SAN ANTONIO — R.C. Buford, the San Antonio Spurs general manager who has played such an under-appreciated role in this historic run, was reflecting on their whole glorious time together.
Larry Brown. David Robinson. Avery Johnson. The famed trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, and everything they had accomplished. But when the stories went from past tense to present, when Buford was asked the question about what happens when this Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan led core rides off into the sunset together, it came as no surprise that Buford's poetic waxings suddenly stopped.
"Why are we talking about this?" he said with a laugh.
Buford knows the answer to his own question, of course: Because that time is coming sometime soon.
It may be this summer, or it may be the next, but the mood of the moment in the Spurs world is more nostalgic than ever because of it. They have a special chance to add to an already-incredible legacy Sunday, when they can close out the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat that they currently lead 3-1. No team has ever recovered from such a deficit in the Finals, meaning the smart money is on San Antonio earning its fifth championship since 1999 while exacting sweet revenge on the team that ousted them a year ago.
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To that reflective end, Buford — who joined the Spurs as a scout in 1994 and became general manager in 2002 — indulged the small gathering of media members who wondered what this had all been like for him. His players are asked every day about the nightmare of last June and what it did to their competitive psyche. His coach speaks often about how how it drove them at every turn during this regular season in which they recovered to post the league's best record. Buford stayed in the background as he always does, hoping the roster that he built with Popovich would find a way to make those memories disappear.
"I think we're still in the mourning period," Buford admitted. "It's not a time that begins and ends."
It was a lesson learned the hard way that will most certainly be on all of their minds Sunday night.
"I don't know that (the 2013 Finals) left any of our minds, but ... it's not what we do or why we do it," Buford said. "We're trying to put our best team together. Those guys are being thrust into the moment more often than we are, but our commitment to this group doesn't change because of last year. Our commitment is to put the best team we can together with them, for them, and it's fun to see them play well and have success."
Buford remains one of the most underrated executives in the league, which is why it was so roundly celebrated when he won his first Executive of the Year award in early May. The lack of appreciation is mostly in the public specter, as his peers know the significant part he played in the Spurs' near-impeccable track record.
But for all the master strokes that they've pulled off with this roster — from drafting Manu Ginobili 57th overall in 1999 (when he first became vice president/assistant general manager and Popovich was general manager) to landing Tony Parker 28th overall in 2001 to taking the calculated risk of trading George Hill for Kawhi Leonard on draft night in 2011 — Buford knows like the rest of them that losing Duncan and Popovich will be devastating. Or, as Buford put it, numbing. Not that he'll be around to see it.
"Who says I'll be walking into this building?" Buford joked when asked what it would feel like to enter the practice facility without Duncan and Popovich there. "There have been worse ideas (than leaving with them), like showing back up."
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His earnest perspective was far less funny. Duncan has a player option for next season worth $10.3 million, and he continues to indicate that he's too focused on the moment to decide whether he'll return. Popovich, meanwhile, said on Saturday that he'd be just fine returning for next season but has always indicated that he'll head for the exits when Duncan retires. Parker is still just 32 years old, but Ginobili could call it a career soon as well and has just one year remaining on his contract ($7 million).
"Well I think we're always considering (that future)," Buford said. "I don't know that you'll know what the opportunity is (then). Hopefully you've built your program to be as flexible as it can be at the time that opportunities are created. But I can't predict when that will happen, nor know. When you have one of the great players of all time and one of the great coaches of all time, knowing how you're going to fill those shoes (is impossible) because you're not.
"It will be numbing and changing. Those are the people who we've come to work with and battle with, committed ourselves to as they've committed to the rest of us. And that will be hard."
Leonard is widely seen as the one who will lead the next Spurs generation when Duncan retires, and it's highly likely that the small forward will be locked in for the long-term this offseason when he is eligible for an extension. The move that brought this quiet and tenacious 22-year-old to San Antonio may wind up being the crowning achievement of Buford's tenure, as the decision to swap him for Hill with the Indiana Pacers was the rare instance in which this tight-knit Spurs group didn't come to a collective conclusion.
Hill (drafted 26th in 2008 by the Spurs) spent his first three seasons in San Antonio and carved out a significant role. He played well enough that he was seen as a possible replacement for Parker, yet then found himself serving a much different purpose when he netted the Spurs this two-way terror from San Diego State in Leonard. As Buford shared, there was serious concern that stemmed from Popovich on down.
"It felt like we were going to get our ass chewed because we just traded the coach's favorite player," Buford said with a laugh. "Tim, Tony and Manu, those guys had a really strong alignment with George. They'd been through a lot together, and there was concern for them, not only that they were losing a great friend but also a great teammate. So the trust that that group allowed us to make that move — because we don't do that without including them. That trust was vital to them saying, 'OK, we don't like this, but we'll frickin' see.' "
We'll see, alright. We'll see if Leonard's rise can continue with a close-out win in Game 5. We'll see if the slowest of Spurs' sunsets is finally over or if Duncan and Popovich decide to give it yet another go. What we aren't likely to see, no matter how this ends, is another run that's as unique, as sustained and as successful as theirs.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter at @sam_amick.
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