Posts Tagged ‘R.C. Buford’

Budenholzer deals with double-duty

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be taking on some front-office duties this season. (Bart Young/NBAE)

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will be taking on some front-office duties this season. (Bart Young/NBAE)

CHICAGO – Long characterized as a “copycat” league for trends ranging from basketball strategies to hiring practices, the NBA has a new move that everybody’s getting in on: Coaches doing double-duty as general managers, presidents of basketball operations or other titles vested with personnel control.

The latest to take all that on is Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, who had decision-making responsibility dropped in his lap last week in the fallout from the Hawks’ front-office mess. GM Danny Ferry, beleaguered after making racially charged comments about free agent Luol Deng, took an indefinite leave of absence, and Hawks CEO Steve Koonin appointed Budenholzer to be the team’s head of basketball operations for now.

His circumstances are unusual, but Budenholzer joins the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, Minnesota’s Flip Saunders, Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and of course San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich in holding added clout beyond their work on the court.

Until Rivers beefed up his role last year when he moved from Boston to L.A., Popovich was more of an exception. Most teams in recent years preferred to separate the powers, believing that a coach focuses on tonight (win the game) while a front-office exec thinks about tomorrow, next season and several years after that.

So is this the start of a new trend? A pendulum swing?

“I don’t know, those pendulums seem like they’re always swinging,” Budenholzer said Thursday in Chicago, in town for the annual NBA coaches meetings. “There are a couple of people who have done that, and obviously Pop’s been doing that for a long time, with R.C. [Buford, Spurs GM to Popovich's president title] doing a ton. Those two together have been just an amazing combination. So I don’t know.”

Flip Saunders (David Sherman/NBAE)

Flip Saunders (David Sherman/NBAE)

The long-established view that the jobs should be kept separate has led to some coaches, hungry for more input on their teams’ architecture, finding themselves on the sidewalk. The most recent example: Jason Kidd, whose power play in Brooklyn wound up with Kidd coaching in Milwaukee and coach Lionel Hollins slipping in beneath GM Billy King in the Nets’ flowchart.

“A lot of people question it,” Saunders said. “Agents especially — they don’t necessarily like someone having that much control over their clients. Because as a coach, you can basically dictate how much you’re going to pay a guy.” By growing or limiting a player’s role, that is.

Saunders added duties in the opposite direction from Budenholzer and Rivers — he was the Timberwolves’ basketball boss when he appointed himself as head coach for 2014-15, taking over for the retired Rick Adelman. But Saunders made his NBA bones on the sideline, coaching Minnesota, Detroit and Washington for 15-plus seasons.

“I believe, if you look at many of the successful football teams, they were built that way,” Saunders said Thursday. “Look at [Bill] Parcells. [Bill] Belichick, he’s got total control. Then in our sport, look at the success that Nellie [Don Nelson] had — he pretty much ran the whole thing [in Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State]. Then Pat Riley‘s situation, when he pretty much ran a lot of those things.”

Just as Popovich has “nurtured” Buford to work in concert on personnel matter, Saunders, Rivers and Van Gundy also have titular GMs or other execs to tackle salary caps, administer scouting and handle other chores that would pull them away from player development and game preparation.

“The best thing about it is,” Saunders said, “I believe in most organizations when you have a falling out, the tendency is there’s a relationship that is lost between the coach and the owner. Because maybe they don’t all have the same agenda from management to the coaching staff. Well, when somebody is your coach and your president or GM, he’s going to talk to the owner. So there’s never going to be a disconnect on what the message is.”

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, said the added power and work aren’t for everyone.

“In my case, I’m not looking to do that. I love my owner [Mark Cuban] and I love my GM [Donnie Nelson] — my GM and I go back 30 years as friends,” Carlisle said. “I want to concentrate on my craft. But I applaud these other guys for taking on the other responsibility.

“If you get a great coach like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers or Stan Van Gundy and you have the opportunity to meld those two positions into one guy who is high-quality in so many areas, if you’re an owner, you should go for that. More than anything, it’s pointing to the vortex of the connection between the coach and GM. The fact that some owners are looking at this and saying, ‘These two jobs should be one and the same’ highlights the importance of coaching.”

No one, however, is saying it’s easy. The consensus is that a GM has less-grueling days and better job security than his head coach. Saunders adapted comfortably to that last season, his first in the role with Minnesota, though coaching competitiveness still coursed through his veins.

