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Is Masai Ujiri Really That Great?

By Jesse Mason | October 28, 2013 | Basketball

Everyone should be skeptical of “best executive” awards.

This is part of a larger contention that people should be more skeptical in general, but “best executive” awards are a great example. People like to credit the executive with everything that went right in their organization, and blame them for everything that went wrong. The best estimate is that CEO ability has about a .3 correlation with company performance, meaning that the better CEO’s company will outperform a worse-run company about 60% of the time.

Luck affects the NBA’s general managers in a big way. If they make a blockbuster trade or have a good season, they’ll look like a genius; if they go years without winning, they’re likely to get fired. It’s an extremely results-oriented, rather than process-oriented, field.

If you want to get sad, take a look at the NBA’s past Executive of the Year awards. Bryan Colangelo earned his second EotY honor with the Raptors after the 2006-07 season, when the Raptors won 57% of their regular season games and made the playoffs. Their win percentage after that: .500, .402, .488, .268, .348, .415. Then he gets fired and replaced with Mr. Masai Ujiri, the reigning Executive of the Year.

Geoff Petrie had an even worse trajectory. The Kings put him in charge in the mid-90s, and he assembled a fantastic squad in the early 2000s that will be remembered as one of the most fun teams to watch of all time. This got him two EotY awards in three years, the only person to do that until Calangelo did the same a half-decade later. The following year, Petrie’s Kings improved again to 61 wins, winning the West. Their decline started after that, slowly but surely moving from a team that lost game seven of the Western conference finals to the Lakers with prime Shaq and Kobe (in the most bullshit playoff series of all time), to a team that missed the playoffs seven years in a row, including  a 17-win season in 2008-09.

Not all of this is the fault of the executives, of course. But that’s part of the point: they didn’t have perfect control; they probably made some good decisions that turned out poorly, but on their ascent, they probably made some bad decisions that turned out well. Luck cuts both ways, and any great seasons that seemingly come out of nowhere are going to regress to the mean the next year, whether you’re executive, coach, or player.

Why do I bring up all these downer lookbacks on previous EotY winners? Because I wanted to set the stage for talking about someone that I’ve come to think of as a legitimately fantastic executive: Masai Ujiri. I was shocked for him to win the award, not because I didn’t think he was the best… I was shocked that the league agreed with me. This was a year when his team ended up underperforming in the playoffs, and their team didn’t send a single player to the All-Star game.

When going back over his previous transactions, I want to be really careful to separate when he made a deal that was just fantastic, and when he did something that simply ended up turning out well. This is a tricky thing, and hindsight can never perfectly reproduce the information people had going into a decision.

First, let’s start off with That Big Trade, the one that put Ujiri on the map: the Carmelo Anthony trade.

Denver traded away: Carmelo Anthony, Renaldo Balkman, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Kosta Koufos, Shelden Williams, 2015 second-round pick

Denver acquired: Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, 2012 and 2013 second-round picks, 2014 first-round pick, cash

The Knicks certainly got the best player in the deal, but it shows the price a team has to pay to get that: three above-average starting players, two of whom were in their early 20s at the time, along with a project big man and an upgrade in second-round picks. Billups was an extremely effective player at the time, but he was aging and earning $13m in that year, and eventually got amnestied.

Since it happened, this trade has been held up as the model for trading off one’s star player: clearing roster room and salary, dumping your biggest contract, acquiring several starting-quality young players, and picking up an extra pick in the process. It was thought of as a near-miracle at the time for Denver, and hindsight has made it look even better: Gallinari is coming off his best year ever, and Chandler, though hobbled by injuries, produced much better on a per-minute basis than he ever had before. Raymond Felton was turned into Andre Miller, Jordan Hamilton and a second-round pick in a deal that did more for the lob pass than any trade aside from the Chris Paul one.

Kosta Koufos is a noteworthy player here, and I suspect Ujiri just got lucky with this one. He was the only player from Minnesota that Denver acquired, and at the time, he was thought of as being a pretty bad end-of-bench guy. If he was any good, Minnesota would have thought more of sending away a seven-foot center making just over $1m a year on his rookie contract. At the time, he had played just over 1000 career NBA minutes, and had already been a throw-in on a trade from Utah. His true shooting was under .500 midway through his Minnesota season when he got shipped out. Whether Denver had scouted him and seen something that could be developed and cunningly swiped him, or thought nothing of him and Denver’s player development squad had turned him into the defensive presence he is now… I have no idea.

The next trade is the one with the most uncertainty still around it.

Denver traded away: Nenê
Denver acquired: JaVale McGee

Analysis of this one comes down to a few things: how much should a good, young team value getting more young players? If a player has played on a high level for many years, and starts playing worse after injury, are they likely to regress back to their higher level of play, or is this the new norm? And, the almost philosophical question: if a person raised in a bad environment ends up bad, can they change when moved to a better one?

The Nuggets had, some months earlier, signed Nenê to a monster five-year, $65m contract… the kind that can ruin a team if he turns into an injured shell of his former self. Nenê wasn’t clearly headed in that direction, but he was missing time for injuries, and wasn’t the hyper-efficient Nenê he had been in years past. So, whether by design when they signed the deal or whether they just thought better of the contract afterward, Denver sent him away for the… um… ‘inconsistent’ JaVale McGee.

This is an area where I have to be very careful to divorce my non-statistical reactions to watching him play with the factual realities. For people who haven’t done it, watching McGee play is a great time. He catches lobs. He pulls off some amazing moves. He goes for sky-high blocks, and on some of those attempts, actually connects with the ball. But no matter how good his efficiency, rebounding, and block numbers look (quite good, in fact), the plus/minus data tells the real story here: with very few exceptions, his team plays worse on both ends of the court with JaVale on the floor. Nenê does not have that sort of discrepancy between his personal stats and team stats; he has monstrously improved the Wizards when he’s out there for them. JaVale, somehow, made the Wizards worse.

But his talent is so obvious. Can Denver’s excellent staff train him to unlearn all those horrific years in Washington, and play like a reasonable basketball player?

Watching him, I keep tricking myself into seeing improvements. Then I look back at the numbers, and they’re basically the same as they were with the Wizards: good personal stats, makes his team worse. So, a playoff team sent away an older, injury-prone veteran, effective but waning, for a younger, highly talented player who makes his team worse (at the moment). This is a tough one. I will reluctantly call it a positive for Denver, but it’s extremely close, and part of it hinges on the possibility of a pump-and-dump: acquiring JaVale, convincing the league he’s way better now, shipping him out for someone who’s actually effective.

Mr. Ujiri only made four notable trades while in Denver, and we’ve already covered three. The last of his deals seemed to be, at the time, The Big One:

Denver traded away: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, 2013 second-round pick, 2014 first-round pick, 2014 second-round pick (clause on this so that Denver will send the worse of their two 2014 second-round picks)

Denver acquired: Andre Iguodala

When this trade happened, my jaw was on the floor. The Nuggets managed to join in a trade they seemingly had no business being in, and gave up Afflalo (a decent-though-overrated defender and very good shooter with illusions of iso prowess), a first, and somehow dumped the Harrington albatross contract to get Iguodala. How on earth?

This one is a difficult in-hindsight trade to evaluate, since Iguodala was a free agent after the season. Making trades based on what a player will decide to do in the future is a bit dicey, and as third-party analysts we’re not entitled to the in-person discussions that players have with their team and agent about where they’d like to go. Iguodala ended up leaving in a sign-and-trade with the Warriors after Ujiri left, and who knows what would have convinced him to stay? If the team had won that series against the Warriors, and the Nuggets had retained Ujiri and Karl… well, maybe the result would have been different. But what Ujiri did was give the Nuggets one of the best wing defensive players in the league, and someone that the transition-based offense put to very good use. With the information we have available, then, I’m going to conclude that this was a great deal, and one any GM would be ecstatic to make, even if it didn’t work out as well as the Nuggets would have liked.

Ujiri did other things other than those trades, of course. Drafting is super-important, and he deserves credit for correctly picking Kenneth Faried… sort of. Every mock draft had him going at the 21st spot, to the Portland Trailblazers, which Portland fans will always bring up in discussions of Faried. All Denver did was take the guy that should have gone one slot higher. Also worth noting: many of the basketball analytics-oriented people, including myself, had singled out Faried prior to the draft as someone who was way, way, way better than his projected draft position. Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE model projected him as being the second-best player in the draft, after Kyrie Irving, and there’s a very good case that’s been how things worked out.

