Last night the Spurs pulled into a virtual tie with the Thunder for first place in the Western Conference. It's a remarkable achievement for a franchise that doesn't attract marquee free agents and hasn't drafted higher than 20th overall since landing Tim Duncan in 1997. (The trade for the rights to Kawhi Leonard, the 15th pick last year, didn't officially go down until after the draft.) Much of the credit deservedly goes to coach Gregg Popovich, but GM R.C. Buford, who somehow has never won the Executive of the Year award, deserves kudos as well. Let's take a look at how he's kept the Spurs among the elite for so many years.
The mainstays of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were already in place when Buford was promoted to general manager in 2002. Buford was, however, in charge of scouting when Parker and Ginobili were taken with the 28th and 57th picks in their respective drafts, so we can give him at least some of the credit for those selections. Buford was GM when all of them signed their current contracts, and the fact that the team's three best players are also its three highest-paid players speaks to how well Buford has kept the house in order.
Parker and Ginobili, along with Tiago Splitter, the 27th pick in the 2007 draft, represent the fruits of the Spurs' international scouting, which has been viewed as a hallmark of the franchise. Still, a great deal of the Spurs' success is based on simply getting the greatest value possible out of draft picks and trades, with rebounding and three-point shooting as the common statistical themes. Leonard cost the team a valuable contributor in George Hill, but the Spurs got a rookie who has already started 28 games and, at 6'7", has averaged 5.2 RPG in 25.4 minutes a game. Another 6'7" overachiever is DeJuan Blair, who dropped into the second round in 2009 because of concerns about the lack of ACLs in his knees. He's turned into a starter who's averaged 11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career. Matt Bonner, acquired from the Raptors in 2006, has been a mainstay off the bench, knocking down 41.6% of his three-point attempts, including a league-leading 45.7% last season, as a 6'10" power forward making $3.3MM this season.
Buford's crowning achievements might be Danny Green and Gary Neal, D-League refugees making less than $1MM a year who play key roles for the team. Green, on a minimum-salary deal, has taken over as the starting two-guard despite a lack of flashy numbers outside of a 39.3% three-point percentage. Neal backs up at either guard position and provides outside shooting as well (39.8% three-point percentage).
Whether it's because Buford has figured out something related to long-distance shooting and rebounding that gives his team the edge, or simply because his scouting, both domestically and internationally, allows him to stay a step ahead of the opposition, it's clear the Spurs have a winning formula. The key now is for Popovich and the players to find a way to make it all translate into one more championship this year.