San Antonio has replaced many parts throughout its amazing run, which continues Tuesday night against Miami in Game 3 of the Finals at San Antonio. Key role players have moved on. Front-office executives and assistant coaches have left for bigger roles with other teams. But Popovich and Buford, NBA executives say, don’t lament about what the Spurs have lacked or lost. Instead, they find a way to keep rolling. Their message is clear: Maximize what you’ve got. To make it happen, Popovich and Buford rely on their scouting smarts.
A leader in international scouting, the Spurs have bolstered their roster with foreign players. In part because of the Spurs’ success, international scouting budgets across the league have increased steadily the past 15 years. When one team scouts, drafts and develops future Hall of Famers such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — Ginobili was a star in Europe before joining the Spurs — competitors take notice.
The Spurs selected Parker with the No. 28 overall pick in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft, the year the Wizards took Kwame Brown No. 1 overall. Ginobili was an even bigger draft steal: a second-rounder in 1999. Fifty-six players were chosen ahead of Ginobili. Center Tiago Splitter, a late first-round pick out of Brazil, has emerged as a solid starter for the Western Conference champions. The Spurs just don’t find contributors overseas. They find gems.
San Antonio will never replace Miami, Los Angeles and New York as hot-spot destinations for superstar free agents. And big-market teams such as the Lakers and Knicks are flush with cash from their local television contracts. The Lakers and Knicks can spend their way out of player-personnel blunders (the Knicks have had a lot of practice at it).
By hitting it big internationally, Popovich and Buford have not only leveled the playing field. They’ve tilted it in their direction.
Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti, who cut his teeth in San Antonio, likes how Popovich and Buford operate. Once heavily involved in the Spurs’ international efforts, Presti said his former bosses have a sound strategy.
“Pop and R.C. deserve a lot of credit for having the foresight to invest the time [in international scouting], and provide a lot of opportunities” for foreign players, Presti said in a telephone interview Saturday. “Certainly, they not only did an excellent job in identifying players, but also in creating an environment and a system where those players would want to play and would be capable of thriving.”