In Budenholzer’s case, it comes just one year into his head coaching tenure with the Hawks, with the true impact of the front-office mess (analyzed well here by our Sekou Smith) still to be felt. The longtime Spurs assistant has a lot coming at him, on the brink of training camp.

“There are extra things you have to do to prepare for camp and the season,” Budenholzer acknowledged. “But we’ve got a great group. So there’s more work but I think we can manage it. The team, for the most part, is in place. That’s the most important thing.”

Growing up in the NBA in the Spurs organization — Ferry logged valuable time there, too, under Popovich and Buford — helped prepare Budenholzer for this beefed-up role. “It’s something where I spent 19 years in that kind of a set-up,” he said. “To whatever degree I can be comfortable, I wouldn’t feel that now if I hadn’t spent all those years around that in San Antonio with Pop and R.C.”

Asked where he would turn with questions, he said: “Oh, Pop and R.C. have always been open to me. I’ve obviously learned a ton from them and I’ll continue to.”

And if rivalries of the NBA prevent his Spurs pals from helping too much?

“I’m sure if I cross the line unintentionally,” Budenholzer said, “they’d say, ‘You’re a big boy, you’re going to have to figure certain things out for yourself.’ “

Quiet Spurs make big noise with Hammon


VIDEO: Becky Hammon is introduced by the Spurs

Last week, when virtually nobody was looking, point guard Tony Parker signed a three-year contract extension.

That’s usually the way the Spurs do business.

But for a franchise that usually goes out of its way to avoid creating even a ripple in the pool, the Spurs have made loud splashes this summer. The first was hiring longtime European coach Ettore Messina as an assistant coach. That was just a warmup.

The addition of WNBA star Becky Hammon to the coaching staff is nothing less than a cannonball.

Hammon, who is retiring as a player at the end of this season, will become the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

Lisa Boyer was a volunteer assistant coach for the Cavaliers under John Lucas during the 2001-02 season, but she did not sit on the bench during games or travel with the team.

Make no mistake. This is big, potentially a game-changer and another milestone for women in sports and as professionals in general. Hammon will have the same duties as the rest of the coaching staff; scouting, writing reports, game-planning and offering her opinions in coaching sessions.

“In some ways it is trailblazing,” Hammon said on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “But so many other women have done so many great things. I’m just following in their path.”

“I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said in a statement from the team. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”

Hammon is a 16-year WNBA veteran and was voted one of the 15 all-time best players in league history. Ironically, an ACL injury that forced her to sit out last season may have opened the door to coaching. While in San Antonio rehabilitating during the offseason, Hammon asked Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and Popovich if she could attend practices and sit in on meetings. A connection was quickly established and both sides were on the road toward making history, though with no intention of grabbing the spotlight.

“Coach Pop made it clear to me I was being hired because of my basketball IQ and my qualifications,” Hammon said. ” ‘It just so happens you’re a woman.’ “

It is, of course, the Spurs’ way to push at the envelope, leap outside the box of conventional thinking. They won their fifth NBA title in June with a roster consisting of 10 international players that came from eight different countries. Messina has spent more than a quarter century as perhaps the top coach in Europe and was widely regarded for years as one who could make the jump across the Atlantic to thrive in the NBA. It took the Spurs to actually make it happen.

Still, it is a quantum leap to make Hammon a woman at the highest level of the men’s game.

“People have always asked me if a woman could play in the NBA,” Hammon said. “I tell them no, because there is a difference. The men are too big, too strong. But when it comes to coaching, game-planning and scheming, there’s no reason that a woman can’t do anything a man can do.”

So could a woman one day become a head coach in the NBA?

“I think anything is possible,” Hammon said.

Around the world with Spurs trophy

trophy

Among the stops the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be making this summer: Argentina, Australia, France and Italy. (NBAE via Getty Images)

How are you spending your summer vacation?

Sunny days at the beach? Lazy afternoons with a fishing pole in the water at a lake? Nerding out at the library?

Well, if you’re the Larry O’Brien Trophy, you’re all polished and shiny and ready with passport in hand to embark on a grand global tour, courtesy of the NBA champion Spurs.

The 2014 titlists have made plans for the championship trophy to visit and be on display in the hometowns of the Spurs as part of a worldwide celebration on a summer long grand excursion.

That’s no easy feat when you’re the team with the most international roster in the history of the game. So the trophy will visit the friends and families of players in 12 cities in six countries on four continents.

Beginning Thursday in Argentina, the trophy will also travel to Australia, Canada, Italy, France, as well as U.S. cities in New Hampshire, New York and California.

