Riley not a shoo-in for Exec of the Year

Forman, Riley, UjiriGetty Images

Pat Riley has stiff competition from Gar Forman and Masai Ujiri for Executive of the Year.

Over the next two weeks each NBA front office will submit its vote for the Executive of the Year. The decision may require more thought than anyone expected last July.

After a series of coups in which Pat Riley not only secured the three most high profile free agents but convinced them to take pay cuts in their primes, it seemed the Heat president accepting the annual award by a vote of his peers would be a formality.

Riley is certainly still the favorite, but one of the topics in recent conversations with executives around the league is that it isn’t clear cut as was once assumed.

Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman, it seems, has impressed peers with his across-the-board decision making since last summer. Also, several executives have told ESPN they were impressed with how Denver Nuggets rookie vice president Masai Ujiri handled the pressure of trading Carmelo Anthony while scoring a deal that appears to have improved the team.

One of the reasons the Executive of the Year has special value within the business is because it is voted on by the executives themselves, one vote per team. But because this award is handled in house -- all the other major awards are decided by a varied panel of media members -- there’s also an added layer of politics. That could play a role, of course.

Riley, a hard-nosed negotiator who isn’t afraid of conflict, isn’t the most popular chief executive in the league. That’s something Riley may privately be pleased about, after all the league isn’t a popularity contest. He outmaneuvered competitors to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-sign Dwyane Wade. He also massaged the salary cap and convinced Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller to take less money than they were being offered elsewhere.

Riley also was able to maintain a team that made the playoffs last season before peeling it apart after the season to allow for maximum cap space. Several competitors that were clearing cap space had to do it by sinking to the bottom.

In short, it is an impressive and compelling case.

In the months since, however, Riley and the Heat have not met the sky-high expectations those signings created. Weakness at the point guard and center positions and Miami's lack of bench depth have been problems throughout the season. Most see this as the result of deficiencies in the team’s personnel and gaps in Riley’s grand plan. Meanwhile, the Heat’s roster doesn’t have much flexibility to improve through trades to help these issues.

Ultimately the Heat will be judged in the playoffs but, like with the Most Valuable Player, the voting for top executive gets done now and not in June.

Meanwhile, Forman and Ujiri have been able to exceed expectations with their moves, as their teams have overachieved during the regular season. In the world of award voting, over-delivering often carries more weight.

Forman and Ujiri aren’t the top decision-makers in their franchises. Both work for active owners and have team presidents that rank above them. For the Bulls, that is former GM John Paxson. For the Nuggets, that is Josh Kroenke. But while the decisions within both organizations were group efforts, both men have been praised by peers for their roles in the transactions.

The Bulls took a chance on the hiring of coach Tom Thibodeau, who had been passed over for coaching jobs in the past. After not having success with former coach Vinny Del Negro, who was hired with no head coaching experience, the Bulls still felt strongly about giving Thibodeau his first job. The team then gave the new coach the freedom to make some changes within the organization.

The streamlined staff under Thibodeau and his focus on defense have worked, and the Bulls are poised to win the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference despite a series of injuries to core players like Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Because of that success, the rookie coach is being considered for Coach of the Year honors.

But what Forman did that most seems to have impressed colleagues is how he and the Bulls handled free agency last season. After getting turned down by their top four free agent choices -- Wade, James, Bosh and Joe Johnson -- the Bulls regrouped and spread their free agent money over numerous players. Forman signed Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson, while also picking up veterans Keith Bogans and Kurt Thomas.

That core ended up fitting well together and the depth bolstered the Bulls through injuries. Forman did it while keeping the Bulls under the salary cap. Forman also signed 2008 draft pick Omer Asik, who has been one of the few impact rookie big men in the league this season.

Last fall he also was able to sign Noah to a contract extension that, at the time, seemed like a fair deal for the team.

That body of work, while nowhere near as flashy as Riley’s free agency splashes, has created a well-rounded team with a bright present and future because the roster is flexible with numerous trade assets.

Ujiri would probably be considered a long shot to win the award but, nonetheless, may have won more respect during the season than any other executive. He and Kroenke were faced with an Anthony trade demand that forced them to only negotiate with a couple teams under intense media scrutiny. Ujiri ended up making a deal with the Knicks that stocked the Nuggets with assets and seemed to improve them in the short run as well.

Denver’s strong play since the trade, the Nuggets clinched a playoff spot with a win Sunday in Los Angeles over the Lakers to improve to 15-4 since the deal, has brightened the team’s outlook. Ujiri was able to do it while protecting the Nuggets coming salary-cap space and was later able to sign veteran coach George Karl to a contract extension.

In the end, when the votes are totaled no one would be surprised if Riley does get credit for his moves. But, to listen to the chatter, it may be closer than expected.