Unless you’re a basketball fan who’s been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the major shakeup in the Brooklyn Nets organization. Mercurial owner Mikhail Prokhorov did a twofer and fired not just head coach Lionel Hollis, but also “reassigned” General Manager Billy King (translation: not fired outright–yet–but might as well have been). To add insult to injury, King has been allegedly tasked by Prokhorov to help pick his replacement. Ouch.
There have been many names floating around as possible head coach candidates, but one name in the NBA ranks keeps cropping up for the GM position: R.C. Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. The architect of the model franchise of the NBA is widely considered by media and peers alike as the best person to bring order out of the chaos that is the Nets, given his artful management of the Spurs over the past few decades.
His imprint is over every iteration and transformation of this venerable team since taking the GM helm in 2002, after five years as team president. He is a significant reason why five championship banners hang in the rafters of the AT&T Center, with a viable path to a sixth in the works. Buford gave the nod to two previous No. 1 draft picks named David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and spearheaded the 2011 draft night trade for an unknown kid from San Diego State named Kawhi Leonard. This past summer, he helped snatch a homesick and ring-starved LaMarcus Aldridge from under the noses of the Phoenix Suns.
Buford has been with Spurs Sports and Entertainment (the parent company of the San Antonio Spurs; WNBA team San Antonio Stars; AHL team San Antonio Rampage; and soccer team San Antonio Scorpions) off and on since 1988, but settled in 1994 when he was hired as the Spurs head scout. He has been a part of all five championships, the first of which (1999) came while he was vice president/assistant general manager.
Prior to the beginning of his tenure with the Spurs, he was part of the University of Kansas coaching staff of the 1988 NCAA championship team. This burnished pedigree is like catnip to someone seeking stability and establishment of a winning culture for his team, and while Prokhorov has kept mum as to who he has in mind for GM of the Nets, it’s understandable why he would give Buford a serious look.
Smart money is that Buford would be crazy to leave such a sweet setup in the Alamo City. But what if Buford decided to take leave of his senses and leave San Antone? What if Prokhorov backed up the armored truck to the Spurs practice facility and Buford hopped aboard?
And could he duplicate his success elsewhere?
Jun 18, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford waves to the crowd during NBA championship celebrations at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
The only viable reason, at this point in Buford’s career, that someone of his caliber and experience would leave a tried and true situation to run the gauntlet of the Nets organization would be boredom.
Buford has money; the Spurs pay him well to keep their machine humming along and his past earnings have probably multiplied themselves over and over due to sound investing and spending restraint. While keeping the Spurs in the playoffs conversation every year is no easy task, Buford has managed to help head coach Gregg Popovich balance both aging stars and burgeoning ones without sacrificing the stellar level of play for which the Spurs are known.
Such a task may have become second nature at this point, and Buford could be forgiven for eyeing more juice-flowing pastures like a rebuilding organization. If he could turn his formidable talents into building the Tri-State Area Spurs, his reputation would enter the stratosphere. He’d be the GM God to end all gods. NBA commissioner Adam Silver might even consider changing the NBA logo to Buford’s likeness instead of Jerry West’s.
There is a catch to this fantasy: Buford, outside of his one-season stint as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers in 1992, has only worked for one other NBA team: the Spurs. At times, some Spurs players have been accused of being products of the Spurs system; meaning, that if they were put on another team, their skills and accomplishments would fail to make a similar impact. Buford has been part of the mighty Spurs triumvirate that includes Popovich and majority owner Peter Holt for years.
This trio has worked together to keep the Spurs being the Spurs, to the tune of five national championships and a $1.3 billion dollar valuation, according to Forbes. Remove a piece of the puzzle, and how would the Spurs fare? How would another team fare? Is Buford a talented GM in his own right, or is he a “system” executive?
The general manager skill set is, in a perfect world, transferable. One need look no further than Masai Ujiri, who gave first the Denver Nuggets, then the Toronto Raptors such good looks to their rosters that he is considered one of the premier general managers in the league (the Nuggets fell apart after his departure while the Raptors are on the rise).
Then there are those who haven’t fared so well, no matter where they went (hi, Pete D’Alessandro). It would be a shock if Buford fell on his face in another organization, but let’s be real: he’s never been put to the test. He’s had no reason to. His record is stellar as long as he stays along the I-35 corridor in San Antonio. He’s a big fish in a small-market pond, and happy to stay in his lane.
Apr 15, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri gestures prior to the game against the Charlotte Hornets at the Air Canada Centre. The Hornets won 92–87. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
The odds of Buford finding the perfect storm of supportive and reasonable spender owner and visionary head coach/president of basketball operations with another team, are about the same as him winning the Powerball jackpot. The challenge of building another championship team–and with much more limited resources, such as a lack of draft picks–might come at a price that Buford may deem too high. Better to serve in model franchise Heaven than reign in basketball Hell.
Could Buford duplicate his success with the billion dollar-backed impatience of Prokhorov breathing down his neck? Would he have the blessing to be left alone to do the job he knows well, or would Prokhorov’s alleged vow to take a more active interest in his franchise handcuff Buford’s moves? Could (or would) Buford enjoy the same mind-meld with Nets CEO Brett Yorkan (he of the John Calipari Stan Club) and Prokhorov’s fellow Russian right hand, Dimitry Razumov?
It’s fine to have what’s tantamount to a blank check to bolster a rebuild, but some things–like peace of mind, close-knit working relationships and the space to work one’s magic–are priceless. Without those precious ingredients, it would be hard to see Buford working his mojo outside of Spurs Lane. To quote Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, in his interview with Sam Alipour of ESPN the Magazine, “You can try to copy it, but you won’t have the personnel.”
“You can try to copy it, but you won’t have the personnel.” –Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
There is truth to this: there isn’t another Buford, another Pop, another Holt, or the rare chemistry that exists between the three that have allowed them to build a basketball dynasty in a dreaded “small market”.
Should the Nets come calling, it may be best for you to stay home, Mr. Buford. And lock the door.
Originally published at hoopshabit.com on January 13, 2016.