Jerry Krause, the former GM of the Bulls, once said: "Players don't win championships, organizations do." He received plenty of flak for that -- for dismissing or diminishing the importance of Michael Jordan for those six Bulls championships -- but Krause was actually on point.
Aren't organizations responsible for getting special players like Jordan, and surrounding them with the right teammates, and putting the right coach on the bench, and keeping everyone happy, and giving themselves a chance to win those championships, and creating a solid fan base, and keeping the payroll at a reasonable level? Yes to all of that.
Every organization sets a standard. Some have built-in advantages (tradition, large market, obscenely wealthy owner), but even those are squandered if the management is weak. Other franchises overcome certain built-in disadvantages, mainly due to small market size, and flourish anyway.
Here's how we rate the organizations in the NBA, from best to worst, taking into account the three important layers: ownership, the front office and coaching. A few go three-for-three. Some are solid in two out of three, while some have no discernible strength. Keep in mind, though: even the best must deal with misfortune or rebuilding.
1. Spurs. They're the gold standard, the franchise often copied, but rarely duplicated. A supportive owner, smart front office and Hall of Fame-bound coach is the bedrock of a small-market team now in its third decade of brilliance. How they've managed to do it for this long with a reasonable payroll is beyond genius.
2. Heat. Pat Riley's credibility and Micky Arison's cruise line funds are an irresistible combo, and if you doubt that, just ask LeBron James. Riley was smart enough to clear cap room without tanking, which allowed the Heat to sign a pair of A-list free agents and create the most talked-about team in years. Arison willingly pays the luxury tax in exchange for all the star power and championships. Riley and Arison is why Miami, a rotten basketball town, is a hot destination.
3. Rockets. Daryl Morey is a new-school GM with old-school sensibilities when it comes to judging talent and making deals. Without much in terms of assets, he managed to get James Harden and Dwight Howard, a pair of All-Stars and franchise players, in the last two years. As for the coach, it's a good thing that whatever issues Kevin McHale had in Minnesota didn't follow him to Houston.
4. OKC. The Thunder were lucky to get Kevin Durant in the draft, but then successfully found him help, much like the Spurs with Duncan. With a few high-quality drafts, Sam Presti became one of the five best general managers in the league. As long as OKC is a top-shelf team, college football will take a back seat in town.
5. Bulls. If there is indeed bickering between coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office, it hasn't affected the product on the floor or the constant sellouts in the building. Only bad luck involving Derrick Rose has set the Bulls back, and even then, they've stayed competitive. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, whose son Michael is seen as a possible successor, has long been viewed favorably in and outside of the league.
6. Mavericks. Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle form arguably the best owner-coach combo in the game. One has deep pockets, the other is a deep thinker, and both are equipped to make the Mavericks championship contenders provided the pieces can be found. That's the challenge here in the Dirk Nowitzki twilight era.
7. Pacers. Larry Bird built a BMW on a Toyota budget and sold Paul George on the idea of spending the next five years of his prime in the cold Midwest. That's just short of a miracle. After recovering from the Malice at the Palace and the painful aftermath, the Pacers are locked among the elite.
8. Celtics. The franchise always comes first, which Danny Ainge proved when he cut ties with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers to allow the Celtics to enter the next phase loaded with draft picks and not burdened by a heavy payroll. Added plus: an owner who allowed it to happen. Buoyed by tradition and banners, the Celtics remain a "destination" franchise for players and coaches.
9. Warriors. Owner Joe Lacob energized a large yet frustrated fan base when he rescued the franchise from a decade-long journey to disaster and put an entertaining product on the floor. With the club finally going in the right direction, management hasn't made any mistakes big enough to set the franchise back. Lacob hired a coach without any prior experience, and initially it raised few doubts -- but is Mark Jackson now in trouble?
10. Magic. This season may be a complete wash, but their top-10 status is mostly due to their slick handling of the Dwight Howard trade. They somehow came out the winner in that one, despite not having much leverage. Flush with assets and hope, and an owner unafraid of spending, the Magic's rebuilding period could be shorter than you think.
11. Clippers. Surely you laugh: Donald Sterling this high? Yeah, surprised us, too. He's eccentric and infamous for his bumbling and crippling decisions, but getting Chris Paul and Doc Rivers can wipe away lots of horrific history in a hurry. Right now Sterling might be the best basketball owner in L.A. Chew on that.
12. Suns. Strange when you think about, how owner Robert Sarver almost ran this team into the ground just a few years ago. His tightwad philosophy and clumsy handling of a franchise that was smoothly run for years by Jerry Colangelo had Sarver in the running for the Sterling Award (worst owner in the league). Now the Suns have a competent GM in Ryan McDonough and the potential coach of the year in Jeff Hornacek along with a young and intriguing team. Will Sarver screw this up?
13. Blazers. Paul Allen's billions haven't resulted in an NBA title yet, but it could be just a matter of time before his basketball team sips champagne like his Seahawks. After overseeing an embarrassing and bloody stretch of executive turnover, he finally has a management team he trusts and a coach worth keeping.
14. Grizzlies. Roundly booed after they bounced respectable coach Lionel Hollins on the heels of the most successful season in franchise history, the Grizzlies and their analytics-driven front office are earning the trust of fans. Second-year owner Robert Pera's track record for spending is still under construction, and the club is still searching for its next young star, but at least Pera can come out of hiding now.
15. Raptors. If not for sweeping front-office changes last summer, you wonder what shape the Raptors would be in now. Lucky for them, Masai Ujiri, perhaps the best young GM in the business, wanted badly to run the organization that gave him his start in the NBA. He wanted to make wholesale changes, and still might, but a surprising winning season is causing him to hesitate.
16. Lakers. Will the death of Jerry Buss have the same crushing effect on the Lakers as the death of Bill Davidson had on the Pistons? Perhaps. The signs aren't promising. Dwight Howard chose Houston instead, the team is losing, they lack a young star (for now) and the Lakers tied up $48 million in Kobe Bryant, who may never be the same. Let's see if Buss' son Jim can straighten things out.
17. Nets. Having the wealthiest owner in all professional sports does come with obvious built-in advantages. One is the ability to spend wastefully -- GM Billy King has a history of doing that. The most expensive team in league history has had to scramble to be playoff-worthy in a lousy conference. At least after some early stumbles, Jason Kidd doesn't look like an overmatched first-time coach anymore.
18. Jazz. Their drafting and trading has been inconsistent, and the franchise that took a step backward with the Deron Williams trade three years ago is still searching for traction. The Jazz must always be creative because Utah consistently ranks as among the least preferred destinations for free agents. After dealing with young players and another losing season, will coach Tyrone Corbin survive a situation that was created for him to fail?
19. 76ers. It's easy to assume a team that just tied the longest losing streak in history is poorly run, but that would be a mistake. The Sixers are suddenly flush with enough assets that, if used wisely, will make the memory of this season and that streak vanish quickly.
20. Nuggets. They emerged from a tumultuous off-season humbled and somewhat weakened, especially after losing Ujiri, the reigning executive of the year, and then watching his assistant (Pete D'Alessandro) flee to Sacramento instead of accepting a promotion. Denver did well in getting Brian Shaw and Tim Connelly on the rebound, though. Josh Kroenke, a former bench-warmer in college and heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, is the youngest active owner in the league at 33.
21. Pelicans. Now that they've been rescued from the uncomfortable ownership of the NBA, and no longer need to worry about a commissioner vetoing trades, the Pelicans are on firm financial footing. But didn't you think a team run by Dell Demps and coached by Monty Williams, both products of the Spurs organization, would be in better shape on the floor?
22. Knicks. Owner Jim Dolan has a knack for turning whatever he touches into tin foil, which is the only reason you can't completely buy the idea of Phil Jackson turning things around. Well, that, and the fact that Jackson has never run a team before, or been involved in one that needs as much work as the Knicks. That said, his credibility is beyond question and exactly what the Knicks needed.
23. Hawks. You want to know why many players own homes in Atlanta, and love to visit the city, but don't want to play for the Hawks? You can start with the poor perception of ownership, deserved or not. General manager Danny Ferry, trained by the Spurs organization, is trying to change that, and he might if he ever finds a superstar that can attract fans.
24. Bobcats. New slogan for His Airness: Don't Be Like Mike. Michael Jordan surrounded himself with yes-men after assuming control of the franchise and it showed initially. A string of poor draft decisions and also bad luck (choosing second in the Dwight Howard draft) has prevented the soon-to-be Hornets from landing a superstar. Jordan did hire Steve Clifford, though, finally nailing a coach after years of whiffing, and therefore sparing the 'Cats from the bottom of this list.
25. Wizards. The last smart move this team made was trading for Gilbert Arenas -- drafting John Wall No. 1 overall was a no-brainer and therefore doesn't count -- and we saw how that turned out. Been a long time since the Wizards put it all together. If nothing else, owner Ted Leonsis has been extremely patient with GM Ernie Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman.
26. Kings. Free from the wreckage caused by the Maloofs, and prepared to stay in Sacramento for the long haul, the Kings are in transition. Time will tell if new ownership works out, but the good news is it doesn't have a hard act to follow. Winning back the fans has already been achieved, and now it's time to give them something to cheer about.
27. Timberwolves. Kevin Love can't leave this sinking ship fast enough, and he might get beat to the front door by coach Rick Adelman. Should both happen, the Wolves could be looking at years before they elevate in the West. Owner Glen Taylor has good intentions but never seems to put the team in the right hands.
28. Pistons. A housecleaning is on tap after the Pistons spent money last off-season to upgrade, only to find themselves out of the playoff picture once again. The heat is on owner Tom Gores to put a solid management team in place and turn around a franchise that was once valued in the top three before losing and the recession hit.
29. Cavs. Since LeBron James left, the Cavs have gone through two coaches, two general managers and likely wasted a No. 1 overall pick. At least Dan Gilbert isn't firing off any more angry letters to fans; more like vice-versa.
30. Bucks. When your franchise is voted as the one Most Likely To Relocate, it's never a good sign. The locals seem ambivalent about the club and whether it stays or goes. Why? Well, only the Bucks can give an $11 million-a-season extension to a raw big man, and then watch Larry Sanders implode before the extension kicks in.