The NBA’s 10 worst GMs of the last decade

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Then-Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey (l.) and Dwight Howard

Then-Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey (l.) and Dwight Howard
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We reviewed the aptitude of front-office leaders through the last decade, so it’s only fitting we roast those on the opposite end of the spectrum. There has been no shortage of charlatans, scam artists, and swindlers manning the executive suite for NBA teams over the last 10 years. We pinpointed the worst offenders and gave reasons why they deserve to be lambasted for destroying the hopes and dreams of fan bases across North America.

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Few front-office leaders have taken bigger swings than Morey, who traded for an aging Chris Paul in 2017. It’s in the results that he draws criticism. He gave up key rotation players in Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, and 2018 and 2021 first-round picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for CP3. Even with that mega-swing, the Rockets missed the playoffs in 2019 and 2020. He’s also been free-wheeling when it comes to trading draft picks. In 2012, Morey traded the No. 12 pick in the draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Kevin Martin, who was a good player, but no superstar. The trade also led to disappointing playoff performances. His overpays to Ryan Anderson (four-year, $80 million), Eric Gordon (four-year, $75.6 million), and Clint Capela (five-year, $90 million) made it difficult for the Rockets to sign other free agents or make trades. And we all know how much James Harden, Morey’s former bestie, feels about him as a leader.

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First, the obvious: Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, winning 11 championships with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. However, his tenure as president of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks was a disaster, as he made several regrettable moves leading to the worst stretch in franchise history. After missing out on hiring Steve Kerr as head coach, he settled for his former player, Derek Fisher, who had no coaching experience. The Knicks went 17-65 in Fisher’s first year, and he was fired after just 1.5 seasons. On the transaction side, Phil traded for former MVP Derrick Rose amidst legal troubles — the point guard (and two of his friends) was accused but found not guilty of rape. Rose frequently disappeared from team activities with zero explanation. It got worse when Jackson signed Joakim Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract as he was coming off of a major knee injury at 31. He played in just 53 games for the Knicks in two seasons and was released in 2018. The Knicks just finished paying off his stretched contract last summer. Not to mention Phil’s disparaging comments to the press about his players, including Kristaps Porziņģis and Carmelo Anthony, that created a toxic environment in the locker room and set the table for both players to leave eventually.

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The Mavericks won their first NBA championship in 2011 under Nelson. But, helping guide the team to its first title, and being the son of a beloved Mavs coach can’t absolve Nelson of squandering Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight and Luka Dončić’s early years. In 2014, Nelson traded Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, and Jameer Nelson to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell (still the Mavs starting center!). Rondo clashed with then-head coach Rick Carlise while seemingly giving up in his first playoff stint with the team. Nelson’s regime also: Failed to develop fellow Lottery pick, Dennis Smith Jr., overpaid wanna-be “star” Chandler Parson (four-year, $94 million contract), and traded for oft-injured, brooding Kristaps Porziņģis before signing him to an albatross extension (five-year, $158 million). He was fired over a war of words with owner Mark Cuban over sexual assault allegations by his nephew over Mavs executive and Cuban right-hand-man Jason Lutin. [Ed. note: Cuban denied Nelson’s allegations in an email to ESPN.] Many Mavs fans point to Donnie as the reason the Mavs have failed to maximize Dončić and build a championship team. But it has been a group effort of dysfunction between Nelson and his successor, Nico Harrison.

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Never hire a former shoe salesman as your general manager — especially a former Nike exec who can’t put together a decent marketing proposal for the game’s greatest shooter of all time. Harrison looks better in a suit than Nelson but has been just as bad in his short tenure, further eroding Dončić’s chances at a championship in Dallas. In 2022, Harrison traded spare parts and a first-round pick for Christian Wood, who quickly proved inconsistent and a defensive liability. But he was never given a real shot by head coach Jason Kidd. Speaking of Kidd, he is the worst coach in the NBA and has been atrocious at drawing up out-of-timeout plays, game-winning shots, and managing rotations. Kidd was Harrison’s choice to succeed Carlise. But Harrison’s biggest sin was a repeat of the franchise’s fumbling of Steve Nash. Harrison skipped two opportunities to re-sign Jalen Brunson, allowing him to leave for the New York Knicks in free agency, netting nothing in return. Brunson could have been the Mavericks’ starting point guard for years to come and looks to be an All-NBA caliber player moving forward. What a bum.

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Rich Cho shouldn’t be the patsy for the Hornets’ decade-plus of ineptitude. The GOAT, Michael Jordan, deserves equal folly for messing up his team beyond recognition. Getting rid of Cho and Jordan hasn’t solved their systemic ineptitude, judging by recent headlines. But Cho’s tenure laid the groundwork for years of losing and failed playoff appearances. The team was 24-33 when Cho was fired in 2018. Even with all that losing, he was unable to land the first pick in 2012 after a 7-59 season, settling for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s broken shot with the No. 2 pick. His eye for talent proved to be a league-worst, selecting underwhelming role players Cody Zeller fourth overall in 2013, Noah Vonleh ninth in 2014, and Frank Kaminsky ninth overall in 2015. Oof, that is top-tier whiffing. In Cho’s seven seasons, the Hornets managed a regular season record of 212-321 (.398).