“This tour gives our organization an opportunity to celebrate our diverse roster and thank the NBA’s loyal fan support from around the globe,” said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. “For the first time in Spurs history, our players will be able to bring  a unique part of the championship experience to their families, friends and fans.”

While in the possession of Spurs players, the Larry O’Brien Trophy will appear at various events, such as basketball camps, family gatherings, music festivals and charity events spanning four different continents.

Fans can follow the Larry O’Brien Trophy on its journey online at Spurs.com, as well as with the hashtag #SpursTrophyTour through the following Spurs social media channels: Twitter (@Spurs), Facebook (facebook.com/spurs) and Instagram (OfficialSpurs).

No word on whether The Larry will find time to take its glittering talents on a side trip to South Beach.

 

A jab at Phil and Spurs uniqueness

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Peter Holt talks with GameTime after Spurs win title

SAN ANTONIO – Spurs owner Peter Holt couldn’t help himself, or more accurately he simply didn’t want to. The opportunity to turn the sharp stick back on Phil Jackson, San Antonio’s longtime nemesis and Spurs dynasty denier, was much, much too delicious to pass up.

The smile that spread broadly across Holt’s face and the hearty chuckle that spilled from it revealed his satisfaction in doing so. Holt, basking in the immediate glow of his team’s fifth championship Sunday night, was asked if this title is the sweetest of them all. Holt said, yes it is, although the first in 1999 will always be special, and that’s when you could start to see Holt’s face light up and the smile begin to build…

“Even though it was a shortened, asterisked season,” Holt said, now sporting a full-on grin. “Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil, we all played the same amount of playoff games, didn’t we, Phil?”

Holt was quickly reminded that Jackson was retired that season, his first out of the league following a second three-peat with Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

“Yeah, uh-huh.” Holt said. “Well, he bailed out.”

Take that, Zen Master.

Jackson never seems to miss an opening to tweak the Spurs franchise and their loyal fans about winning the title in a lockout season shortened to 50 regular-season games and failing to collect rings in consecutive seasons. Funny, here they stand yet again, with Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich still commanding their posts, with another opportunity to snap up the final carrot out there.

How does Holt feel about their chances?

“Kawhi’s 22, Patty’s 25, Tony’s 32 and Tim and Manu are going to play until they die,” Holt said. “So I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

Sounds like Holt believes Duncan, 38, has no plans to ride his latest trophy into the sunset. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard sits on the cusp of stardom and Patty Mills, a key role player, is a free agent but could be  back. Tony Parker has already announced that he won’t play for France in the FIBA World Cup later this month, which has to be music to Holt’s ears, and Manu Ginobili, who turns 37 in a month, played this postseason as if 27.

The credit for the Spurs’ sustained success cascades from Holt to general manager R.C. Buford to Popovich and his staff to the Big Three and the revolving role players over the years that surround them. Holt says his franchise is filled with “unique individuals.”

That uniqueness is found in the Big Three re-signing with the Spurs over the years for less than the market would bear elsewhere; in accepting Popovich’s adamancy to begin limiting their minutes seasons ago; to sacrificing roles and buying into wholesale changes in playing style and philosophy that ultimately has kept the Spurs a step ahead of the rest of the league.

“We’ve protected guys for many years minutes-wise,” Popovich said. “And I’ve said before I’ve often felt guilty because their lifetime stats are going to be worse than everybody else’s because of the way I’ve sat them over the years.”

Some players might balk, some might complain. Some might seek to find a way out. But that’s not the Spurs way.

But why?

“Because all three of us see the big picture; we want to win championships,” Parker said. “I think that’s the big key of our success here in San Antonio all those years is Timmy, Manu, myself, we never let our ego [get in the way], it was the team first and that’s the most important. I always trust Pop’s judgment. I trust the way he sees, you know, for our team the big picture to win at the end.

“So I don’t care about all that stuff, as long as we get the ring at the end, and so far he’s right.”

Spurs belong with all-time elites


VIDEO: Tim Duncan on the court after winning his fifth championship in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO – If you ask the San Antonio Spurs about the greatest sports dynasty of our time, they’ll probably caution you not to rush to judgment.

After all, they might not be finished.

When the Spurs put the finishing touches on the destruction of the Miami Heat on Sunday, with one last whipping in Game 5 of The NBA Finals, maybe the only thing more impressive than their sheer dominance of the two-time defending champion was the simple fact that the Spurs, inexorably, keep on winning.

Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ taciturn forward who was named The Finals MVP, was only 7 years old when his teammate Tim Duncan raised the same trophy over his head in 1999, when the Spurs won their first title by beating the New York Knicks. Through the interim, the Los Angeles Lakers have risen and fallen and risen and fallen again, and now lie in a ditch so deep they might need more than a long rope to climb out. The Boston Celtics resurrected their past glory for a few shining seasons but have now fallen on hard times. The would-be contenders, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, have changed cities and, in one case, changed names.

The Spurs have changed, too, from a deliberate, rugged team built on a foundation of tough, unyielding defensive chops to a work of offensive artistry that emphasizes quickness, ball movement and 3-point shooting.

What’s stayed the same is an organizational philosophy that promotes professionalism, selflessness and sacrifice. It is those core beliefs, and the way they have been carried out over so many years, that have produced the five championships that solidify San Antonio’s case as one of North America’s greatest sports dynasties ever.

When asked by ESPN’s Stuart Scott the biggest difference between the two titles, 15 years apart, Duncan gave the simplest and most accurate answer: “Fifteen years, probably?” (more…)

Spurs and Heat help prove that defense wins championships


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks with the GameTime crew after the championship clincher

SAN ANTONIO – Entering the 2014 Finals, the 2000-01 Lakers were the last team to win a championship after ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season.

They still are.

The 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs, who — in a season between championships — allowed 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, were one of the best defensive teams in NBA history. The Spurs’ D continued to rank in the top three over the next four years, but could only go downhill after that incredible 2003-04 season. And it proceeded to go downhill every single year for eight years, until it dropped out of the top 10 in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (see table below).

Out of the top 10 is not where you want to be. Over the last 37 years (since the NBA started tracking turnovers in 1977-78), only three teams have won a championship after ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season. Twice as many champs have ranked outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency.

And though their offense had developed into a beautiful machine that ranked in the top two those two seasons, the Spurs knew they had to get better defensively.

“We thought that’s what was missing against Oklahoma City [in the 2012 conference finals],” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said a year ago, “that we couldn’t make stops when we needed to. We would call them ‘stops on demand.’ In fourth quarters and big games you have to be able to do it.”

You can’t just flip a switch in the playoffs. Habits have to be built throughout the season, so that when the time comes, you can fall back on what you have developed.

“We slipped a little bit,” Tony Parker said, “and we knew if we wanted to get back to the top, we needed to get back to where we were [defensively] when we were winning championships.”

So the Spurs went back to the drawing board in the summer of 2012. And as a team that has embraced analytics, they dug into the numbers and realized that being a great defensive rebounding team (which they were) didn’t matter if you didn’t defend shots well enough (which they didn’t).

“What we found,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told NBA.com last week, “were that teams who weren’t as effective defensive rebounding were still ranking incredibly high in defensive efficiency. The areas that they were focused in appeared to us to be field goal percentage defense. So we felt like we needed to go back to parts of our system that would improve our defensive field goal percentage.”

Basically, they needed to better contesting shots, both inside and outside. Easier said than done, but some shifts in personnel certainly helped. Tiago Splitter had two years in the Spurs’ system under his belt, Kawhi Leonard had one under his, and both have played bigger over the last two seasons.

In that time, the Spurs allowed just 93.4 points per 100 possessions in 1,907 minutes with Leonard and Splitter on the floor, the lowest on-court DefRtg of any two-man pair in the league that has played at least 1,200 minutes together over the last two seasons. The tandem of Splitter and Tim Duncan has protected the paint as well as any big man combination in the league. And Leonard has quickly become one of the world’s best perimeter defenders.

Their teammates and coach were quick to point out the importance of those Leonard and Splitter, but also said that there has just been a better collective focus on the defensive end of the floor over the last two years.

“[It was] just coming in here from day one in training camp and making it a priority,” Duncan said, “making them understand that every game, every film session, everything else, this is what we’re going to hang our hats on.”

“We just worked at it,” Popovich added. “I mean, it’s basketball. There is nothing magic about it. You know, we worked at it and the guys committed to it, and we got better defensively.”

With better defenders and a better focus, the Spurs went from 11th in defensive efficiency in both ’10-11 and ’11-12 to third last season. Not coincidentally, they got back to The Finals for the first time in six years and came within six seconds of winning a championship.

