I do not believe general manager in the NBA is the most important.
The NBA has pretty much always been a player's league. You accumulate the best players at least 1 or 2 future Hall of Famers you have a chance. Baseball is really where GMs shine. The NFL is a coach and QB league.
Now, there have been some phenomenal GMs in the NBA.
Jerry West probably has been the best over the years not only in making trades but also in talent evaluation and drafting. It is hard to list everything great about West as a GM. West orchestrated the 1980s Showtime Lakers, spearheaded the Kobe and Shaq led Lakers in the early 2000s, helped the Warriors in drafting players like Steph and Klay, and now has done a good job with the Clippers. Great recent GMs have been San Antonio's Buford and Toronto's Ujiri.
When Tommy Sheppard was hired back in 2019, I did not know much about him. I was just glad to be rid of Ernie Grunfeld.
Grunfeld became Wizards' fans whipping boy. I never thought Grunfeld was as bad as people talked about him. Same with Scott Brooks. But both served their time and needed to go. I did a deep dive on why Grunfeld had pros and cons back in 2015. Grunfeld was good in trades for players like Jamison, Butler, Gortat, Nene, and Markieff Morris. That is about it.
I believe a good GM has to be evaluated in 3 ways:
1. Ability to make good trades
2. Ability to sign key free agents
3. Ability to draft well especially later in the draft.
1.TRADES (SHEPPARD GRADE: A+)
Sheppard has been masterful at this in only a few seasons. The trade of Wall for Westbrook was an obvious win. He traded 2 bloated contracts for players who were past their prime. But it was easy to know Westbrook would be much better than Wall coming off an Achilles. The fact he swindled Houston into this was a coup.
The trade for Daniel Gafford trade was also a swindle. Gafford turned into a key player down the stretch with Bryant being out. They only gave up the bust Troy Brown. Now, I kind of missed Moe Wagner and his constant flopping. Now, Moe is with his brother Franz in Orlando so we will see him again. But no big loss. Gafford will be a key player for years on this team.
I am not completely sold on the Westbrook trade with the Lakers being an obvious win. Typically, the team that gets the best current player (Westbrook) in the deal wins. Kuzma has the biggest upside and should have many more years than Westbrook. Before LeBron came to the Lakers, I remember my Lakers friends wanting Beal. But they wanted to give up Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. I wanted Brandon Ingram and Kuzma and some picks at the very least. So getting Kuzma without giving up Beal gives me hope.
Harrell and KCP seem like they don't fit on a young, up and coming team. They would be better suited to a contender. However, KCP was a main reason the Lakers won the title in the bubble in 2020.
Sheppard basically is batting 1.000 in trades thus far.
2. SIGNING FREE AGENTS (SHEPPARD GRADE: B+)
There have not been many signings to evaluate Sheppard.
I was completely not sold on signing Robin Lopez. I thought he was a plodding, much lesser version than his brother Robin. He also was like next to last in PER among centers prior to the signing. I was wrong and Sheppard was right. The captain hook Lopez was an effective player and quite clutch.
Raul Neto was and still is a very good signing. This was not a complete shock. Because I am a basketball junkie, I saw some of his potential with Utah and Philly. But how he fit with the Wizards was phenomenal. He was not the best bench player last season but probably the most consistent.
Getting Spencer Dinwiddie was more like a free agent signing even though it was technically part of a 5-team trade. I like this move but do not LOVE it. Dinwiddie does not seem like a pure PG. He really has only had 1 great season before tearing up his knee. I am not sure he is a distributor or good defender. But I like his chip on a shoulder being a low draft choice. Also, he is a buckets getter kind of like a prime Jamal Crawford. There was not much else out there on the free agent market.
Do not believe Sheppard has the ability to woo a great free agent like Kevin Durant in the future. But if he can woo guys like Dinwiddie and good role players like Neto, then he is way above average.
3. DRAFTING WELL ESPECIALLY LATE IN THE DRAFT (SHEPPARD GRADE: D)
This is where Sheppard goes off the rails. In fact, this has been the biggest weakness in the entire Wizards franchise.
To be clear, I believe the NBA Draft is MASSIVELY overrated. In most drafts, it is lucky to have 3 or 4 perennial All-Stars like the 2003 NBA Draft with LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo. Last year's draft seems pretty weak. I am a big fan of Haliburton and like Edwards and LaMelo Ball but I am not sure if any ever makes an AS Game.
But you can't miss on draft picks. Grunfeld was pretty bad at drafting. I do not give him much credit in drafting Wall and Beal. Wall was a no-brainer while Beal was pretty much everybody's No. 3 pick. Otto Porter was OK but definitely not worth a No. 3 pick. The 2011 Draft with Vesely and Singleton was a major whiff and enough to get anybody fired. The drafting of Nick Young and JaVale McGee in 2007 did not work out well for Washington.
Sheppard I believe probably has a major whiff in Deni. I have not given up hope Deni could be a solid role player. But I envisioned a possible good starter on a good team. I do not see solid NBA starter.
Rui is not on his way to being a bust but could be a disappointment. I saw some articles re-drafting the 2019 Draft where Rui would be picked around No. 17 where others would draft him higher at No. 8. Kind of like missing out on Haliburton hurts Deni's stock, Rui's stock is hurt with other players they could have had like Coby White, Tyler Herro, Brandon Clarke, P.J. Washington, etc. Still, Rui is a good starter on a bad team but probably not a starter on a good team.
Kispert seems like a solid choice at No. 15. He will not be a star but could be a good role player like Joe Harris or at worst Bertans.
The Wizards have been horrific at identifying late round gems. Look at this list of fairly recent late round picks from Grunfeld - Issuf Sarion, Aaron White, Nate Wolters, Arsalan Kazemi. I would say the only 2nd round pick that ever worked for Washington recently was Satoransky in 2012. Shelvin Mack was a good player but not really with the Wizards. I knew Jordan Clarkson would be good because I went to Missouri and heard good things from writers there. But they gave him away to the Lakers basically for cash in 2014.
Sheppard I guess can only be evaluated with Cassius Winston and now Isiaih Todd. I am not sold on either one especially Winston. Dude looks like a tubby guy who dominates a local rec league but not built for the NBA.
Late round steals is where Buford and Ujiri excelled. With a HOFer in Tim Duncan, Buford unearthed gems like Tony Parker and Manu Ginoblii in late rounds. With a HOFer in getting Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri got late round gems in Siakam and VanVleet.
Sheppard has been a very good GM in his short stint. Feel like he could have done more to swing for the fences to surround Westbrook and Beal last season. Before trading Westbrook, I felt like they needed to swing big for a good SF like Jerami Grant or Siakam. And SF even with Kispert still seems like a big hole.
I want to keep Beal. If we do, then Sheppard will have to hit the late-round lottery with some of these 2nd rounders like Todd or Winston. The Bucks had one in Middleton to pair with Giannis and Holiday.
But the Wizards have 3 starting positions expertly filled at SG (Beal, KCP), PG (Dinwiddie, Neto), and bigs (Gafford, Bryant if healthy). They are solid at PF (Rui, Harrell) and SF (Kuzma, Bertans). They have some young talent in Deni and Kispert.
This is not a championship team and barely a playoff team in the East. But the arrow is pointing up. Hopefully, Sheppard keeps trending up.