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So much has changed since the feel-good vibes of the 2019 squad that featured a promising young core of D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen. That team made the playoffs, Russell made the All-Star team, and things seemed on the right track for NYC’s “little brother” franchise under Kenny Atkinson. Then came the free-agent summer of 2019, when the Nets upstaged the Knicks and netted Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in their primes as free agents. The remaining young pieces were soon shipped out for James Harden, giving the Nets one of the premier trios in league history. He replaced Atkinson with former MVP Steve Nash, even though he had zero coaching experience. So how did it all go? The trio was a farce, playing just 16 games together before Harden demanded out of town — shocking, right? — and was sent to the 76ers for the shattered spirit of Ben Simmons. Nash was fired for failing to hold the locker room or inspiring team play. Irving and Durant soon followed suit, demanding out, eviscerating the roster to several role players and budding star Mikal Bridges. Somehow, Marks botched the greatest gift a GM could get. Four years later, he has no chips to show for it while his superstar trio coup competes for championships elsewhere.

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We know the story by now: Sam Hinkie is known for his unconventional approach to team building, which he called “The Process,” focusing on analytics to build out a team’s strengths. Hinkie believed that the best way to build a championship team was to lose as much as possible, on purpose, to horde draft picks. Hinkie’s approach was controversial, and he was criticized for his willingness to sacrifice wins in the present for the sake of the future. It’s obvious now that “The Process” failed, as Hinkie’s prized pick, Joel Embiid, seems prime to be the last domino to fall out of town. The path to poverty began in 2013 when he traded two-way star Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel. Noel joined a trio of centers in Embiid and former big man bum Jahlil Okafor to battle for center supremacy. Noel and Okafor are both out of the league. As are many of Hinkie’s Process picks, including Michael-Carter Williams. Not to mention Simmons, who failed as Embiid’s No. 2 and has had a bizarre last couple of years as he battled physical, mental, and emotional issues. It’s fitting that HInkie’s main acolyte, Morey, is at the helm of the 76ers heading towards an inevitable divorce with Embiid, ending the failed “Process.”

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There is no better argument against long-term job security than Grunfeld’s two-decades-long tenure with the Wizards. Grunfeld preferred trying to use his connections to land free agents rather than build through the draft. But this approach mostly ended up with a roster field with bloated contracts. In 2012, Grunfeld signed Andray Blatche to a three-year, $28 million extension. Blatche was a talented player, but he was also inconsistent, immature, and never lived up to his potential or contract in Washington. At the time, Wizards owner Ted Leonis referred to Blatche, Nick Young, and JaVale McGee as “the new big three.” Hilarious. Grunfeld also presided over the Gilbert Arenas era, when the talented guard was suspended for bringing guns into the locker room, squandering the team’s playoff promise and eventually leading to the breaking up of their talented yet enigmatic core. In the years that followed, he continued molding Washington into a place where mediocre players went to get overpaid. In 2016 alone, Grunfeld signed Ian Mahinmi (four years, $64 million), Andrew Nicholson (four years, $26 million), and Jason Smith (three years, $16 million).

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When a former, beloved player is hired as a front office exec to lead the team, it’s viewed as a success story and a sign of a franchise taking care of its legends. Those feel-good vibes lasted about a week in Sacramento before Vlade Divac, the dynamic center on the early 2000s contending Kings teams, turned the franchise into the laughingstock of the NBA. He will be forever remembered for his 2018 draft night decision to take big man Marvin Bagley III with the second overall pick over franchise-changer Luka Dončić. He followed up with hiring Luke Walton, one of the worst head coaches in recent memory. Walton was a travesty and led to franchise star DeMarcus Cousins being traded for a pile of scraps. His best move was taking De’Aaron Fox in the 2017 Draft, but it took dumping Divac and improving the culture and management to set Fox up to reach his full potential.

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For the entirety of the 2010s, the Orlando Magic were the poster child for mediocrity. Because of the cultivation of slightly above-average players, they were deeply entrenched in NBA purgatory. The team won an average of 26.4 games since he was hired in 2012, a disgusting number considering the amount of Lottery picks the losing provided them. None of the three coaches he hired during his tenure worked out, and neither did his Lottery draft picks, such as Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, who are both out of the league. Aaron Gordon and Victor Oladipo reached their best elsewhere, while Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic became over-paid traffic cones. Hennigan amassed a top-10 payroll during his tenure, showing his penchant for overpaying the wrong players while punting on draft picks. The nail in the coffin was the Magic’s disappointing 29-53 season in 2017, leading to his firing after a flurry of summer moves that reshaped the roster. Under Hennigan’s five-year reign, the Magic pieced together a 132-278 record (a .322 winning percentage), good for the second-worst mark during that stretch. He only lagged behind Hinkie’s hatchet job in Philly. 

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