San Antonio Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford on Monday was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year for the second time in the past three seasons. Buford is in his 14th season as the team’s GM but has been with the team in various capacities, including assistant coach, for 24 years.
He spent most of a brief press conference at the team’s practice complex on Monday afternoon sharing credit with nearly everyone he ever has worked with.
“This is an honor for all of the people in the organization who put in the time, the attention and the passion for our team, for the NBA, and it’s really a reflection on the performance of our players and our staff,” Buford said. “It means a lot to share this with a lot of people that we love going to work with.”
It is a well-deserved honor for someone whose vision, planning and execution has been paramount to the re-tooling of a championship roster without the fall from elite status that typically accompanies the aging of the superstar players and the attendant decline in their skills and athleticism.
Clearly, Buford’s fellow NBA basketball executives voted to recognize his management of the Spurs’ roster and salary cap that cleared the way for the acquisition of All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge and former All-Star David West last summer.
If not for the Spurs’ status in their Western Conference semifinals playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Buford could have savored Monday’s moment in the spotlight and the achievements of a 67-15 season, the best in franchise history.
Instead, he frets about a best-of-seven series that is tied, 2-2, the Thunder having won two of the last three games.
Tuesday’s Game 5 at The AT&T Center looms as a pivotal moment in the quest for a sixth championship that Buford and all those with whom he shared the honor had in mind as they made the moves that earned his recognition.
“Right now we’re focused on one thing,” Buford said, “and there will be an appropriate time to get together and reflect on whatever the results of this season are, but we’ve got a lot of responsibility to our team to do everything we can to put them in a position to be successful.”
Head Coach Gregg Popovich served as both coach and general manager from 1996-96 until the summer of 2002, when he ceded General Manager duties to Buford. He believes it to be one of the best decisions of his career as president of Spurs basketball, a title he retains.
“The best way to put it would be to say we would be lost without him,” Popovich said. “Those few words say it all. His organizational abilities, his foresight, his ability to plan ahead of time and make judicious and wise decisions is off the charts. We would’ve had a hard time keeping this together for this long if he wasn’t here.”
Beginning with the 1988-89 season, Popovich and Buford spent three-plus seasons as assistants on Larry Brown’s Spurs coaching staff. The two huddled behind closed doors after Sunday’s 111-97 Game 4 loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, presumably hashing out a path to regain momentum in a series between legitimate championship contenders.
Outscored and “out-toughed” – Popovich’s words – in the final six minutes of Game 4, the Spurs will try to change things on Tuesday night at The AT&T Center. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. and the game will be telecast on TNT.
Popovich and his players understand what’s at stake. Win, and they know they can’t be eliminated in Thursday’s Game 6 in Oklahoma.
Lose, and they will have to fight for their playoff lives in one of the most hostile venues in the NBA. Chesapeake Energy Arena was so loud during the Thunder’s fourth-quarter surge Thunder coach Billy Donovan prefaced his post-game analysis of the game by thanking the team’s raucous fans.
“I want to start off by saying, this being my first year here, just the environment the last two games here have been absolutely incredible,” said Donovan, completing his first season as an NBA coach after a highly successful career coaching NCAA powerhouse University of Florida. “Just what the fans do … just how loud the place was and the great energy that was the last two games.”
The Spurs have said the same thing about the fans this season at AT&T Center, which became the league’s safest haven. In the 45 regular season and playoff games there this season the home team has won 43, including three of four playoff games.
The Spurs lead for most of the first 42 minutes of Game 4 but had no answer for Kevin Durant’s 17-point fourth quarter explosion.
“I think we had a good opportunity,” veteran guard Manu Ginobili said. “We were up for a good part of the game. We just couldn’t close it. So we’ve got to keep fighting. Nobody expected to sweep or have an easy series against a team like them.
“We’re going back home. We have home court advantage. Hopefully, we take care of it.”
If they do, maybe Buford will take a moment and admire the Executive of the Year trophy he was presented on Monday.
Top image: Spurs General Managers R.C. Buford was named NBA Executive of Year. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone