By Andy Roth
But Gregg Popovich’s team is firmly entrenched atop the Southwest Division with a 7 1/2 game lead over the Dallas Mavericks, and their 36-14 record is the fourth-best in the league.
San Antonio has accomplished all this despite the fact that former All-Star Manu Ginobili has missed 29 games, and was the team’s leading scorer when he went down on January 2 with a broken bone in his left hand that kept him sidelined until mid-February.
The Spurs have been one of the most successful franchises for more than a decade now, and a lot of the credit goes to a guy I call their secret weapon — general manager R.C. Buford, who has been with the team in various capacities since 1994, but seems to fly under the national radar.
Amazingly, he has never won the Executive of the Year Award.
R.C. should stand for the “right choice”, since he seems to always do just that when it comes to evaluating talent, in particular when it comes to the NBA draft — but also this year at the trade deadline.
Ginobili was the next-to-last pick (57th overall) in the 1999 draft. Tony Parker was taken with the 28th pick in the first round in 2001, while Tiago Splitter was selected at the very same spot in 2007. George Hill was the 26th selection in the first round in 2008 and DeJuan Blair was taken with the seventh pick (37th overall) in the second round in 2009.
Last year’s find by Buford wasn’t even via the draft. Guard Gary Neal, who went undrafted in 2007 and played one season in Spain and two in Italy, was signed by the Spurs after an impressive showing in the Las Vegas summer league.
When Ginobili went down, Parker obviously had concerns about losing such a talented and valuable player.”It’s going to be tough for us because he was playing at an All-Star level,” said Parker at the time of Ginobili’s injury. “And now we’re going to have to have everybody pick it up.”
One of the guys that picked it up when he got the opportunity has been rookie Kawhi Leonard.
Buford targeted Leonard in the draft, and thought enough of him to deal their young, backup point guard George Hill to the Pacers in exchange for his draft rights. The Spurs apparently didn’t want to tip their hand and show their interest in Leonard prior to the draft, so they didn’t even have him in for a private workout.
It didn’t take long for Leonard to impress a very tough critic in Popovich, especially on the defensive end, as he invoked the name of a famous former Spurs player following Leonard’s first career start on Jauary 11.
“It’s huge for us to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce [Bowen] did in the past,” Popovich said. “This young man’s got a lot to learn, but he’s very willing, very versatile, and I think he’s got the ability to be one heck of a player.”
The 6-7 Leonard, who can guard multiple positions, is aided in that effort by his tremendous length (his wing span is 7 feet, 3/8 inches) and freakishly large hands which measure 9 3/8 inches from wrist to middle fingertip.
I’m sure Leonard’s play contributed to the trade-deadline deal that sent starting small forward Richard Jefferson, along with a conditional first-round pick, to the Warriors for Stephen Jackson.
Buford already knows what Jackson can deliver, as he was part of the Spurs’ 2003 championship team. The deal also saves some valuable cap space and money in the future as Jackson has one more year left on his contract at just over $10 million,while Jefferson has two years remaining at just over $21 million.
With Jackson and Leonard at the “3″, the Spurs can make the likes of Kevin Durant work as hard as humanly possible if the teams meet in the Western Conference playoffs.
Following Jefferson’s departure, Leonard moved into the starting lineup with some very impressive results — and I’m not just talking about his stat line (10 games, 11.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 52% FG%). The number that counts the most is in the win column. The Spurs are 9-1 and are currently riding an 8-game winning streak since the trade.
As for the Spurs’ GM, his wheeling and dealing didn’t stop at the trade deadline. Buford signed forward Boris Diaw after he was bought out by the Bobcats, and signed point guard Patrick Mills, who was playing in China during the lockout and was a backup in Portland last season.
Diaw had fallen out of favor with head coach Paul Silas in Charlotte and wanted to play for a contending team.
There’s no doubt he was less than impressive this season with the Bobcats, but there’s basically little risk on the part of the Spurs, and in return, they get a player with plenty of playoff experience (39 games, 13.9 ppg).
The signing of Mills filled the void left by the sudden loss of T.J. Ford, who abruptly retired last month following another scare to his surgically repaired spine.
On the surface, Mills replacing Ford doesn’t seem like a very big deal, but there is a huge difference between the two players.
Ford was a marginal NBA player, while Mills is just 23-years old with plenty of upside. Scouting reports on Mills prior to the draft in 2009 noted his tremendous quickness and explosive first step. Our own Chris Sheridan told a story recently about his first look at Mills.
Thanks to Buford, the Spurs arguably have the deepest and best bench in the league. The fact that the Spurs are extremely serious title contenders when many prematurely wrote them off should earn Buford the long-deserved NBA Executive of the Year Award.
Andy Roth is currently a contributing NBA editor for The Sports Network. He covered the Knicks for NBC Radio and AP Radio for eleven years and was an NBA Columnist for Celtics Pride Magazine for two years. He’s covered many of the major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, U.S. Open Tennis and Golf.