clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The success of young, first-time general managers like James Jones is reason for optimism in Phoenix

New, comments

From agents to apprentices to former players, young, first-time executives actually have had great success recently in the NBA.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The quick trigger that turned optimism about James Jones’ potential as an NBA executive into animus over him getting the Suns’ general manager job before he was supposedly ready was a harsh welcome to upper management for the three-time NBA champion.

While Robert Sarver’s brash decision-making is certainly available to scrutiny and deserves much of it, the fault of Jones’ quick rise through the Suns’ front office is not his own. Jones focused on building a culture and day-to-day program when he took over as senior vice president and did the same on a larger scale when Ryan McDonough was fired. As general manager, Jones has been busy, remodeling the franchise according to an explicit vision.

Recent NBA history shows us his hiring is not an exception to some longstanding rule about working your way up the pecking order, but rather in line with a trend of younger, less-experienced candidates running front offices — and having great success.

Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks, hired in the summer of 2017

The man who just won NBA Executive of the Year, an award voted on by his peers, was just 34 when he took the job following the departure of John Hammond to Orlando. Horst quickly got to work, incidentally making a deal with Phoenix and snatching the Suns’ top coaching priority along the way.

Horst had been the Bucks’ director of basketball operations since he was just 25 years old, and his only playing experience was at Divison II Rochester College. Unpredictable was his rise, but his record speaks for itself, and earned him the top award available for NBA general managers this season.

2017-18

2018-19

2019-20

The only blemishes on Horst’s resume thus far are getting a little too attached to his own players, which is understandable for a small-market executive. The Snell contract was ugly at the time and hamstrung the Bucks badly this summer, forcing them to give up their first round pick to clear his salary. The Bledsoe extension may be the single worst move of his tenure, as Milwaukee did the deal early in an effort to get their point guard under market value but ended up tying themselves to a perennially poor playoff performer.

Aside from Bledsoe, Milwaukee was hurt this year by Nikola Mirotic’s inconsistency, and giving up four picks for him doesn’t look great in retrospect, but they were only second-round picks.

Leaving Brogdon behind in the aftermath of paying Bledsoe is an understandable move, as Brogdon got overpaid, and the Bucks recouped a couple picks in the process.

Otherwise, Horst has been fantastic, and may be lifting a Finals trophy over his head as confetti falls to the floor of the team’s beautiful new arena next June.

Bob Myers, Warriors, hired in the summer of 2012

The story of Myers has been told often, but as a 37-year-old former agent, he was far from a sure thing when he took over running the Warriors’ front office. There’s no need to look at the most recent part of his tenure as Golden State as the annual title favorite, but early on, Myers too acted quickly to build the franchise into a contender.

2012-13

  • Drafted Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green
  • Traded Dorrell Wright for Jarrett Jack
  • Signed Carl Landry
  • Game Six of the West semifinals

2013-14

2014-15

  • Fired Mark Jackson
  • Hired Steve Kerr
  • Signed Shaun Livingston
  • Signed James Michael McAdoo
  • Signed Leandro Barbosa
  • 67 wins and an NBA championship

The case could be made Myers inherited the core pieces of the team that would go on to win a championship, as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut were in place when Myers took the job. But Myers’ tenure began by drafting Barnes and Green, two starters for the group that would win 140 games over two seasons as well as a title.

From there, Myers added vital role players like Iguodala, Livingston, Speights and Barbosa, not to mention Kevin Durant later on to keep the dynasty going. That Myers accomplished enough early on that don’t even need to visit the most recent three seasons says everything about his performance as a young general manager.

Elton Brand, 76ers, took over in 2018

2018-19

  • Traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler
  • Traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, two firsts and two seconds for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott
  • Traded Markelle Fultz for Jonathon Simmons, a fake first and a second
  • Traded away three second-round picks plus Jonathon Simmons for three more second-round picks plus cash
  • Game Seven of the East semifinals

2019-20

  • Signed-and-traded Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson
  • Signed Al Horford
  • Re-signed Tobias Harris
  • Re-signed Mike Scott
  • Signed Kyle O’Quinn
  • Re-signed James Ennis
  • Signed Raul Neto
  • Extended Ben Simmons on a max deal
  • Signed Trey Burke

Brand is the guy to whom Jones will always be connected. Both were recently retired players shoved into uncomfortable circumstances when their general managers were abruptly fired shortly after they joined the front office. Brand was elevated all the way up from G League general manager with the mandate to win a championship immediately.

So far, he’s operated with an extreme sense of urgency unlike anything outside Los Angeles. Jones has the benefit of taking things more slowly, operating more in the Bryan Colangelo role as the guy who is asked to bridge the gap from tanking to winning. Yet still, the day will come when Jones might wheel and deal in a manner similar to what we’ve seen from Brand.

Philadelphia has sacrificed future flexibility to chase a title, and Brand has led the charge. His ultimate success is yet to be seen, but he’s done all he can to win big.

Sean Marks, Nets, hired in 2016

2016-17

2017-18

2018-19

  • Took on Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur’s contracts for a first and a second
  • Signed Shabazz Napier
  • Traded Arthur for Jared Dudley and a second
  • Signed Ed Davis
  • Re-signed Joe Harris
  • Extended Spencer Dinwiddie
  • Game Five of the East first round

2019-20

  • Traded a first and Allen Crabbe for Taurean Prince and a second to dump Crabbe’s salary
  • Acquired a 2020 first-round pick for this year’s No. 27 pick
  • Drafted Nic Claxton
  • Signed De’Andre Jordan
  • Signed Kyrie Irving
  • Traded D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and a first-round pick
  • Signed Garrett Temple
  • Signed David Nwaba

Wow. That’s a bingo. A best-case scenario for any front office was laid out over the past three years in Brooklyn. In the aftermath of the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce deal that crippled the franchise, the Nets hired former Spurs center Sean Marks, then just 39, and stayed out of his way. For three years, Marks acquired draft picks via trade and hit on each of them.

Marks also found star role players on the scrap heap, including Harris and Dinwiddie. Thanks in part to the market they are in but also Marks’ diligent team and culture-building, the Nets ended up with two of the best players on the market this summer, including perhaps the best player in the world in Durant.


As we saw in this exercise, NBA teams have had more luck hiring younger, less-traditional general managers in recent years. Other situations have seen retreads get jobs and fail to make the same amount of progress as these four case studies showed. Think of Mitch Kupchak in Charlotte, Scott Perry with the Knicks, or Scott Layden in Minnesota (now fired as well). Just about every candidate has something to offer as a general manager, otherwise they wouldn’t be in contention for these jobs.

But the league is learning. Jones becoming a general manager just after he turned 38 wasn’t as crazy as it would have been decades ago, when the NBA was even less progressive or creative in how teams operated. Other young executives who haven’t yet proven their bona fides such as Vlade Divac, Rob Pelinka and Koby Altman may one day demarcate this trend alongside Jones.

The through-line among all of these executives is a green light to spend and a lack of overreach on the part of ownership. Sarver has made many cost-cutting moves in the past and finds it hard to keep his hands out of the cookie jar.

Yet trust is earned. Lon Babby has unrelenting trust from Sarver in all these years after officially leaving the organization. Couldn’t, in a more successful situation, Jones earn it as well?

Looking the part of this new generation certainly doesn’t guarantee Jones any success, but it helps provide context for Sarver hiring him. The sparkly recent history of people of Jones’ ilk also showcases an optimistic view of how the next few seasons could go in Phoenix.