This season, they brought back their core (and the best defensive lineup in the league) with one more year together in their system. Though no player averaged 30 minutes per game, they again ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency. And in the Western Conference playoffs, they got those “stops on demand,” holding the offenses of both the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder well under their regular season efficiency marks and setting up a Finals rematch.

The Miami Heat have gone in the opposite direction in the last two years. After ranking in the top five defensively in their first two seasons together, the Heat ranked seventh last season and 11th this year.

Dwyane Wade‘s “maintenance program” — he played just 54 games in the regular season — had something to do with this year’s regression. But so did bad habits. The Heat’s defensive scheme can overwhelm offenses when it’s sharp, but can also get broken down pretty easily when it’s not. It was inconsistent all season, pretty darn awful at times (especially in January), and finished just outside the top 10.

It got better in the playoffs, but the champs never really put 48 minutes of great defense together. In the conference semifinals and finals, they allowed both the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers to score more efficiently than they did in the regular season. Getting through the first three rounds was about how good the Heat were offensively, especially in the fourth quarter, than an ability to get consistent stops.

That wasn’t enough in The Finals. The Heat finally ran into a team that was great on both ends of the floor. And they got slaughtered.

The Spurs’ offense, of course, was a thing of beauty. And once it got going, the Heat could do nothing to stop it. They didn’t have a great defense to fall back on. They couldn’t get stops on demand.

Their not-top-10 defense, those bad habits and that inconsistency, had come back to bite them.

“We were always trying to conjure something,” Shane Battier told Bleacher Report after Game 5. “But you can’t win a championship trying to conjure something. It has to be who you are, and it has to be pure, and that wasn’t the case for us this year.

“We just didn’t have the fundamentals to stop an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs. And we were exposed.”

But you don’t get the largest point differential in Finals history (70 points over five games) with what happens on just one end of the floor. The Spurs didn’t just eviscerate the Heat defense, they shut down what had been a ridiculously good offense through the first three rounds, particularly in Games 4 and 5, when they held the Heat under a point per possession.

“We felt confident coming into the series that we were going to be able to score,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Maybe not as much as we typically are used to, but coming off of some very good defensive teams and series in the Eastern Conference, we felt we could rely on that. But they shut us out of the paint pretty consistently.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that “defense wins championships” is just a cliché, because it has plenty of evidence — including the result of the 2014 Finals — to back it up. These were two great offensive teams. But only one had been defending at a high level all season.

As a result, they’ll be holding a parade down the Riverwalk.

Spurs defense, Tim Duncan era

Season DefRtg Rank Lg. OffRtg Diff. Playoffs
1997-98 96.2 2 102.0 -5.8 Lost conf. semis
1998-99 92.1 1 99.2 -7.1 Won Finals
1999-00 95.7 2 101.2 -5.6 Lost first round
2000-01 94.9 1 100.2 -5.4 Lost conf. finals
2001-02 96.5 1 101.6 -5.1 Lost conf. semis
2002-03 96.6 3 100.7 -4.1 Won Finals
2003-04 91.6 1 100.0 -8.5 Lost conf. semis
2004-05 95.8 1 103.1 -7.3 Won Finals
2005-06 96.9 1 103.4 -6.5 Lost conf. semis
2006-07 97.4 2 103.7 -6.3 Won Finals
2007-08 99.5 3 104.7 -5.3 Lost conf. finals
2008-09 102.0 6 105.4 -3.5 Lost first round
2009-10 102.0 9 104.9 -2.9 Lost conf. semis
2010-11 102.8 11 104.5 -1.7 Lost first round
2011-12 100.6 11 101.8 -1.2 Lost conf. finals
2012-13 99.2 3 103.1 -4.0 Lost in Finals
2013-14 100.1 4 104.0 -3.9 Won Finals

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Leonard follows his path to title, MVP

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s Finals MVP performance

SAN ANTONIO — When the deal went down on Draft night 2011, when the San Antonio Spurs traded humble, team-oriented George Hill, a combo guard who for three seasons ingratiated himself to this team, to this city and most strikingly had found a soft spot in the heart of gruff coach Gregg Popovich, for a mostly unknown small forward with a funny name, all of San Antonio gasped.

Kawhi who?!

Even in the Spurs’ draft room, the decision to pull the trigger was hardly a unanimous, feel-good swap.

“It felt like we were going to get our ass chewed because we just traded the coach’s favorite player,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said on Saturday, reminiscing on the eve of Game 5.

Three years later, the folks in the Alamo City have popularized a different phrase for the player whose mannerisms, work ethic and determination fit this franchise like a glove.

