Championships are won in June, but individual awards are decided in the regular season. As such, voters won't have the benefit of seeing how the teams with the best record fare in postseason play before deciding which architect to reward. With that in mind, here are our favorites for 2011 NBA Executive of the Year.
1. Pat Riley, Heat
Riley dominated the biggest free agent class in decade. He landed the reigning two-time MVP in LeBron James, retained Dwyane Wade despite an inglorious first-round playoff exit and snatched the best young big man on the market in Chris Bosh. I don't care if you believe the theories that Mickey Arison's son orchestrated this back in 2008, or that the players themselves made a blood oath over wine coolers and low-sodium Pringles in June. Riley got it done.
Riley cleaned up his payroll like no other GM in the salary cap era has been able to do. The actual logistical machinations to land the three stars and sign Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony to the non-minimum contracts they signed were just incredible. The Miami front office dominated July. Dominated. Give the man his due.
2. Otis Smith, Magic
The Magic made what seemed to be a huge gamble in swapping out Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter for Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu. It has certainly paid off so far, with Hedo reviving his career after pit stops in Toronto and Phoenix and Gil fitting in as a sixth man. The Magic still have a struggle to grab so much as the No. 3 spot in the top-heavy East. But with Smith's mammoth trades, they might be sliding into the bottom end of the playoff bracket.
3. R.C. Buford, Spurs
Some considered Brazilian pivot Tiago Splitter, a brand new Spur and the MVP of the Spanish league last year, to be a dark hose candidate for Rookie of the Year. James Anderson, the Oklahoma State two-guard prospect, was considered a steal by San Antonio in the late teens of the 2010 NBA draft. But who has been the Spurs' best rookie so far? None other than Gary Neal, who like Splitter played in Spain last season.
You see, NBA? This is why the Spurs always contend. Because their GM is signing the best big man in Europe, a highly regarded college star and an instant contributor from Towson University (!) with what can be accurately but inartfully termed "chump change."
4. Gar Forman, Bulls
Is Gar Forman running the Bulls? Did he run them in July? (Paging Blog-a-Bull.) If so, a big SBNation.com thumbs up to Gar Forman. After striking out on Bosh and Wade but before LeBron had made his choice public, the Bulls grabbed Carlos Boozer, a big man who doesn't score quite as good as Amar'e Stoudemire but can rebound the ball with the best of them. Once LeBron chose Miami, Forman went into triage mode, collecting roleplayers like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson.
But the best decision of all had already been made, and forgive me if I misattributing a win that belongs to John Paxson or Jerry Reinsdorf, but -- hiring Tom Thibodeau may well have been the best decision any team made this summer, excluding the Heat coagulation and Stoudemire's landing in New York. Thibodeau has helped Derrick Rose become a superstar, and has made this team into one of the league's best defenses. The Bulls front office gets some credit for that.
Kupchak and Nelson have their teams in striking range at the top of the league table, which shouldn't be considered a formality given the age of each team's stars. Towers built on the backs of few can come down terribly fast; as the Mavericks have seen with the injury to Dirk Nowitzki, in the NBA you're only as good as your best available player.
But there's an art to building around a star, and both GMs receive points here. Nelson signed Brendan Haywood to what looks like an awful deal, but realizing that Erick Dampier wouldn't bring a star and using his odd contract to acquire a defensive beast like Tyson Chandler was a near masterstroke. For Kupchak, while the weight of Ron Artest's deal begins to weigh, the decision to bring back Shannon Brown and add Matt Barnes and Steve Blake have paid off, and will pay off all season.
Sleeper Alert: Masai Ujiri, Nuggets
If Ujuiri manages to pry Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and cap savings from the New Jersey Nets for Carmelo Anthony before the deadline, he belongs up in the No. 2 spot behind Riley. This is not because Carmelo is a dud, but because of what Cleveland and Toronto got for LeBron and Bosh. Sober sight and a nimble brain are two body parts in high demand among NBA GMs. Ujiri's got them (even if it takes him four years to get the deal done).
Best of the Worst: John Hammond, Bucks
Milwaukee has fallen hard this season, and one could point some blame at Hammond for spending on Drew Gooden, Corey Maggette and John Salmons while losing the productive Luke Ridnour. But no team has lost more games to injury than the Bucks, and no team has had a tougher schedule to date. Money says the Bucks will be solidly in the playoff picture by March, and while No. 7 looks like the highest reason target, that's not completely terrible.
Worst of the Worst: Lon Babby, Suns
Lon Babby, a former agent, traded for his former client Hedo Turkoglu upon taking over basketball operations in Phoenix Suns. It went terribly wrong, as Hedo was as awful in Phoenix as he had been in Toronto. Babby then exacerbated the problem by trading for Vince Carter and Marcin Gortat, in the process managing to dump Hedo for cap savings the team won't see for another two years, all while losing Jason Richardson, one of the players keeping the Suns afloat. Combine that with the franchise's decision to shed Amar'e Stoudemire, and this is how you send a Western Conference finalist into the lottery.
Extraterrestrial/Art League Champion: David Kahn, Wolves
Mea culpa: I was too hard on David Kahn when I indicated an avocado could put together a better team. I still believe that -- the Wolves are 9-30, after all -- but I was using the wrong goal posts. Who cares about "good" when Kahn has managed to assembled the funkiest team since the merger? This team is straight-up ABA, from Michael Beasley's wild hair and lack of conscience, Kevin Love's undersized vacuum cleaner rebounding, and all the team's wings' terrible shooting. Just put Kurt Rambis in a sweater and dark jeans and replace the Target Center's HD cameras with tape and we have instant nostalgia porn.