In general, Shaq not suited for GM job
The short-lived news that Shaquille O’Neal would talk with the Orlando Magic about the team’s general manager position quickly achieved its desired purpose, to wit: publicity, followed by even greater hilarity.
Only a franchise as screwy and unprofessional as Orlando would consider O’Neal as a GM. Shaq does year-round what he used to do in the offseason. He’s a television personality, an endorser, a rapper, a guy who fantasizes about a career in law enforcement and a holder of various honorary degrees. In other words, a professional dilettante.
Problem is, the evaluation of talent isn’t something you play at. It’s not a role. It’s a profession. Athleticism in the evaluator confers no talent at the task (ask Michael Jordan). The job rewards stealth, not bombast. A real GM has both a gift and a learned skill. He has survived a rigorous period of apprenticeship.
Now, you hear a lot about coaching trees but not nearly enough about the lineage of various front offices. Toward that end, I direct your attention to the Western Conference finals, which begin Sunday and feature the best and most soundly constructed teams in either conference.
The general manager of the San Antonio Spurs is R.C. Buford, who first came to the team as an assistant coach in 1988. The Oklahoma City Thunder is run by Sam Presti, Buford’s former intern. Neither man was renowned for much success as a player. Buford played at Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. In 2000, Presti graduated from Emerson College, a Division III school where he is best known for taking six charges against another powerhouse, Daniel Webster College.
What the Spurs have already accomplished — four titles between 1999 and 2007 — is considered dynastic. But now, against every expectation but their own, they seem a good bet to extend their reign. Oklahoma City — anchored by three stars 23 or younger — is absurdly talented and still a work in progress. But in a league that holds glamour as a virtue and cap space dear, each team was configured in similar ways. San Antonio and Oklahoma City are small-market franchises built mostly through the draft. What’s more, they have each secured talent for the long term.
For San Antonio, stability begins with Tim Duncan, who hasn’t considered going anywhere since his dalliance with Orlando more than a decade ago. For Oklahoma City, it’s Kevin Durant, who agreed to a five-year extension the day before LeBron James’ infamously televised Decision.
You wonder, then, what’s the greater accomplishment: finding talent or holding on to it?
"The commitment that the players had to our organization is a bigger endorsement," says Buford, who with near-pathological modesty lays credit for the Spurs’ success with the guy who hired him, Gregg Popovich.
San Antonio consistently finds talent where other teams fail. Gary Neal, it’s worth noting, was undrafted. Tiago Splitter was a No. 28 pick in 2007. Danny Green was 46th (by Cleveland) in 2008. DeJuan Blair went 37th in 2009.
But the core, of course, is the Big Three: Duncan, Manu Ginobili (the 57th pick in 1999) and Tony Parker. It was Parker’s turn to be mentioned as an MVP candidate this season, and it’s Parker, as much as anybody, who lets you understand why these teams are where they are.
In 2001, he was a skinny 19-year-old from Paris. The Spurs scouts were high on him. But after a pre-draft workout in Chicago, the coaches were not. "He had no idea what to expect," recalls Buford. "I think he thought he would come in, shoot a few jumpers and flash his smile."
Popovich and his coaches explained their doubts about Parker’s toughness and his physicality, or lack thereof. Then Buford’s assistant, Presti, went to work. Or, rather, back to work.
Presti had joined the Spurs less than a year before, paying his own way to a basketball camp in Aspen, Colo., so that he might get some face time with Buford and Popovich. They hired him as an intern.
"It didn’t take long to realize that he had tremendous talent," said Buford.
Recognizing talent is a talent in itself. So’s working your ass off. Presti had both.
Presti fashioned a new videotape of Parker that addressed all the coaches’ concerns.
Eleven years later, Buford is doing the same old thing. Parker has won three championship rings with the Spurs. And Presti has managed to draft a Big Three of his own: Durant, Russell Westbrook (who re-upped for five more years in January) and James Harden, who could become a restricted free agent after next season.
I ask Buford about Presti’s Parker tape. What did he instruct the recent Emerson College graduate to do?
Buford responds with a tone that suggests I don’t quite get it. "I didn’t tell him anything," he says. "I didn’t need to tell him."