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Larry Bird Wins Executive of the Year, But Neil Olshey Was the Right Choice

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Not that it matters a bit, but I can't help musing about the NBA Executive of the Year voting. Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers won the award with 12 first place votes and 88 points, R.C. Buford of the San Antonio Spurs was second with eight first place votes and 56 points and Neil Olshey of the Clippers was third with six first place votes and 55 points. From there it was a pretty steep drop off to Gar Forman of the Chicago Bulls with two first place votes and 16 points.

And my reaction to all of this is, really?

Now you have to realize that the execs themselves vote for this award. And when I say the execs, I mean an unpaid intern somewhere in the office in most cases. At any rate, each team gets a ballot, and they vote for their first, second and third choices for Executive of the Year. What are the instructions to the voters? Beyond the name of the award, "Executive of the Year", it's totally up to the imagination. It could be best dressed. It could be easiest to reach on speed dial. It could be best career as a player.

The logical inference from the phrase "of the Year" in the title of the award is that it is referring to concrete things the Executive did to improve the team during the season in question. If that's the case though, how exactly did two voters justify making Forman their first choice? The Bulls had a fine season, tying the Spurs for best record in the NBA, and Forman deserves some amount of credit for that success. But the Bulls winning percentage this season (.758) is essentially identical to their winning percentage last season (.758). More to the point, the top ten Bulls players in terms of minutes played this season were ALL with the team last year. Forman's big off-season move was to sign Rip Hamilton, which frankly doesn't look like a particularly good move when you consider that the 34 year old missed 58% of the regular season. Forman would have been a fine choice for Executive of the Year for 2010-2011 (and in fact he shared the award with Pat Riley last year). This year? Did voters just re-send last season's ballot? Are they paying any attention at all?

Now consider Bird, Buford and Olshey. Here are the winning percentages for the three teams from last season to this season:












The Spurs were good last year, and they were good this year. The Pacers and the Clippers each made nice progress, with the Clippers taking the bigger leap.

So which executive did more to remake the roster from one season to the next?

Buford has done some nice work on the Spurs, that much is clear, but it's all been around the edges. The Spurs are the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, all coached by Gregg Popovich. The rest is incidental. So Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, these are all nice additions to the roster. But they're role players. Are they significant upgrades over the role players they replaced? Looking at the Spurs record the last two seasons, evidently not. Buford has never won the Executive of the Year award, which is a joke. He's the executive of the decade, the executive of the century, the executive of a generation, but unless this is a lifetime achievement award, it's difficult to justify him as executive of the year in 2011-2012. Ironically, the Spurs failure in the 2011 playoffs is undoubtedly contributing to the impression that they made major improvements this year. They had the best record in the Western Conference last year, but happened to lose in the first round. This is a good team that stayed good.

Two of Bird's new acquisitions in Indiana are starting for the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs, George Hill and David West, and that's significant. In addition to Hill and West, role player Lou Amundson was signed in the off-season and Leandro Barbosa was acquired at the trade deadline. Hill, West and Barbosa are all key contrbutors to the team's current playoff success. Amundson is a minor character in the postseason, averaging 8 minutes and 2 points in the playoffs. It's worth noting in this discussion that one of the biggest changes for both the Pacers and the Spurs was a transaction between them, when Hill went to Indiana for first round pick Leonard. Usually we view these trades as having winners and losers -- did Bird and Buford both win that trade? I'm willing to stipulate that the trade may have worked out for both teams, but it's worth recognizing that each executive gave up something very valuable in that trade. San Antonio wound up playing the season without a backup point guard in the absence of Hill; Indiana traded away a player that was fourth in rookie of the year voting.

As for the Clippers, the roster has undergone major renovation. On opening day the team featured three starters that had been acquired between the end of the lockout and the start of the season, and a fourth that had to be re-signed after signing a rival offer sheet. Half of the ten players in the playoff rotation were acquired this season, two of those in mid-season, and that doesn't include the injured Chauncey Billups. Olshey used every avenue available to an executive to improve this team -- trades (Chris Paul, Nick Young), free agent starter (Caron Butler), free agent role player (Reggie Evans), free agency from China (Kenyon Martin), restricted free agency (DeAndre Jordan) and even the D-League (Bobby Simmons). The Clippers have been completely transformed in the course of less than six months, and went from the lottery to the second round of the playoffs (and counting). Sixty percent of the roster, and the best player on the team, are new to the team this year. No other successful team can make either of those statements, let alone both.

Like I said, it doesn't matter. Who knows what the interns filling out the ballot are actually thinking. There are any number of agendas one might imagine here. For instance it's likely that neither the Lakers nor the Rockets (teams that had a trade of their own vetoed before the Clippers acquired Paul) were very motivated to vote for Olshey. And Larry Bird is still Larry Bird after all, and plenty of execs are no doubt inclined to vote for him. Olshey is an outsider in the clubby environment of NBA Execs, dominated by ex-players and ex-coaches, and that is clearly a factor here. And none of it matters.

But if these awards are worth having, surely they're worth getting correct. And there was really only one reasonable choice for Executive of the Year this season, and that was Neil Olshey.