The R.C. Buford Award

R.C. Buford is the NBA's best executive, and has been for a long time. He's never won the NBA's Executive of the Year Award. There's a way to fix that.
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Michael Jordan won his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 1988, and didn't really cease being the league's best and most valuable player for more than a decade after that. Everyone knows this, but the historical record doesn't show it, at least where MVP trophies are concerned. Magic Johnson won two more with the then-Kareem-less Lakers before Jordan won another two; in 1993, Barkley got his only MVP before losing to Jordan's Bulls in the NBA Finals. Then Jordan retired, spent some time in Birmingham failing to hit a curve ball, won another MVP award in his first season back, and then lost out to Karl Malone before eviscerating The Mailman's Jazz in the NBA Finals as mercilessly as he'd done in Barkley's Suns team earlier in the decade. Jordan won his final MVP the next season during his final year with the Bulls. In all, he won 5 MVP awards over nine unassailably dominant years, losing two to Magic, and one a-piece to Malone and Barkley. He beat all three in the NBA Finals, though, using the MVP vote as yet another slight to continue his pathological need to be the best. Jordan is forever an outlier, but this is one reason why many basketball fans tend to consider the MVP kind of silly.

It's like this with most of the NBA's year-end superlatives. During those years of MJ-ination, there wasn't another player that MVP voters actually believed was a superior player, or one more integral to his team's success. But it would've been boring to hand the award to the same player for nearly an entire decade, and so voters found reasons why others should win despite Jordan's unquestioned and unstinting brilliance. This is not necessarily right, but it is how it goes: the odds are against LeBron winning a third consecutive MVP next year, even if he's just as great as he has been this year and last. It's the way it goes. If voters merely chose to give the award to the person who deserved it most, there would be little to debate. If voters merely chose to give the award to the person who deserved it most, San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford would've won any number of NBA Executive of the Year awards during his 22 seasons with the Spurs, and 11 as the team's GM.

He has, after all, ensured that the small-market Spurs have remained one of the NBA's elite teams for two decades. Instead, Buford has not won been named NBA Executive of the Year even once. If this is how things work, it's hard to say that things are working as they should for Buford.

***

In the time since Buford and Gregg Popovich—the former then the team's scouting director and the latter its GM—made Tim Duncan the top pick in the 1997 NBA draft, the Spurs have enjoyed an extended period of winning that hasn't been matched by a franchise since the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson to pair with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Over the last 15 seasons, the Spurs have never fallen below the 50-win plateau. This excludes the strike-shortened 1999 season, but even last year's lockout-thwarted team went 50-16.

There are NBA playoff appearance streaks in the contemporary game that go on longer than the Spurs' current 16 seasons, most notably Portland's from 1983-2003 and Utah's which started one year later and also ended in 2003 as well. But neither of those teams ever won a title. The Lakers made the playoffs 17 years in a row from 1977-1993 and won five titles, which makes them the closest comparison to the Spurs for such a high level of excellence over so many years. Perhaps it's fitting no one in the Lakers organization won an Executive of the Year award until after they'd missed the playoffs, when Jerry West won it in 1995.

Like those Lakers, Buford's Spurs teams have only failed to get out of the first round three times. In one of those rare years, 2000, Duncan tore his meniscus just before the postseason began and was unable suit up for even a single game against Phoenix in a series the Spurs lost 3-1. Not only have the Spurs made the playoffs in every year that Duncan's been in uniform, but they've advanced past the first round in 12 of those years and won four titles. Talent is spread more widely across a larger-than-ever league than ever before, and Buford has dealt with two very different collective bargaining agreements and numerous changes in the salary cap and rules governing free agency. And yet, for the Spurs, nothing has changed.

This year, they were at the top of their division again; for the second straight season, the Spurs finished second in the Western Conference to an Oklahoma City Thunder team that's almost a direct doppelgänger. This makes sense: the Thunder's general manager, Sam Presti, worked for Buford before taking over operations for the Thunder. The Thunder eliminated the Spurs last season, and may well do it again; in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have enough young talent to contend for a title every year for the foreseeable future. But they were built along the lines and with the specific strategy that Buford has used in San Antonio. Even when he loses, he wins.