Saying he only picked him 22nd because he didn’t go 21st is a cop-out, though, since players fall unexpectedly in every draft. MarShon Brooks was expected to go in the mid-teens and fell ten slots below that, and he’s been a solid bench scorer, but nothing to get excited about. Drafting Faried was, both at the time and in hindsight, a blatantly obvious move, but being obvious doesn’t mean it wasn’t correct. Instead, I’d say that about 20 general managers made a mistake by not listening to the advanced stats people and taking Faried sooner.

The jury is still out on the rest of his draft picks, since we’ve barely see them play. Fournier could end up being a steal in the late first, but the sample size is way too low to tell.

There’s an important aspect we haven’t addressed though: even if Ujiri is the best GM in the league, how much is that worth? Could he be replaced by some guy off the street earning a fraction of his salary? The notoriously cheap Kroenke family aims to find that out, and so far, the answer is: no, and you’re getting a bad value for even trying.

Reportedly, the Raptors persuaded Ujiri with an offer of $15m over five years, and the Nuggets wouldn’t even offer half of that annual salary. Instead, they hired Tim Connelly at what must logically be a far cheaper rate. If he could do the same job, then that’s a great deal. So far, he cannot. He has made two trades so far: shipping Kosta Koufos, who I’ve already laid my praise all over and think of as one of the league’s most underrated players, to the Memphis Grizzlies for the near-worthless Darrell Arthur, an offensively inefficient bench forward who’s way worse offensively after a ruptured Achilles. This results in JaVale McGee as the team’s only real center (Mozgov is awful), a log jam at power forward, and a downgrade in talent whether measured by conventional player rankings (150 vs 201 on ESPN’s rankings) or advanced statistics. His other trade is the sign-and-trade to send Iguodala (and cash) out, and receive the thoroughly mediocre 30 year-old Randy Foye in return.

As any angry 70 year-old will note, professional athletes are paid a lot. Even Darrell Arthur makes $3m a year, which just happens to be the salary of Ujiri with the Raptors. All it takes for Ujiri to pay for himself over a bargain-bin $500k GM is to produce more than $2.5m a year in value for his franchise. Connelly, in that single Kosta Koufos transaction, probably cost the team far more in value than that, and that’s not even a trade involving players anyone has heard of. Because of how easy it is to sign a player to a bad contract that will burden a team for years (Amar’e Stoudemire, Andris Biedrins, Ben Gordon, etc), it’s pretty crucial to hire a GM that won’t make mistakes that outright terrible. A single year of paying Emeka Okafor to be mediocre costs about the same as Ujiri’s entire five-year contract, and he’s the highest-paid GM in the league.

On the other hand, let’s check in with what Ujiri is doing over at his new Toronto home:

Toronto traded away: Andrea Bargnani

Toronto acquired: Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, 2014 second-round pick, 2016 first-round pick, 2017 second-round pick

When Ujiri went over to Toronto, I was incredibly curious whether he’d be able to duplicate those Denver trades where he seems to get way more value than he should have. And holy god, is this a value-laced trade. Bargnani makes almost $12m in his first Knicks season, had a TS of .482 last year, and (depending on who you listen to) is somewhere between average and a train wreck on defense. That contract is something that, seemingly, Toronto would want to dump at all costs, and they somehow got a first-round pick for him… and one of the best three-point shooters in the game… and a couple second-round picks, I guess just to see if the Knicks would go for literally anything. This trade goes beyond lopsided and into the realm of hilarious.

When Ujiri went to Toronto, I was crossing my fingers that Denver was on some next-level statistical analysis, paying attention to the aforementioned research on how luck-based executive performance is. But the A vs B of Connelly’s transactions compared to Ujiri couldn’t be clearer: Ujiri is the game’s best general manager, and teams need to start paying their general managers like the crucial decision-makers they are. Because who’d you rather have: him or Darrell Arthur?

James H Steiger, via Daniel Kahneman’s absolutely essential book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Summaries of CEO performance and related subjects are mostly summaries of Chapter 19 in that book.

I’m using basketball-reference for transaction histories (and everything else), but you can get the same info just about anywhere.

Article by Jesse Mason