How to become a general manager in the NBA

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Thumbnail image for ujiri_masai.jpgMasai Ujiri is the new general manager — technically Executive Vice President of Basketball operations — for the Denver Nuggets.

Which led a lot of people to say, “who?” But over at TrueHoop they have the story of how he went from a former European player crashing on couches and trying to get part-time gig anywhere in the league to a guy with one of the most coveted jobs in the NBA.

David Thorpe — the Executive Director of the Pro Training Center, ESPN writer and just generally one of the good guys — helped Ujiri get his start.

It sounded like he had a good feel for where the good international players were playing. From Africa, and all over Europe. He knew all kinds of players, it seemed, who could help U.S. high school or college programs. I wasn’t even thinking about the pros at that point.

I told him it was a few weeks until the Final Four in Atlanta. I wasn’t sure I had room for him to stay with me, but if he could get there I would meet him there and introduce him to everyone I could… We went to dinner with [Florida State coaches] Leonard Hamilton and Stan Jones. Within minutes he and Leonard Hamilton were good friends. We met all kinds of people all weekend. You know how people talk about videos spreading virally on the Internet? Masai spread virally that weekend. By the time Sunday rolled around, he had meetings set up with all kinds of coaches. People I had never met. Everyone wanted him to help them find good players at every level.

Masai kept working, kept bringing good players in from places people hadn’t been, and kept meeting people and shaking hands. He kept working hard. It took a couple years of doing that for nothing before the Magic hired him as an overseas scout. And kept working and sleeping on couches.

NBA scouts kind of do one of two things. They either go by themselves and work alone, or go where everybody else is and meet all the other scouts and basketball people. Masai did the latter. He met everybody. He became friends with everybody. After a couple of years, Denver came calling [and made him a scout]. Then he got a real job. No more staying with friends. That was the last time I ever helped him get a job. By the time Toronto wanted to hire him, he was far beyond needing my help.

Go read the whole post. It makes you appreciate how hard Ujiri worked to get where he is. We talked about how Josh Kroenke — the soon-to-be owner with a basketball background — will have the real power with the Nuggets. But that shouldn’t get in the way of the Ujiri story. The NBA could use more of that.

Dwight Howard’s offensive rebounding defies convention

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Hawks president/coach Mike Budenholzer has the authority to set the Hawks’ priorities.

“Organizationally, fundamentally,” Budenholzer said, “transition D is more important than anything.”

Dwight Howard challenges that daily.

Howard has already built a Hall of Fame résumé:

  • Eight-time All-NBA center, including five-time first teamer
  • Three-time Defensive Player of the Year
  • Five-time rebounding champ

But the big man is doing something he’s never done before: Grab 15.2% of available offensive rebounds.

And he’s doing it at age 31 in a league that has increasingly deemphasized offensive rebounding. The NBA will set a record this season for lowest offensive-rebounding percentage for the fourth straight year.

Teams have just figured getting back on defense trumps crashing the offensive glass, the strategy emanating most prominently from the Spurs. Budenholzer, a former San Antonio assistant coach, brought the plan straight to Atlanta. The Hawks ranked 28th, last and last in offensive-rebounding in his first three seasons — in part for philosophical reasons, in part because they’ve lacked the personnel to do better. They’ve also been a below-average defensive-rebounding team each season under Budenholzer.

Then Howard signed and forced Budenholzer to adjust.

Atlanta has become an above-average offensive-rebounding team and far better with Howard on the court – a helpful crutch with ace 3-point shooters Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague traded. The Hawks are ceding more transition opportunities, though they remain very good at defending those.

It’s an obvious tradeoff, says Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons coach who coached Howard with the Magic sees the center in the rare class of players who deserve full autonomy to chase offensive rebounds.

“You don’t limit those guys,” Van Gundy said.

Howard has made the most of his freedom to chase rebounds. His 15.2 offensive-rebounding percentage ranks second to only Kenneth Faried among qualified players.

And, again, Howard is 31. Offensive rebounding tends to be a young man’s game.

Here’s top 10 in offensive rebounding this season, plotted by age:

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Player Team Age Offensive-rebounding percentage
Kenneth Faried DEN 27 16.1
Dwight Howard ATL 31 15.4
Andre Drummond DET 23 15.2
JaVale McGee GSW 29 15
Tarik Black LAL 25 14.8
Tristan Thompson CLE 25 14
Rudy Gobert UTA 24 13.9
Enes Kanter OKC 24 13.9
Kyle O'Quinn NYK 26 13.9
Willy Hernangomez NYK 22 13.8

Howard’s previous career-high offensive-rebounding percentage was 13.8.

The only other players to set career-high offensive-rebounding rates north of 15% after their age-30 season: Dennis Rodman (20.8% at age 33 with the 1994-95 Spurs) and Alan Henderson (15.6% at age 32 with the 2004-05 Mavericks). Both Rodman (Cooke County Junior College and Southeastern Oklahoma State) and Henderson (Indiana) played four years of college basketball, giving them less wear and tear on their bodies and fewer opportunities to post career highs at a young age.

Howard jumped to the NBA straight from high school.

Yet, he’s having a resurgent year in his 13th season. How is he doing it?

“One, I’m not super old,” Howard said earlier this season. “Two, my body feels great. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff to take care of my body.”

Known for eating legendary amounts of candy earlier in his career, perhaps Howard has made a breakthrough. His defensive-rebounding percentage (31.8) is the second-best of his career and ranks fourth in the NBA. That has helped him anchor the league’s fourth-best defense.

Howard has been subject to widespread criticism, and last season with the Rockets was a low point. This year, Howard has recommitted to the basics: Rebounding, defending, scoring inside.

“He’s got a big personality, but I think we all knew that,” Budenholzer said. “But it’s all in the right place. He wants good things, and I’ve really enjoyed coaching him.”

So much so that Budenholzer has compromised a core basketball tenet for Howard.

And it has proved a worthwhile decision.

JaVale McGee misses open dunk (video)

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Shaquille O’Neal said he’d stop talking about JaVale McGee, who has featured prominently on Shaqtin A Fool.

This missed dunk, a low point in the Warriors’ otherwise-impressive win over the Spurs, will test Shaq’s sincerity.

Grizzlies’ James Ennis fouls out then hits half-court shot (video)

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Against the Pacers last night, James Ennis missed all three of his 3-point attempts… that counted. And he makes this one after fouling out?

Mike Conley more than picked up the slack to lead the Grizzlies to victory.

Pelicans’ Dante Cunningham jumps on scorer’s table, Anthony Davis jumps on him (video)

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The Pelicans are effectively out of the playoff race, but Dante Cunningham and Anthony Davis are still competing — even if it looks a little silly.

That tone and a big game from DeMarcus Cousins (29 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) led to a 121-118 win over the Mavericks.