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In the time since Buford/Popovich/Duncan started their reign in 1998, Geoff Petrie and Bryan Colangelo have won the Executive of the Year award twice. This is the same Bryan Colangelo—coincidentally or not, the son of Jerry, himself a four-time winner—that selected Andrea Bargnani with the top pick in the 2006 draft and whose Toronto Raptors franchise have not won a playoff series since he took over. And yes, this is the same Geoff Petrie who hasn't put a team in the playoffs since Rick Adelman left after the 2003-04 season. That's not one but two awards, for each.

Buford didn't build this team himself, of course—here's a good place for the ritual These Awards Are Silly disclaimer. There was Presti and other savvy assistants; it surely helped to have the best coach in the game, and one of the best in history, on the sideline. But Popovich has won two Coach of the Year awards over this period, in 2003 and last year. Even his old assistants/players have taken home the NBA's Coach of the Year award: Avery Johnson in 2006 and Mike Brown in 2009. Awards are silly, but also this all seems worth mentioning.

***

Tony Parker is arguably the best player on the Spurs right now, the biggest single reason the Spurs have continued to dominate after the league outlawed hand-checking and reshaped the game, and one of Buford's greatest triumphs. Initially, Popovich was unimpressed with Parker, thinking he was too skinny to play in a man's league during his first workout. Buford had his young assistant, Presti, compose a "best of" tape highlighting Parker's excellent play; Popovich was impressed enough with the Parker on the tape to invite him back and eventually draft him with the 28th pick of the 2001 draft. Parker ended up starting the fifth game in his rookie year, has started for three title-winning teams and won one Finals MVP.

It was a brilliant pick, but just mentioning Buford's prescient Parker pick, we're neglecting to go through all the discrete moves Buford has made to improve a juggernaut without sacrificing the money his competitors have shelled out during the same time frame. The only other team that's consistently made the playoffs during the same period has been Mark Cuban's Mavericks squad, and this year they looked awfully tapped out.

If there's a general manager in recent memory to accomplish anything remotely like this, it's Jerry Krause. And yet Buford, a low-key and respected character, could not be less like Krause. The legendary and legendarily obstreperous Bulls GM believed he was the single biggest reason the team he built kept winning rings, more so even than Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, all of whom he resolutely low-balled in contract negotiations. There has never been any indication that Buford possesses even an atom of Krause's abrasive insecurity, and his flexibility—as Timmay's grown older and Popovich has limited his minutes, Buford has built a roster that can accommodate that new reality—is hugely un-Krause.

We're numb to this brilliance, mostly because it has all accumulated so steadily and serenely. Buford dealt George Hill to Indiana, in exchange for the pick that nabbed Kawhi Leonard; drafted and held Tiago Splitter to help Duncan on the block, and kept him during the lock-out; he took on Stephen Jackson in 2002, then let him walk to the Hawks as a free agent in 2003, then got him back in 2012 to erase a rare mistake in acquiring Richard Jefferson, then cut him loose again for what we can only assume were good reasons; he realized that Steve Kerr and Michael Finley and Robert Horry weren't quite as done as the rest of the NBA figured.

Proof of his system's worth is also there to find in the calvacade of coaches and ex-personnel Buford promoted within the organization and who have since gone on to excel in other places: Dell Demps, Rob Hennigan, Sam Presti, Avery Johnson, Danny Ferry. Buford's reputation has made it so that the simple fact of San Antonio showing interest in a player automatically elevates that player's stock in the league.

It takes nothing away from whichever younger, hipper executive will win the award this year—I'm guessing it will be Denver's young GM Masai Ujiri, who has made a series of really excellent moves—to note that Buford has at least as good a claim on the award. It's true this year, and every year. It's doubtful that Buford loses much sleep over this, and also doubtful that he'll ever do anything flashy or comprehensive enough to attract the attention of voters who are weirdly but clearly numb to his greatness.

So here's a suggestion. Bill Russell gets the NBA Finals MVP award. Maurice Podolloff might, currently, have the MVP trophy attached to him, but give it a few more decades, and Jordan should get that honor. Since the various media people who vote on such things have never seen fit to give the Executive of the Year award to the league's best executive, let's at least make them vote on the R.C. Buford Executive of the Year Award. It will be justice, if justice too long deferred, if Buford's name ever winds up on the trophy in that way. It will be hilarious, and a little sad, if that's the first time it ever winds up there.


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