Kawhi not?!

And on Sunday night inside the raucous AT&T Center, Kawhi Leonard, equally as humble as Hill and more reserved than even team patriarch Tim Duncan, forcefully answered that question with a third consecutive authoritative performance. He fatigued LeBron James with relentless defensive pressure and dominated in multiple ways on the offensive end.

Leonard’s 22 points and 10 rebounds led the Spurs to a 104-87 victory, a third straight blowout and the final one that ended the Heat’s two-year reign. It completed the Spurs’ season of redemption after last year’s heartache in South Beach and returned the Larry O’Brien Trophy to South Texas for the first time since 2007.

When Leonard stepped to the free-throw line in the first quarter, 18,581 fans instantly chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” A few hours later they would do it again, this time with even more conviction following confirmation that this quiet, corn-rowed, 22-year-old who had turned the tide of the NBA Finals in Game 3 was now its MVP.

“At the moment, I was just happy,” Leonard said. “Just had faith throughout the whole game, but I didn’t think at all I was about to win the MVP of the Finals.”

Heeding advice from his coach after sub-par efforts in Games 1 and 2 to be aggressive, to quit being concerned about deferring to the team’s elders, the 6-foot-7 Leonard closed out the final three games by averaging 23.6 points and 9.0 rebounds. He went 24-for-35 from the floor and 7-for-13 from beyond the arc. Defending the game’s best player, the reigning, two-time Finals MVP in James, Leonard had six steals and six blocks.

“He shows up the last three games and just plays out of his mind,” Duncan said. “He’s not worried about just doing the little things. He wants to do it all, and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing.”

When he was announced the MVP, his teammates mobbed him and pushed him playfully, and a smile even broke across Leonard’s normally stoic stone face. He grasped the trophy as his mother, Kim Robertson, hugged him and literally danced by his side.

That it was Father’s Day also resonated. Six years ago, Mark Leonard, Kawhi’s dad, was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton, Calif. The case remains unsolved.

“It is a very special meaning for me knowing that he’s gone and I was able to win a championship on Father’s Day,” Leonard said.

The night after learning his father had been shot to death, Leonard played for his Riverside King High team, scoring 17 points in a loss. After it was over, according to the story in the Los Angeles Times, he broke down and cried in his mother’s arms.

“He loved his dad and they were really, really close,” his mother said, clutching the MVP trophy as she watched her son smiling through sit-down television interviews, the kind he typically hates to do because they force him to talk about himself. “I think from the moment that it happened, he wanted to make his dad proud, he wanted to take that as a rocket, keep on moving, moving. Because I was kind of scared. The thing is he is such a good kid, he always wanted to get better and better and better.”

Desperate to keep the series alive, Miami bolted to a 22-6 start, and James was going off, scoring 17 points in the opening quarter. But Leonard scored eight. He buried two 3-pointers and the Spurs closed to 29-22. Leonard nailed his third consecutive 3-point attempt with 4:47 to go in the second quarter. It put the Spurs ahead for the first time, 37-35. When the shot fell through, the roof practically blew off the arena and the party was officially on. San Antonio would never look back.

Leonard became the youngest Finals MVP since Duncan won it in 1999. He was also 22 at the time, and preferred to defer to veteran center and team captain David Robinson, who as usual, was in attendance Sunday to witness this latest title, Duncan’s fifth. Now here was Leonard, basking in the glory, but really no more than a willing pupil who had learned from these remarkably selfless players on this remarkable team, his own value system so much like theirs.

“I mean, look at Tim,” Kim Robertson said. “I think Tim has been a great role model for him, you know, a mentor for him. Tim is always, I always see him taking him to the side and telling him different things and I really think Kawhi respects that. Kawhi, his thing is he always wants to get better, better, better. He does not want to be in the limelight, he just wants to be good at what he loves to do, and that’s it.”

It sounds so familiar. While this Spurs era will always be known for the Big Three with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, it is Duncan who defines it, who followed Robinson as the face of the franchise, and who will one day pass along that mantle. Popovich has made no secret of it, even saying as much last season, that the quiet kid with the funny name is the next in line.

Spurs owner Peter Holt, wandering the floor and basking in the glow of another championship run, was asked if it’s too much burden to place on such a young player.

“Not so far,” Holt smiled. “He’s got pretty broad shoulders.”

As they say around here, Kawhi not?!


