New Phoenix GM Lance Blanks has some talent to work with, but he also has the daunting task of stepping in right after a Western Conference Finals run. It’s not always bad teams that undergo a change in management. The Cavs, who won a league-high 61 games last season, let GM Danny Ferry go in June in a failed attempt to woo back LeBron James. The Suns made the conference finals last season, but Steve Kerr stepped down as general manager after the season. And in one of the strangest moves of the off-season, the Blazers fired GM Kevin Pritchard an hour before the June 24 draft, but still allowed him to run their war room that night. Pritchard, who helped lead the Blazers to 50 wins in 2009-10, drafted guards Elliot Williams and Armon Johnson, and traded Martell Webster for Ryan Gomes and Luke Babbitt. The Hornets made the playoffs two of the last three years and won 56 games in 2007-08, but they got rid of Jeff Bower, perhaps in part due to the still-unresolved Chris Paul situation.
Here’s a look at what the men taking over chief decision-making duties for those teams bring to the table:
Lance Blanks, Phoenix Suns
Blanks, the first hire under new President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby, comes to the Suns after spending five years as an assistant under Ferry in Cleveland. Like several other NBA GMs, Blanks also spent time in the Spurs organization, serving as director of scouting in San Antonio. The Spurs have a reputation as great talent evaluators who are reluctant to dole out massive contracts to undeserving players. His background is a mixed bag; he was with San Antonio when they drafted Tony Parker and Luis Scola, but he was also with the Cavs when they struggled to find help for LeBron.
The Suns roster was pretty much in place when Blanks took over earlier this month, the biggest difference being the departure of Amare Stoudemire, who signed with the Knicks. The Suns countered this by signing Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress while trading for Hedo Turkoglu. While none of them will single-handedly offset the loss of Stoudemire, they can all play - and therein lies the problem for Phoenix. The Suns have six forwards on their roster that are all capable of joining Phoenix’s current frontline rotation of Jared Dudley, Channing Frye and Grant Hill. Blanks’ first move should be to package one or two of those forwards for a young point guard that can back up and, eventually, succeed Steve Nash. The Suns may struggle to return to the conference finals in the deep West, but they will still be a quality team in 2010-11.
Chris Grant, Cleveland Cavaliers
Grant was a holdover from Ferry’s staff and succeeded the GM in June. He can’t be totally blamed for LeBron’s departure, certainly no more than any other member of the Cleveland front office, as he was only on the job a couple weeks before James left. Grant had experience in all facets of the GM job under Ferry. One of the Cavs’ first moves after promoting Grant was to hire new head coach Byron Scott, who replaces the departed Mike Brown.
Grant hasn’t done much to rework a roster that, due to the loss of James, goes from one of the top teams in the league to one that will battle just to be in the playoffs. They have big holes at center and shooting guard, and Antawn Jamison is owed $28 million over two years, so the Cavs may be stuck with the 34-year-old for at least this season (his $15 million expiring deal in 2012 could be used as a trade chip), even though he was brought to Cleveland mainly as support for James. Though Grant did trade for Ramon Sessions from Minnesota (a nice young PG), the roster is really a collection of supporting parts that needed James to be successful. Cleveland seems destined for another spell of mediocrity, as they are not bad enough to get a high lottery pick, but not good enough to seriously contend.
Rich Cho, Portland Trail Blazers
Cho, who spent 15 years with the Sonics/Thunder organization, had been highly touted for a head job after the Thunder’s recent success, has degrees in engineering (from Washington State) and law (from Pepperdine), earning himself a reputation for mastery of the CBA and mathematical analysis. Though he employs advanced statistics to evaluate talent (think Moneyball), he also likes to use data and research in order to make informed decisions in all areas of the game (coaching, contracts, strategy). Cho has gone to great lengths to secure this information, such as analyzing in detail every second-round draft pick since 2003, or looking over every ACL injury since 2000. Cho, who encouraged Sam Presti to incorporate this approach in OKC, will now look to do the same in the Pacific Northwest.
The Blazers have been talked up for years as one of the most talented young groups in the league, but that doesn’t change the fact that they haven’t made it to the second round of the playoffs since 2000. Brandon Roy is the obvious star, and they have other players who fit their roles nicely and don’t over-extend themselves (Andre Miller and Marcus Camby). Portland needs one or two other players to make a jump in order to be truly competitive. Cho’s only major move this summer was to sign Wesley Matthews from Utah in a five-year, $34 million deal, which more than Matthews is worth at this point. Cho may be able to get a nice addition should he be able to work out a trade for Rudy Fernandez, preferably for an experienced forward and/or a draft pick. Though Portland loves its Blazers, Cho will be under pressure to perform, as this group of players only has a few more years to meet the results fans expect.
Dell Demps, New Orleans Hornets
Demps comes to New Orleans after five years in San Antonio as director of pro personnel and GM of their D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros. The Spurs have had success in the front office throughout the past decade, and though most of the decision-making comes down to R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be involved in one of the most well-run franchises in sports. Demps and the Spurs often used Synergy Sports, an advanced video analysis firm, to evaluate talent, so look for Demps to bring that with him to the Big Easy.
Demps doesn’t face an easy situation with the Hornets, as his star point guard, Chris Paul, has asked to be traded if they Hornets don’t become more competitive. I sure hope Demps made ground with Paul before he traded away Darren Collison, because Collison could have replaced Paul if he indeed plans to leave soon. Instead, Demps traded Collison (who is owed just $5 million total over the next three seasons) and James Posey for Trevor Ariza, who will help NO on the wing. The Hornets have some nice pieces, but behind Paul they have no depth at either guard position and still have four years and $52 million left on Emeka Okafor’s massive contract. Even if Demps can get the Paul situation ironed out, he still faces challenges in New Orleans.