What NBA General Managers Actually Do
There's a great distance between our idea of an NBA GM's job and what it is. As Minnesota GM Milt Newton can attest, that gap is full of stress and phone calls.
Photo by Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Consider the tangible disappointment of Optimus Prime, 80s action figure, versus Optimus Prime, 80s cartoon hero. Onscreen, the transformation from semi truck to robot was fluid, seamless: the panels and windows and doors shifted convincingly, and suddenly there before you stood the leader of the Autobots. But where did his trailer go? Where did it come back from later? How was an entire semi cab suddenly contained in the chest of a 10-foot tall robot? As an action figure, his arms were spindly, his head ill-placed on top of the too big semi's roof, and it took three times as long to switch him back and forth between truck and robot. "More than meets the eye" wasn't just a slogan—it was a con, a dodge, an unconvincing reassurance that the real mechanisms behind this smoothly working machine were something you couldn't comprehend.
This is not so different from an NBA front office.
Fans will dial up ESPN's Trade Machine and create a deal that makes too much sense not to do. They'll overhaul a team in NBA2K and wonder why an actual team can't do at least some of the same. They'll assign blame or credit to the general manager alone when even the most mundane action is the result of the cumulative efforts of an entire staff of people, who are in turn working with and against the entire staffs of 29 other teams, all of them constantly assessing and re-assessing the landscape of the NBA.
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example, the face of the franchise beyond the court is head coach, president of basketball operations and part-owner Flip Saunders. The buck might stop with Saunders, but it has to pass through many hands first, including those of the man who deals with much of the day-to-day operation of the franchise. That is general manager Milt Newton.
"The overriding aspect of my job is putting a product on the floor that can be perennial playoff contenders," he says. "We're all in this to win a championship."
Before you start snickering at the idea of the Wolves—in last place in the Western Conference and one of the most woebegone NBA franchises for something like the entirety of their existence—becoming playoff contenders, pause and consider that this is quite literally the job set before Newton.
"Every day you have decisions to be made," Newton says. "Managing your staff, managing the players, talking on the phone with other teams and, when a deal is made, it's not just that we made a deal on Thursday and spoke about it on Wednesday. It may be months in the making, circling back to other teams. You know: 'Are you guys making any moves? Who do you like on our team? We'll tell you who we like on your team.'"
If this sounds suspiciously junior high-esque, it's because—like all businesses that don't produce any actual physical goods—the NBA is founded on relationships folded in and back on themselves over and over. Junior high is like this because the learning is often just an excuse for socialization. Academia is like this because academics aren't judged by quarterly earnings. And, for all the talk of winning championships and the hard numbers of analytics, the NBA is like this because of the scarcity of coaches, the scarcity of players and the fact that success is easy to define and devilishly hard to achieve.
Also it's like junior high because there's a lot of time spent on the phone.
"We're on the phone every day, seeing what's out there, what you're willing to do," says Newton. "If I notice that your team went down with an injury last night, I'm calling you maybe the next day to find out if there's any way we can help you in regards to getting a piece that you may need."
It's common for fans to look at a given player and say, "He's terrible. We should trade him." This is not how it goes, and something like the opposite of how it works. Trades need to be—or at least need to appear—mutually beneficial to both sides. The future being the cruel and unknowable thing that it is, it doesn't always work out that way.
But consider the Milwaukee Bucks of two years ago. After finishing with a sub-.500 record and getting swept by the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs when they could have used a lottery pick, they moved the problematic backcourt duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. Two years later, it's proven to be a good move for Milwaukee, Dallas, Ellis and— in the brief glimpse we got of Jennings between the Pistons waiving Josh Smith and Jennings' season-ending Achilles injury—for Detroit and Jennings.
Although there's plenty of gamesmanship and even rivalry—see, for example, the relationship between Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Rockets GM Daryl Morey—the NBA is fundamentally a self-contained ecosystem with a comparatively small population. For this reason, arranging trades is less like George Costanza selling computers and more like the protracted, multi-step process behind buying and selling a home. Even when things go comparatively quickly, the transaction is preceded by weeks or months of preparation both technical and mental in order to be ready to make the deal when the opportunity arises. Trades happen, but they don't Just Happen.
The complexity involved in the draft, trades and free agency plays itself out most legibly in one of the NBA's smallest units of player acquisition: the 10-day contract.
"The process could go back to his college days," Newton says, of assessing candidates for a 10-day seat at the end of the bench. "But for the most part, we have guys scouting players in the D-League and over in Europe, first of all to see the talent level. But what else is there besides this talent that we're getting? Are there off the court problems that we may not want to deal with?"
A player, even one on a comparatively disposable 10-day contract, is not a bolt or washer you run down to the hardware store for to finish a project. Basketball players are people, as you've no doubt noticed, which means that hiring one even for 10 days means introducing a new personality into a fairly small group of people. There's also the need to maintain a balance between filling immediate on-court needs and maintaining roster flexibility for future contingencies. This seems a good place to note that NBA teams have only 13 active roster spots.
"It may be a situation where, if we have the room, maybe we need to shore up this position," Newton continues. "Are there any players out there to give a look? Because 10 days is a short period of time. Or, if we had an injury, which we've had, who can help us fill this position as a stopgap? That may be a month in the making or it could be a quick hitter—a week to 10 days."
Teams fighting for the playoffs will use 10-days to deal with inevitable injuries as they gear up for a stretch run. Contenders might use them to fill gaps they envision in future matchups. A team that's out of the playoffs like the Wolves but dealing with injured players tries to straddle the line between fielding sufficient depth and discovering untapped potential.
The evaluation process for any player doesn't begin and end with his first or second 10-day contract, Newton stresses. Beyond talent, the way a player approaches the opportunity is a huge part of it. "If you're a point guard, and you've been a point guard your whole life," he says, "you know what it takes to be a point guard in regards to being able to pick up the plays really quick, being able to direct your team. But if you're a big man, I want to see if you can defend, if you can rebound, if you can be physical, the things that we need. Some players, they do well in the D-League, but when they come here, they realize these guys are just a little bit quicker, a little bit stronger, I gotta make a decision a little bit faster, so this level is definitely heads above the other leagues. Everything has to be right on the money."
Newton is talking, again, about a player who will be with the team for a week and change, and will likely play very little over that stretch. Newton is also talking as the GM of one of the teams with the worst records in the NBA.
"The fact that [10-day contract players] are only here for ten days—that's added pressure. They're thinking, 'I only have ten days to show these guys that I can help them.' What happens is they put too much pressure on themselves. We tell them play hard, compete, but we're not asking you to come here and average 30 points a game. The smart ones, they come in and fit in, they defend. They rebound if they're bigs. Everything else will take care of itself."
All this to consider, all this work, over one of the smallest moving pieces we can see, a part of the team-building process that barely moves the needle. And yet that transaction—the one line in six-point type in the next day's paper marking out ten days of Earl Barron, or whoever—is still an order of magnitude bigger than the hundreds of smaller, secret analyses, assessments, and sub-decisions that make that one insignificant thing possible.
We can watch Optimus Prime go from robot to truck and back again and feel like we know more or less what's happening, and we can watch teams try to transform themselves from lottery teams to contenders and think we could do a better job. We can see whatever we want to see. But maybe "more than meets the eye" isn't actually a con. Maybe it's just a way to divert attention from how difficult it is to genuinely transform one thing into something else.