By Mike Monroe
R.C. Buford is going to miss Saturday’s Spurs-Grizzlies showdown at the AT&T Center so he can be in Austin when the Toros receive their 2012 NBA Development League championship rings.
The president of sports franchises for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, Buford had a budget of roughly $20,000 for rings that will go to players, coaches, front-office staff and support staff.
That’s $20,000 total, not per ring.
For a bit of perspective, each 2012 Miami Heat NBA championship ring, set with 219 diamonds totaling 10.8 carats, reportedly set club owner Mickey Arison back more than $40,000.
But the D-League is the D-League, and when the Toros begin defense of their championship tonight against the Texas Legends, nobody will mistake them for the Spurs.
The ‘D’ in D-League stands for development because that is what the league is about. Players, coaches, trainers, referees, equipment managers, marketers, publicists and other support staff are there to learn.
There are 16 D-League teams, five owned by NBA franchises, including the Toros, owned outright by Spurs Sports & Entertainment.
Since its inception in 2001, the league has become a useful tool for many of the NBA’s 30 teams, especially those that enjoy complete control of their D-League affiliate, as the Spurs control the Toros. Won’t it be useful if Kawhi Leonard, out since Nov. 16 with tendinitis in his left quadriceps, can be assigned to the Toros for a few days so he can get in a couple of full practices before returning to the Spurs next week? Don’t be surprised when it happens. The Spurs quietly assigned Gary Neal to the Toros on a couple of occasions last season for that purpose as he returned from injury. The proximity of Austin means the Toros can make the drive to San Antonio for such practices at the Spurs’ complex.
“They know they’ll get a chance to work in front of Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich), and they love it,” said Sean Marks, the former Spurs center whose duties as Spurs Director of Basketball Operations include being Toros general manager.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players — the agreement that ended the lockout came one year ago Monday — allows veteran players to be assigned to a D-League team if the player and union agree. This will enable “rehab assignments,” much as Major League Baseball players often play a few games in the minors before they return to the bigs after injury.
The D-League also is useful to those with goals of gaining employment in the NBA, and that includes those such as Marks and Dell Demps, the former Spurs assistant GM who runs the New Orleans Hornets.
“Being GM of my own team is a dream, for sure,” Marks said. “I know I have a long way to go, but I have a great stepping stone now with the opportunity I have had to learn from Pop, Danny (Ferry), Dennis (former assistant GM Dennis Lindsey).
“The way R.C. handles it is amazing: He says, ‘Here, have fun with it; it’s your team, run it. He doesn’t micromanage, and until he gets sick of me asking question after question, I’ll keep picking his brain.”
Buford’s way has worked for Demps, Ferry, Lindsey, Sam Presti, Rob Hennigan and Kevin Pritchard. There’s no reason to believe Marks won’t follow.
Until then, he and Buford have some reasonably priced jewelry to hand out this weekend. Spurs Nation