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard addresses the media after his MVP performance

Spurs say rematch not about revenge


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich talks about his team’s preparation heading into Game 5

SAN ANTONIO — It’s been a long year since those 28 seconds slipped from their grasp like Waterford crystal smashing onto a concrete floor.

If that painful experience from Game 6 of the NBA Finals hasn’t lived in the forefront of their everyday existence, neither has it climbed down completely off the backs of the Spurs.

“I don’t know that that’s left any minds,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said Saturday, with his team on the cusp of turning the page. “But I don’t think it’s what you or why you do it.

“We try to put our best team together. Those [players] are thrust into their moment more often than we are. But our commitment to this group doesn’t change because of last year. We still have to put the best team can together with them, for them, and then it’s fun to see them play well have success.”

Buford joked about looking down the line to a future when Tim Duncan has stopped playing and coach Gregg Popovich has followed him out of the locker room.

“We’ve already got Tim’s successor picked out,” Buford said laughing.

“I think we’re always considering it. I don’t know that you’ll know what the opportunity is. Hopefully you’ve built your program to be as flexible as it can be at the time that opportunities are created.

“I can’t predict when that will happen and know when one of the great players of all time and one of the great coaches of all time leave, not knowing how you’re gonna fill those shoes.”

It was suggested that it will feel strange one day walking through the door of the Spurs’ training facility knowing that Duncan and Popovich are not inside.

“Who says I’ll be walking in?” Buford cracked. “There have been worse ideas.

“It will be numbing, changing. Those are the people you worked with, battled with, committed ourselves to as they’ve committed themselves to the rest of us. That will be hard. I don’t know why we’re talking about this.”

The NBA Draft came just five days after the Heat closed out the Spurs’ miserably lost opportunity in Game 7 last June. Then free agency began on July 1, followed by summer league. There were plenty of times to look back and feel the pain, just not right away.

“We’re still in a mourning period,” Buford said. “It’s not any time that begins and ends.”

It could end as soon as Sunday with the Spurs taking a 3-1 lead into Game 5 at the AT&T Center.

The Spurs insist that their motivation every moment of this season has not been about seeking vengeance from the Heat.

“In my case, not that much,” Manu Ginobili said. “I face every season the same way. If we win it. If we lost it. If we lose in the first round. I love doing what we do. You do love it more if you do well and you win. So in my situation I didn’t really take this season thinking that we have revenge because we lost. I just played the same way.”

It was, according to Duncan, one more lesson.

“I think we go back to last year and we learn from that,” he said. “We’re 30 seconds away. We feel that we have it in the bag and it slips out of our fingers.

“So I think we learn from that and we draw on that and we say, hey, it’s not over till it’s over. Our goal right now is to just win one more game. We’d love to do it [Sunday]. We’d love to do it in one game. But luckily we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we have a couple opportunities and we’re going to take whatever it takes.”

A hot night players won’t soon forget

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Chris Bosh talks about the heated Game 1 in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO – There’s been some strange happenings inside the AT&T Center. In 2009, Manu Ginobili swatted a bat out of mid-air during a game, then captured it with his bare hands and carried it off the court. His reward was a battery of rabies shots.

Just last month, the Portland Trail Blazers were startled by a snake slithering around in the visiting locker room.

Go way back to 1994 and the San Antonio Spurs’ opener at their former home, the Alamodome, and the infamous water canon assault. As reported by the San Antonio Express-News: “A water canon, set off by pregame fireworks, spewed thousands of gallons of water, drenched and scattered fans, soaked the court and delayed the start of the game for 50 minutes.”

Still none of those oddities reached the level of mayhem as Thursday’s air-condition-free Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The game was played without AC due to an electrical problem turning the AT&T Center into a stifling sweatbox that players from the Spurs and Heat won’t soon forget.

“It wasn’t so much the heat, it was just exhaustion,” Miami forward Chris Bosh said. “I thought I played like 45 minutes and I played like 33. It was a hell of an experience, man.”

The more than 18,000 fans in attendance were practically in sync fanning themselves with whatever they could find. Heat star LeBron James cramped up so severely with four minutes left in the game that he couldn’t finish the game.

“It was definitely hotter than normal,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “We were all sweating a lot more than normal. We made it through.”

Afterward, the Spurs opened their locker room on a limited basis because the heat was so stifling. General manager R.C. Buford was in the hallway with his blue dress shirt drenched front-to-back in sweat. The room designated for the Spurs players’ wives, children and other family members to retreat during games was filled with small children and babies stripped down to their diapers.

