It seems unfathomable that R.C. Buford had never won the NBA's Executive of the Year award before Wednesday, doesn't it? Yes, the San Antonio Spurs have been great for the better part of two decades because they've had Hall of Fame talent up front, in the backcourt and on the bench, but they've also been great because their roster always seems to be stocked with everything else they need to compete. Since the spring of 2002, Buford's been the man in charge of building and replenishing that arsenal.
Over the last 12 years, the Spurs general manager has overseen rosters that have rolled up a combined record of 688-280, a pristine .711 overall winning percentage, won four Western Conference titles and hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy three times. The infrastructure of San Antonio's great machine was already in place when Buford ascended, with Gregg Popovich already owning five straight playoff berths and a championship ring, Tim Duncan well on his way to a Hall of Fame career and Tony Parker having survived his trial-by-fire rookie initiation into the NBA. But Buford, the Spurs' longtime top scout and assistant GM before he got the top job, was the one who convinced Pop to take and use Parker, who had a hand in drafting Argentinian star Manu Ginobili in 1999 and bringing him to Texas three years later to form the Spurs' vaunted Big Three, and who built the international pipeline that has helped make San Antonio — a town at times derided by some loud national commentators as a backwater burgh most notable for the weight of its residents — into the most diverse, cosmopolitan franchise in the NBA.
And yet, in each of the previous 11 years, his work has never received award-season recognition. The NBA rectified that on Wednesday, announcing that Buford has been named the league's 2013-14 Executive of the Year, receiving nine first-place votes from a panel of fellow team basketball executives to finish with a ballot-topping 58 points. (As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck notes, the advent of voting transparency in categories voted on by members of the Pro Basketball Writers Association doesn't extend to this award, since these votes were cast by executives rather than the media.)
Runner-up Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns (47 points) and third-place finisher Neil Olshey of the Portland Trail Blazers (34 points) each received five first-place votes. Toronto Raptors boss Masai Ujiri finished fourth, while Pat Riley of the Miami Heat and Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder tied for fifth.
You could certainly make arguments for other candidates. McDonough — a popular pick among us here at Yahoo Sports prior to the postseason — took over a Suns team that nearly everyone (including us) had predicted to finish among the NBA's worst teams and turned them into the league's most remarkable success story. He hit a home run in hiring Jeff Hornacek to be his head coach. He cleared up the financial books by shipping out the likes of Jared Dudley, Caron Butler, Michael Beasley and Marcin Gortat. He imported apparent building-block Eric Bledsoe from the Los Angeles Clippers in the Dudley deal. He stole rotation pieces Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green *plus* a first-round pick from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Luis Scola. He added a pair of very young, potentially high-ceiling rookies in Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, and loaded up with even more future picks that gives Phoenix loads of flexibility in roster-building as they look to make the leap from just-outside-the-playoffs to late-spring/summertime factor in the Western Conference.
It was a hell of a first year on the job for the former Boston Celtics grinder, and if he'd have taken top honors, nobody would've batted an eye. Olshey's case is a bit weaker, in my view — the Blazers' rise from 33 wins and a lottery trip in 2012-13 to 54 wins and the West's No. 5 seed owes much more to internal development from the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and prior-year-hire Terry Stotts — but the '13-'14 moves he did make (trading for starting center Robin Lopez and reserve power forward Thomas Robinson, signing sixth-man Mo Williams and seventh-man Dorell Wright on the cheap) did help matters.
Some might view Buford's recognition as a similar sort of backward-looking nod, but it's worth celebrating the work he did this year to retool and revamp the Spurs after a crushing 2013 NBA finals loss. Rather than overreact to their comparatively poor postseason showings, Buford stayed the course and re-signed Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, both of whom played major roles in the Spurs' steadily brilliant run to a league-best 62-20 record. He added free-agent guard Marco Belinelli on the cheap (two years, $5.6 million) and watched as the Coach of the Year turned him into a lethal and efficient shot-maker (48.5 percent from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range, 84.7 percent from the foul line) who finished second on the team behind Tim Duncan in total minutes played, proving to be a hand-in-glove fit that kept the Spurs' offense humming, whether alongside Ginobili off the bench or next to Parker in spot starts.
He got Patty Mills and Boris Diaw to pick up their player options to return for another year, and they responded by combining to chip in more than 19 points, six rebounds and 4 1/2 assists per game, with both shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range and offering defensive versatility, all for a total cost of $5.8 million this season. His ability to load up the roster with not only depth, but usable depth — guys that Pop could, and would, actually play — contributed to San Antonio's historic balance. No Spur averaged more than 30 minutes per game during the regular season, a first in NBA history, helping to keep veterans Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — and increasingly critical two-way small forward Kawhi Leonard — fresh for their playoff push ... which, judging by Game 1 of the second round, is going pretty well.
So when Pop calls Buford's Executive of the Year win "absolutely deserved and long overdue," let's not focus so much on the latter part of that quote that we lose sight of the former. Yes, Buford has probably deserved this award a number of times over the past dozen years, but calling this a lifetime achievement award would be giving short shrift to the job he's done to put this year's model right back in title contention.
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