ronzone: The former Pistons and Timberwolves executive is tight with many of the star players in the league in his role on the USA Basketball staff and is supremely connected when it comes to the international game. Ronzone was instrumental in finally persuading Ricky Rubio to leave Barcelona and join the Timberwolves before he left Minnesota because of dysfunction in the front office. He'd scouted Rubio from the beginning of his pro career and put in the time and legwork to build a relationship with him, all of which was crucial to getting the gifted point guard to come stateside. He's closely aligned with coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan from their USA Basketball experience together and could be a top candidate for a front office post wherever they wind up. Ronzone would be a huge asset to the Magic, who lack the payroll and roster flexibility to improve but have a hidden gem overseas in Fran Vasquez, the 2005 first-round pick whose Spanish League contract expires this summer. Ronzone could close the deal with Vasquez, the way he did with Rubio, and his knowledge of the international game will be more useful than ever under a more restrictive collective bargaining agreement.
Tom Penn: In the new world of shorter contracts, stiffer tax penalties and finer print, few figures in an NBA front office are more valuable than the cap guy. During free agency and the trade deadline, teams need to quickly evaluate the short- and long-term risks and rewards of trades and signings and they need a clear-minded, quick-thinking executive to do it. This is what Penn did in Portland as the Blazers rose to prominence, and he did it as well as or better than anyone in the league. Two factors make him more valuable than ever in today's new CBA environment. First, Penn isn't just a cap guy; he had a hand in all personnel decisions the Blazers made under former GM Pritchard. And second, the rules are more convoluted and the consequences for making bad trades are greater than ever. Anyone can make a two-team basketball trade and match up the salaries; if you want that, go to RealGM.com and do it yourself. But creative, dynamic deal-making is an art, and Penn would be an asset because he not only understands what his team needs, but also can anticipate what potential trade partners should be trying to do before they even realize it. The only negative to Penn getting back in the NBA is that those of you who watch him break down the cap and tax implications of signings and trades in his role as an ESPN analyst wouldn't be as smart as a result. But if he joins your team, you'll gladly make that trade.
Steve Kerr: The former Suns executive is a shrewd personnel man and has the people skills to navigate the agent minefield as well as connect with his rival GMs and work through trades. The Shaquille O'Neal gamble lingers as a blemish on his resume with the Suns, but Kerr isn't afraid to take risks. The problem is this: Kerr is really good on TV, and while that job doesn't produce the adrenaline rush of competing on the NBA front-office hamster wheel, it also comes with a lot less pressure. Why put your career in the hands of a fickle and possibly incompetent NBA owner when you can thrive as a TV analyst and still have time to live in San Diego and work on your short game?
Up and coming
Scott Perry, Pistons' VP of basketball operations: A finalist for the SuperSonics GM position that ultimately went to Sam Presti, Perry remains highly regarded despite the Pistons' downward spiral. He's done a solid job running the Pistons' draft, is a strong leader and has the people skills to handle the administrative side of the job -- from dealing with agents and fellow executives to serving as a sounding board and middle man between players and coaches. That's where Perry's experience as a college coach (head coach at Eastern Kentucky and assistant at Michigan, Cal and Detroit-Mercy) is a real asset. Colleagues say he compares favorably to Bucks GM John Hammond, who he replaced in the Pistons' front office, in terms of both style and substance.
Allan Houston, Knicks' assistant GM: The former Knicks star has shaken the perception that he's just another former player cashing a paycheck from his former team. Houston has put in the time and the work, apprenticing under Walsh and gaining the respect of rival executives as someone who is serious about embracing the challenges and demands of running an NBA front office. Houston also has been running the Knicks' D-League affiliate, the Erie BayHawks, which is valuable experience. Plus, he handles the dysfunction of Madison Square Garden with ease, so if he left, navigating the pitfalls of another franchise would be a cakewalk by comparison. Unless he went to Portland.
Chad Buchanan, Trail Blazers' interim GM: Speaking of Portland, it appears that Buchanan will be passed over yet again for the top job. But if the Trail Blazers won't give him a shot, somebody else will. Buchanan is a strong personnel man and has impressed rival executives with his staying power in one of the most dysfunctional environments in the league. Buchanan has endured some really topsy-turvy stuff, and he's the guy who's lasted. His people skills and talent for diplomacy have served him well in the hottest GM seat in the league under fickle owner Paul Allen. Buchanan took over for Pritchard under bizarre circumstances when Pritchard was told hours before the 2010 draft that he was being fired, and then took over on an interim basis again when Allen fired Rich Cho about a month before the 2011 draft. Through it all, Buchanan held the front office together under extreme duress.
Travis Schlenk, Warriors' assistant GM: Schlenk has risen through the ranks from video guy to a trusted voice on all trades and personnel decisions. In what can often be a challenging environment with an abundance of agendas, Schlenk has just put his head down and outworked everyone. He's invaluable when it comes to evaluating college talent, scouting pro personnel and working out complicated trade mechanics. In other words, he wears all the hats well. As much as the Warriors value him, sources say the team wouldn't stand in the way if Schlenk got an opportunity for a promotion with another organization.
Troy Weaver, Thunder's assistant GM: It was Weaver who urged Presti and the rest of the basketball staff to take a second look at Russell Westbrook when they worked together in Seattle. On Weaver's recommendation, the Sonics dug in with their research on Westbrook and wound up picking him fourth in the 2008 draft. So, yeah, that worked out pretty well. Weaver has a keen eye for talent, is a scout at heart and has learned the administrative side from one of the best in the business in Presti.
Pete D'Alessandro, Nuggets advisor: In the same vein as Penn, D'Alessandro is a maestro with the cap, tax and trade rules. His role as a numbers-cruncher and creative deal-maker was invaluable to the Nuggets during the Carmelo Anthony trade saga last season -- and again at the trade deadline last month, when Denver pulled the trigger on a last-minute decision to trade Nene to the Wizards for JaVale McGee. The former Warriors assistant GM has a law degree and has even dabbled in politics, something that helps navigate the personality minefields of the NBA. His role with the Nuggets has yet to be formalized, leaving the door open for an opportunistic franchise to scoop him up.
Dennis Lindsey, Spurs' assistant GM: The San Antonio family tree has spawned many a GM and GM candidate, including Presti, Pritchard, Danny Ferry and Dell Demps. Lindsey, the assistant GM under R.C. Buford, has been in the mix for a handful of jobs and it's only a matter of time before he gets a shot at running his own show. That is, if he wants it. Lindsey has backed out of several front office searches, most recently in Toronto, and may simply be comfortable in his role with the Spurs, who value him highly.