Here we are again. The Heat versus The Spurs. The implacable consistency of San Antonio against the superstar chemistry of Miami. Two all-time great teams, with two potentially all-time great coaches -if Spoltra’s initial success is maintained at even some smaller percentage- and two all-time great GMs, battling for their right to leave an indelible legacy upon the league.
As San Antonio sits in the driver’s seat with a commanding 3-1 lead, leaving Miami struggling to find momentum, it’s the men who control the directions of these respective franchises, two GMs who may be as diametric in their approaches to the game off the court as their respective teams are on it, that should be getting more notice. Well perhaps at least one of the two men should be getting more recognition.
Pat Riley, Miami’s GM and Godfather, has no issues being recognized. With his overt presence and luxurious collection of GQ-worthy attire, Riley seems to physically embody the way his team is perceived and construed by the masses and pundits alike. Riley and his Miami team are flashy, sexy, and driven. And while Riley sternly watches as Miami struggles to three-peat, his contemporary and foil across the court, Robert Canterbury Buford or R.C, equally physically manifests the style and manner in which his team is represented. But while Pat is the driving force behind a sexy Ferrari-style team of success and publicity in Miami, Buford quietly navigates his steady and reliable Honda Civic of a franchise in San Antonio.
The venerable Riley, with his "Showtime" roots and unwavering demeanor and hair, is constantly put before us on-screen and lauded in print, but it’s Buford who has done as great a job if not better than Riley, or any GM for that matter, albeit in a far more reserved and unremarkable fashion. That’s not to say Buford’s accomplishments aren’t outstanding, just rather that the man himself would be about as easy to pick out of a crowd as Waldo (for whom there is a striking resemblance). Though part of Buford’s lack of mainstream recognition is surely a by-product of his more reserved demeanor and nature, one would hope that at least Buford would be better recognized for his genius amongst those intimate with the inner workings of basketball. And yet, it sadly seems it’s more than just the causal fan that has a hard time recognizing Buford. Buford somehow seems to get lost in the background even amongst his peers and critics. In fact Buford could the make argument that he’s been getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment around the league.
R.C. Buford, the same man who has been personally responsible for the final roster decisions of perhaps the most consistently successful team in NBA history, has just recently won his first Executive of the Year award. Yes, just this past May 7 was Buford finally recognized as the best executive in the league. As in after 12 seasons. As in R.C. Buford, the man behind a Spurs team that has won three titles (’03, ’05, ’07) under his tenure, 688 regular season games, averaging an amazing 53 wins per season at a 71% win percentage, has now won as many Executive of the Year awards as John Hammond (who won the award in 2010). If you’re asking yourself who John Hammond is, well that’s my point. Hammond is the GM of the Milwaukee Bucks. As in the 15-67 Milwaukee Bucks of last season. As in the team that has averaged 33 wins per season during Hammond’s tenor and has only had one season above .500. John Hammond won an execcutive of the year award before R.C. Buford! This is upsetting.
While there is little doubt that part of what seems to be an utter lack of appreciation for Buford is due to the superlative nature of Gregg Popovich, Buford himself has shown a deft touch and an amazing ability to sign key veterans and draft players who are easily inter-woven into The Spurs winning fabric.
Buford is perhaps unmatched in his ability to find value from free-agents that have specific skill-sets built for The Spurs system; not coincidentally a skill that perhaps only Pat Riley may be his equal at. Players like Danny Green, Marco Bellinelli, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills, to name a few, are all key contributers to the current Spurs championship run, even though they weren’t exactly being fawned over by GM’s around the the league during their free agency. But what sets Buford apart from any of his peers is his almost savant like ability to draft NBA talent.
Season after season, Buford is hamstrung by unenviable low picks due to the Spurs stubborn inability to be anything but great. R.C. has never had a selection higher than the 26th pick since taking over as GM in 2003, but since then he has drafted the likes of John Salmons, George Hill (both picked at 26th ), Leandro Barbosa, Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, Tiago Splitter (all taken 28th), Cory Joseph (29th), Dejuan Blair (37th), and Goran Dragic (45th). All productive to star-caliber level players within the league. Even more impressive is Buford’s ability to find players that aren’t taken as “flyers”, picking a player with a high ceiling but low floor, -a common practice with successful teams hoping to find a steal at the lower slots in the draft- but rather players that have been fully vetted and show long-term potential.
Since 2003, the first year Buford was responsible for The Spurs draft picks, only The Bulls and San Antonio have had every one of their first-round picks still remain on an NBA roster as of last season. The Spurs just simply don’t miss on draft picks, though a discussion could be made about the trading of Goran Dragic’s draft rights for Malik Hairston’s draft rights, but the initial selection was clearly spot-on.
The Spurs focus is clearly on maintaining a winning culture and having a cohesive direction, and within that Buford rarely makes decisions that would compromise the overall plan of the Spurs machine. Buford signs guys that fit Pop’s game-plan, Buford drafts players that fit the Spurs culture, and Buford keeps his decisions in-line with organizational goals. A high-price prima-donna becomes available, you can be assured that there will be no talk of Buford making a move for that player. There is a reason The Spurs seem to be the only team that hasn’t been mentioned in the Carmelo sweepstakes.
San Antonio is clearly an organization in lockstep in terms of direction, undoubtedly in no small part a by-product of Popovich’s military background creating an organized and regimented focus. But while Popovich is clearly the authority, Buford is the vision. And perhaps a visionary. Buford, who is known for being a Warren Buffet enthusiast (genius’ of a feather, and what not…) is exemplary in his ability to stay the course and make decisions with an over-arching long-term perspective. Nothing exemplifies this forethought-rich ideology more than The Spurs willingness to draft international players and let them incubate and improve oversees; as the organization has done with Tiago Splitter and are currently doing with Livio Jean-Charles. And while on the topic of international players, perhaps nothing better epitomizes Buford’s broad spectrum of thought better than the Spurs collection of international talent. The Spurs entered the 2013-14 season with 10 international players, an NBA record for one roster.
So while Pop may get the pub, and Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker the acclaim (it’s worth noting that that trios run coincides exactly with Buford’s tenure), Buford deserves more than just an afterthought in terms of praise for The Spurs metronomic success. Certainly the man deserves better than to have had to wait 12 seasons to be recognized for what he’s been from the start, one of the best GM’s in NBA history. Hopefully now everyone will to start to recognize.