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Synergy between Pop, R.C. has fueled Spurs' run of success

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich replied quickly when he was asked about the role general manager R.C. Buford, who was named the NBA's Executive of the Year on Monday, has played in the franchise’s success since he was promoted to his current position in 2002. “The best way to put it would be to say we’d be lost without him,” Popovich said.

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford shakes hands with coach Gregg Popovich after receiving the NBA Executive of the Year Award from Peter Holt in May 2014. 

SAN ANTONIO – Spurs coach Gregg Popovich replied quickly Monday when he was asked about the role general manager R.C. Buford has played in the franchise’s success since he was promoted to his current position in 2002.

“The best way to put it would be to say we’d be lost without him,” Popovich said. “Those few words say it all. His organizational abilities, his foresight, his ability to plan ahead and make judicious and wise decisions are off the charts. We would have had a hard time keeping this together for this long if he wasn’t here.”

Buford, 55, was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year on Monday for the second time in the last three seasons. He received the award for the first time in 2013, when the Spurs came excruciatingly close to winning the championship before losing a memorable seven-game series to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

The Silver and Black rebounded the next season, finishing with the best record in the league and needing only five games to wrest the crown from Miami in the Finals. The championship was the fifth for the Spurs, who won their first title in 1999. Buford has won five championships with the Spurs, four as GM. He was the Silver and Black’s director of scouting when they captured their first title.

RELATED: Spurs' Buford wins second GM of Year award

San Antonio fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs last year, but just when it appeared the Spurs’ star was fading, Buford and Popovich retooled the team’s roster. They signed highly sought free agent LaMarcus Aldridge and added another veteran free agent, David West, who walked away from more than $11 million in a contract extension with the Indiana Pacers to pursue a title with the Spurs.

The Spurs also signed restricted free agent Kawhi Leonard to a maximum contract and kept Danny Green, an underrated defender who helped the team tear thrash Miami in the 2014 Finals with his 3-point shooting.

Understated by nature, Buford worked behind the scenes with Popovich to lay the groundwork for the most successful regular season in Spurs history. The Silver and Black finished a franchise-best 67-15 and went 40-1 at the AT&T Center, tying the 1985-86 Boston Celtics league record for the most home wins in a season.

Buford, who relishes blending into the background, characteristically deflected credit to others when he met with the media Monday afternoon at the team’s practice facility.

“This is an honor for all the people in the organization who put in the time, the attention and the passion for our team and for the NBA,” Buford said. “It’s really a reflection on the performance of our players and our staff. It means a lot to share this with a lot of people that we love going to work with.”

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich hold the NBA Coach of the Year trophy after Popovich received the award in April 2012.

Buford was asked about the type of player the Spurs typically try to draft or recruit as free agents.

“I think we try to go after people that are selfless, that Pop talks about all the time, that come to work every day trying to get better (and) look forward to facing challenges, like the challenge we’re in middle of with Oklahoma City right now, and then appreciating the journey,” Buford said. “Those type of people fit well here and we’ve been fortunate that they’ve come and many have enjoyed it and decided to stay.”

The Spurs host the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the AT&T Center. OKC beat the Spurs 111-97 Sunday night to tie the series 2-2.

Buford and Popovich both talked about their mutual trust and the synergy between them.

“We are always on the same page,” Popovich said. “We don’t have to agree on everything, but we’re both participatory and we involve other opinions that often sway our own opinions. It’s not always our ideas. It’s not R.C.’s or mine. It’s all of us, but R.C. is the guy that implements everything and gets it all done. It’s deserved and really gratifying to see him get this award.”

Popovich said Buford’s award is a reflection of the franchise’s culture in the front office.

“That’s what I mean by participatory,” Popovich said. “Everybody does their part and everybody feels like part of the program because opinions are valued. There are no bad opinions. There are no bad decisions. They’re just decisions and you do your best to make them good ones. Everybody’s been important.”

Spurs chairman and CEO Peter Holt, left, congratulates R.C. Buford on his 2014 NBA Executive of the Year Award as coach Gregg Popovich looks on.  

Buford talked about a side of Popovich that few outside the Spurs’ circle see when he was asked about the dynamics of his relationship with the coach.

“I think he’s incredibly caring to everyone that he’s engaged with,” Buford said. “While we oftentimes only see in public kind of the rough exterior, the 90 percent of the time that Pop spends with our team, with our staff, with all of us, is spent building the relationships that I think engender and foster the commitment that all of us have to helping him accomplish the goals that our team sets out.”

Popovich and Buford credited Peter Holt and his wife, Julianna, the Spurs’ principal owners, for their support through the years. Holt retired as the team’s chairman and CEO in March, relinquishing both positions to his spouse.

“From the very beginning, Peter and the family have been fantastically gracious and trusting in allowing us to do our jobs,” Popovich said. “R.C. spends a whole lot more time with ownership than I do. I sort of hide from it all. R.C. is the middle of everything. I mean everything. The trust they have in him trickles down to everybody else in the organization. Their mentorship in that regard has been very important.”

Buford also praised the Holts and the ownership group.

“It’s been the rock that we’ve been built on for a long time,” Buford said. “And the Holt family have been the leaders of that. We’ve also shared the respect and the trust of a large ownership group.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the Holts and all of our owners, and the commitment that they’ve made to build facilities, to provide us with the resources that we need to establish the team, and then allowing it to take shape. The continuity over two decades, that doesn’t happen in pro sports. This wouldn’t have happened without the ownership.”

The Spurs have been a model of consistency since they selected Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft. They have won at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons, a league record, and their winning percentage of .710 (1,072-438) is the best in the four major team sports since 1997.

R.C. Buford, hugging Spurs chairman and CEO Peter Holt after receiving the NBA Executive of the Year Award, has been the team's GM since 2002. 

“It’s just the people,” Buford said, when asked about the Spurs’ ability to sustain their success. “We’ve been the beneficiary of having good people in our program. I think the culture of that has been created by our players, and Pop and ownership.”

Buford has had two stints with the Spurs. He first joined the franchise as an assistant coach on Larry Brown’s staff in the summer of 1988. Four years later, he became Brown’s top assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers. After one season with the Clippers, he went to the University of Florida (1993-94).

Buford returned to the Spurs in the summer of 1994 as the team’s head scout. He became director of scouting in the summer of 1997, and was promoted to assistant general manager two years later. Buford has been the Silver and Black’s general manager since 2002.

“You wouldn’t have even dreamed it – the relationship that we have with our team, with our players, with our community, with our organization,” Buford said, reflecting momentarily on how far the Spurs have come since he first joined the franchise 28 years ago. “The (championship) banners are nice.

“The times that you’re going to remember are the times you get to spend with people and the joy that we’ve seen in all areas of our organization and our community. We weren’t coming to a place that had that type of history. I don’t know if that was what we were looking for at the time, so now to say that you’ve been part of something, an organization like this, is really special.”