10 Former NBA Players Who Tasted Success As General Managers
Shaquille O’Neal raised eyebrows last week when he flirted with the idea of interviewing for the Orlando Magic’s vacant general manager position — a job that, in the end, he decided not to pursue.
O’Neal, of course, had a playing career that will land him in the hall of fame one day. Just because he starred on the court, though, doesn’t mean he would also star in the front office. Here’s a look at how 10 ex-pros have fared in their current positions as GMs of teams:
Technically David Morway is the Pacers’ GM, but Bird gets the final say on all personnel decisions. The three-time NBA MVP and three-time NBA champion has found major success in his post-playing career. First, he stepped in as Indiana’s coach in the late ’90s and posted a .615 winning percentage. Since then, he’s gone on to become the team’s GM, a position he’s excelled at handling. Bird earned this year’s Executive of the Year award as the Pacers came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the league’s best young teams and throw a scare at the Miami Heat before LeBron and company finished them off in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Dumars was quite a player on the court, having been rewarded with a 2006 induction into the NBA’s Hall of Fame. But he’s probably achieved more fame and accolade for his work behind the scenes for the Pistons in his post-playing years. He was voted the league’s Executive of the Year in 2003, and is widely credited as the brains behind Detroit’s 2004 NBA championship team. Dumars has proven a savvy ability to win without real superstars at the helm.
Talk about a renaissance man — Ainge actually started his career as a baseball player. He then transitioned over to basketball and hasn’t looked back since. As a player, he was a scrappy contributor on some successful Boston teams, but it’s his work as a GM with the team that has brought him the most attention. Since 2003, he has spearheaded turning the Celtics around and brought in some top talent to play in Boston. By 2008, the team boasted the NBA’s best record at 66–16, and Ainge won the NBA Executive of the Year award for it.
He’s best-known as the executive behind the Lakers success with Kobe Bryant at the forefront, but Kupchak actually had a playing career of his own before that. He even made the NBA All-Rookie Team as a member of the Bullets. That’s when he had his first taste of a championship in 1978. After a knee injury knocked him out, he shifted gears and went to the executive side. Some of his moves brought in players that would ultimately propel the Lakers to win back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.
Known best for his time as a coach of the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat, Riley has been the face of some NBA organization or another for 30 years. Believe it or not, though, Riley was first a player. In fact, he was drafted as a football player, too, by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the 1967 NFL Draft. He chose basketball, and was primarily a bench player during his playing days. In 2003, he stepped down from the sidelines to focus entirely on his executive responsibilities. In perhaps his biggest move, he acquired Shaq in a trade that would take the Heat to a championship that they couldn’t grab before.
He was heavily scouted as player, and Thorn was was the second player selected in the 1963 NBA Draft. After eight years of mediocre success, he retired. But he stayed on as front office man with Seattle. In 1978, he got his first gig as GM for the Bulls before bouncing around the league a bit in front offices and on the sidelines as coach. In 2002, Thorn was named NBA Executive of the Year after he helped the New Jersey Nets reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. He joined Philadelphia in 2010, and has filled in as GM there since October 2011. It’s hard not to credit Thorn for the Sixers’ turnaround.
You might not remember Higgins as a player, but he lasted 13 seasons in the NBA while playing for seven different teams. He was a role player, averaging just nine points per game during his career. He rose through the ranks in his post-playing years as an assistant coach before transitioning over to front office operations with the Warriors. In 2007, he was hired as general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. Although Rich Cho was hired as general manager last year, Higgins remains deeply involved in basketball decisions for the Bobcats. For better or for worse, that is.
Grunfeld played in the NBA for nine seasons, leading the league in games played in 1979. He had a decent playing career, but it’s his GM years that stand out as the architect of the Knicks surprising run to the Finals in 1999. From there, he moved on to Milwaukee, where he again had good marks, before laving for Washington in 2003. It might take a bit more rebuilding for Grunfeld to achieve any success with the Wizards.
The Sacramento Kings went from the joke of the league to a team worth taking seriously. It happened under Petrie’s watch. Before taking over as the GM, Petrie had a notable playing career, earning two All-Star game nods and a co-Rookie of the Year award. His jersey was retired by the Blazers. He was named NBA Executive of the Year Award twice with the Kings, in 1999 and 2001.
Undrafted out of college, Demps found his way to the NBA the harder way. Nevertheless, he played for the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic before retiring. He rose through the ranks in his later years as an assistant coach with the Spurs before the Hornets noticed and called on him to be their next GM. New Orleans was coming off some years of financial instability and basketball uncertainty, and they needed someone to turn the franchise around. It might be a few years before we know how the Demps experiment has turned out. Another former player, Lance Blanks, is attempting to do the same with the struggling Phoenix Suns.