R.C. Buford was years away from moving his basketball career to San Antonio. More than a decade away from joining forces with coach Gregg Popovich and turning the small-market Spurs into an annual NBA-title contender.
But Buford was young, passionate and open to new ideas when he walked into Larry Brown’s office in the early 1980s. And the future San Antonio general manager listened intently as Brown, then Kansas University men’s basketball coach, ran through a list of names Buford should follow if he ever wanted to make something of himself in a highly competitive world.
One name stuck out to Buford then. One name sticks out to Buford now: Kevin O’Connor.
The Jazz GM had worked with Brown at UCLA. He’d crisscrossed the country learning the game, understanding what made players and teams succeed or fail. O’Connor did things the right way, Brown said. Watch what he does, learn and grow.
“He was a great person for me to emulate, long before we got to the NBA,” Buford said.
The inspiration had only begun.
When Buford teamed with Popovich in the late 1990s to remake the Spurs from a regular playoff disappointment to a sports dynasty, the duo directed their eager eyes toward Salt Lake City. Owner Larry H. Miller, coach Jerry Sloan and future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone had created a small-market phenomenon. High-character, low-maintenance players willing to sacrifice individual goals for team victories. A hard-working, no-nonsense team that was the pride of a one-horse town.
In 1999, O’Connor joined the Jazz. And while Utah has continued to shine — surviving two major transitional periods; advancing to the playoffs 25 times in 29 seasons — San Antonio eventually built four NBA championships around its Twin Towers and Big Three.
“When we first came [to San Antonio], the Jazz were at or near the top of the NBA world,” Buford said. “We recognized that any success that we wanted to have would have to go through Salt Lake City. … When you looked for places to establish a benchmark, they were the ones that fit us.”
Fundamental ideas • O’Connor and the Jazz have also borrowed from the Spurs. Everything from the Popovich-Buford duo, highly respected basketball expertise and draft-day luck have factored into San Antonio’s run of 15 consecutive playoff appearances. And the Spurs have recently made an art out of staying the same on the outside while changing within.
“[Buford’s] doing everything right and so has San Antonio,” said O’Connor, who praised the Spurs’ ability to survive and adapt while avoiding bad contracts that drag down many teams.
Center Tim Duncan, 36, still forms the core of San Antonio’s heart. But where Utah has dealt with major change in recent seasons — only two players remain from the Jazz’s 2006-07 squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals — the Spurs have added journeymen, castoffs and international unknowns on the way to a 111-37 record in the past two years.
“You get Tim Duncan with David Robinson and you back that up with [Tony] Parker and [Manu] Ginobili. If you’ve got any wits about the game, you understand that’s going to give you a chance to compete year after year,” Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said.
He added: “It’s two franchises who really understand who they are, where they are and what they have. And they’ve done a great job of keeping it in the fold and developing with those guys.”
Model of consistency • Buford credited Popovich, the 2011-12 NBA coach of the year, with guiding San Antonio through an era of major change in the league. Superstars and television deals drive a sport that annually rakes in $4 billion. A contentious lockout that led to a new collective bargaining agreement has only made the NBA tougher to navigate.
Like Buford, Popovich has ties to Brown. And even after turning the Spurs’ GM operations over to Buford in 2002, Popovich has remained the centerpiece of an organization that’s not just become Jazz-like — it’s surpassed Utah to become the pinnacle of NBA small-market life.
“The success that we’ve had and Utah’s had is really satisfying because it’s come in small markets and the people really appreciate it. The fans in both places are unbelievable and basically demand that we do things a certain way,” Popovich said.
He added: “When we came [to San Antonio], R.C. and I wanted to do it as closely as we could [to Utah], and that’s not easy. Because they do it the right way — they’re close-mouthed and they don’t talk in the papers about things. … They do their work and go home, and that’s what we’ve tried to do, and they set the tone and example for that.”
New inspiration • As Popovich and Buford shoot for a fifth title, the Jazz are stuck between rebuilding and competing with the best in the West. Even if Utah makes significant changes this summer, the Jazz are likely years away from becoming a championship contender.
The endless work has turned O’Connor into a young Buford.
The Jazz GM has referenced Detroit several times in the past year, drawing ideas from a starless Pistons team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals six consecutive seasons from 2003-08.
But Utah’s main inspiration is Oklahoma City. GM Sam Presti is highly respected by O’Connor and Buford, and NBA Commissioner David Stern included the Thunder with the Jazz and Spurs as the league’s small-market triumvirate when he visited Salt Lake City in April.
While San Antonio has spent 15 seasons revolving around Duncan, Oklahoma City shot into the upper echelon of the NBA by blending lottery picks with well-timed trades and well-executed signings.
The Thunder’s success has been part-Jazz, part-Spurs. It’s given O’Connor a blueprint for a post-Deron Williams future. And it’s already provided Utah with a young core of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks that should be running the court long after Duncan has left the game and San Antonio has entered a new era.
“It’s not necessarily spending the money and it’s not necessarily being in a big market,” O’Connor said. “It’s trying to be in your own market and doing it the right way and having a little bit of patience.”
It’s crunch time for the Utah Jazz
P Who • San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz
What • Game 3 of a Western Conference first-round playoff series
When • 8 p.m., Saturday
Where • EnergySolutions Arena
TV • ROOT Sports/TNT
Series • Spurs lead 2-0 in a best-of-seven matchup
NBA titles 4 0
Western Conf. Finals 7 6
Playoff appearances 25 25
50-win seasons 19 14
Primary coach Gregg Popovich Jerry Sloan
Key players Tim Duncan Karl Malone
David Robinson John Stockton
Tony Parker Deron Williams
Current coach Gregg Popovich Tyrone Corbin
General manager R.C. Buford Kevin O’Connor