There are innumerable reasons for the success that the Spurs have enjoyed over the last decade and a half, but one area fans often overlook is the role that the team's general manager, R.C. Buford, has played in helping San Antonio stay in position to annually compete for a championship.
This past week, reports surfaced about Chris Hansen, the prospective new owner of the would be Sonics, targeting Spurs GM R.C. Buford as his first choice for the position if the Kings were sold and moved to Seattle. It wasn't long before reports about how R.C. was not interested surfaced. Look like it would take a whole lot of money or some unforeseen circumstances for Buford to leave after working hard to build the Spurs' roster next to Gregg Popovich.
Speaking of Pop, upon hearing the news my first thought was "if R.C. leaves, we'd still have Pop and Timmy; the Spurs would be fine." But the more I think about it, the more I believe R.C. Buford is probably an underrated part of the Spurs' success.
San Antonio's Dynasty
The biggest factors in San Antonio's staying power among the NBA elite have been the two all-world big men they've had the privilege to employ. Without David Robinson and Tim Duncan there would be no banners hanging from the rafters at AT&T Center. Pop is one of the best coaches in the history of the league and someone that has maintained a relationship with his stars unlike any other of his contemporaries. And since he also has a say in personnel moves, his importance can't be overstated. So of course we seem to run out of accolades by the time we reach R.C. but his role, and the role of every general manager, is key to balance the short term goals of a coach or player with the long term goals and organization needs to always consider a priority.
Traditionally, coaches have to look at the short term; their jobs depend on it. Now, Pop has job security out the wazzoo, but his focus needs to be in making the team better now. I'm sure he understands the benefits of cap flexibility and luxury tax implications but the guy wants a roster that can win. A GM, on the other hand, has to juggle both the short view and the long view and is often must set one back to help the other. As an example, look at the Thunder situation with James Harden. OKC had an amazing core and yet ownership and front office decided to break it up for financial reasons, even when there likely were other ways to deal with the situation. Sam Presti went with a trade because, as a GM, he figured that was the best course of action. But imagine how Scott Brooks feels about that trade. We can't know for sure, but I'm convinced he'd rather preserve the continuity that a long-term deal with Harden would have provided, instead of possibly losing Kevin Martin this off-season and getting some good assets that may or mat not pan out.
That move hasn't been as devastating as, say, the Mavs breaking up their championship team. Rick Carlisle did an amazing job of integrating the pieces at his disposal and Dallas attained the ultimate goal. But by the next season most of those key pieces were gone because the owner and GM thought it wouldn't be in the organization's best interest to keep that core together. This push and pull dynamic is always present between ownership, general managers and coaches. For an opposite example, one where the coach has too much power and a final say in personnel moves, look at the Wolves. Rick Adelman hopped on board after reportedly being assured he would play an active part in building the team. The Wolves brought in the type of versatile, two-way players Adelman needed to implement his system and even traded a draft pick for Chase Budinger, most likely at the request of Adelman. But some of Adelman's decisions, like not giving Derrick Williams minutes, are questionable and could be hurting the long term prospects of the franchise.
The Spurs cohesiveness can be attributed to the fact that for the entirety of PATFO's tenure, the Spurs have had a core of Tim Duncan and David Robinson first and then Tim, Tony and Manu. With such a strong foundation, the goal has always been the same: put the best possible team together and try to win a championship. As lofty as that goal is, the moves needed to achieve it are perhaps a bit more clear-cut than for the average GM, unlike trying to plan for the future by bringing in young talent and developing it, or trying to swing a deal for a first option type of guy. The Spurs have continually tried to sign players that fit what the style they have, preferably veterans that can pick things up quickly.
Shift in philosophy
But look at how things have changed over the last few years. The Spurs are still in win-now mode but with veterans choosing other destinations, they have shifted their approach to bargain bin, young players. The Spurs target NBA journeymen and European players and have pounced at the chance of signing other team's castaways. That the Spurs consistently find value in strange places is nothing new, but the idea of a roster in flux definitely is. And so is the infusion of young talent. I'm sure Pop gave the OK for this shift in team-building philosophy, but he had a history of refusing to trust those new, younger players at first. My guess, and it's only a guess at this point, is that Buford was the mastermind behind it. So far, the results have been encouraging.
We've seen GMs acting as head coaches before, like Jeff Bower in New Orleans, and coaches whose vision clashed with that of the front office, like Mike D'Antoni in New York. Needless to say, the results have not been good. The respect and balance between the owner, GM and coach is very delicate, and is integral to the team's success.
The Spurs have that right now with Peter Holt, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich, and if you remove one of them, things could deteriorate. As long as Duncan is still suiting up nightly, the Spurs should be fine. But in order to face the challenges that are surely coming in the next few years, having R.C. to help ease the transition will be extremely valuable. The moves the team has already made seem to signal a direction I'm personally excited about.
While Pop and Timmeh deservedly receive the most praise, Buford's work is likely a huge part of the cohesion and synergy within the Spurs organization, even if the tactics employed to achieve the goal of putting the best possible roster together have changed. R.C. is not going anywhere but I think I'd rather pay tribute to him now, as he sits in his office in the Spurs head quarters, rather than wait until he's gone.