“It’s the NBA Finals, it’s one of the best events in the world and if you would have told me there was no working AC I probably would have thought you were joking,” Bosh said. “But it was a really dangerous situation for the players and the fans as well. Everybody was at risk, it was extremely hot in there. I’m sure the people up in the 300 level were even hotter than we were.”

James said he was still in considerable pain Friday morning as his muscles began to uncoil. Other players expressed a greater sense of fatigue, while others recovered more quickly.

“I was a little tired during the game, a little more than usual, but this morning I kind of feel the same,” Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. “It’s back to normal.”

Diaw said he and the Spurs’ other European players weren’t as affected as much because they’re used to playing in overseas arenas without air conditioning during July and August. Still, Diaw acknowledged that this was the hottest he had experienced any NBA arena.

Bosh said he was little more worse off.

“Today sucks, it was tough sleeping last night, but I’ve been tired like this before,” Bosh said. “It’s just going to take us some time to recoup, and we’ve got two days to do that, so that’s a positive.”

Buford’s worldwide reach changed NBA

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tony Parker continues to do great things since R.C. Buford brought him into the Spurs’ fold

SAN ANTONIO — Tony Parker remembers his first encounter with R.C. Buford.

“It was a long time ago,” Parker said. “He was the first one who found me in Paris. After the Nike Hoops Summit, they started following me, calling my agent and saying they’d be interested. That’s when I decided to put my name in the draft.”

But Parker did not perform well in his first workout for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“The first workout, it was like 12 hours from the plane,” Parker said. “I went straight to the workout. That was kind of tough. I was kind of tired. Pop was like, ‘Eh, he’s not good.’ R.C. and Sam [Presti] were pushing for a second workout. … Then I did a second one with the Spurs. I remember finishing the workout and I told my Dad, “I hope I can be in San Antonio.” I had no clue about the city and stuff like that. I just had a feeling after that second workout.”

Three NBA championships the later, the feeling has proved true.

For Manu Ginobili, it was a shared meal with Buford.

“Yes, I was in Italy,” Ginobili said. “He came to dinner. It was 14 years ago, a long time. Before that, I got emails that he was watching me, getting the tapes. But I was in Bologna, and that was my first close approach with an NBA person. It was great.”

In fact, it has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Maybe it’s only fitting that the NBA world finally brought the Executive of the Year Award to Buford’s doorstep. After all, he’s spent so many years bringing the world to the NBA.

While there were exotic names — Hakeem Olajuwon, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Alexander Volkov, Georgi Glouchkov — drip, drip, dripping into the NBA in the 1980s, it was Buford and Popovich who cranked the valve and opened the international pipeline of talent to the league.

Today roughly 25 percent of the players on NBA rosters are from outside the United States and no place embraces the fact that basketball is the world’s game more than San Antonio, where nine of the 15 players on the Spurs playoff roster are internationals — Tim Duncan from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Parker and Boris Diaw from France, Ginobili from Argentina, Cory Joseph from Canada, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes from Australia, Tiago Splitter from Brazil and Marco Belinelli from Italy.

“The biggest part of that is having a coach that was willing to play with international players and to respect the contributions that guys like Manu and Tony and Fabricio and the players we have now,” Buford said. “It started first with a coach who was willing to take that and had great respect and admiration for the style that they played.

“I think it provides us with opportunities to be a culture that’s unique. The city of San Antonio is obviously very multicultural. The way our owners and fans have supported all those players has put them in a position to be successful.

“The mindset had to be: Why should we put borders on our player acquisitions and our player recruitment? There are good players all over the world, whether from Bexar County (San Antonio) or someplace else.”

Popovich and Buford have been an inseparable tandem since they arrived in San Antonio together and have built the Spurs into the model franchise with their stability and consistent winning that has brought four NBA titles. They have not just changed the culture of the Spurs, but changed the game itself by incorporating, embracing and perfecting the passing, moving, shooting style that is played internationally.

While Popovich has been recognized as NBA Coach of the Year three times, including this season, it’s the first honor for Buford.

“We’re all excited for him,” Popovich said. “Long overdue. He’s done a great job for a very long time, so we’re giving him the requisite amount of you-know-what all over the offices. He walks down the halls and we hit the walls, hit the sides as a group for him and all that stuff.

“There’s not a formula — you made this trade, you added this and you did this contract. It’s not always a thing you can add up. But the bottom line is he’s the man this year and that’s very exciting for all of us.”