The San Antonio Spurs picked Tim Duncan on June 25, 1997, about seven weeks before Matt Stone and Trey Parker launched their new animated series on Comedy Central. Sixteen years later, the Spurs and South Park are still chugging along like kindred spirits; in a goofy twist, Duncan’s only fun nickname (“Timmaaaaaaaay”) comes from that show. Both the Spurs and South Park generated so many classic moments over the years, they practically blend into each other now. They were lavished with critical acclaim while being overshadowed by more popular network shows (the Lakers and The Simpsons, respectively). Parker and Stone should have burned out years ago; Duncan should be washed up by now. Nope and nope. Every time they seemed ready to lose their relevance, they rallied back. You know, like right now.
It’s easier to put San Antonio’s unprecedented run in perspective. The Spurs won four titles in nine years. They made two different Finals 14 years apart. They won 70 percent of their games without ever missing a postseason. They never won fewer than 50 games except for the ’99 lockout season (when they finished 37-13). Their three signature players (Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) have played together 11 years, one away from passing the original Big Three (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) as the longest-running three-star alliance. If Duncan and Gregg Popovich capture titles 14 years apart, they will make history; only Bill Russell and Red Auerbach won rings even nine years apart (1956 and 1966).1 If Duncan wins the Finals MVP, he’ll match Kareem as the only player to repeat that 14 years apart.
Comparing the 1998-2013 Spurs to other famous runs in NBA history: Malone and Stockton played together the longest — 18 years, 15 of them with Jerry Sloan — never winning a championship. Russell won 11 titles in 13 years, playing with Sam Jones for 12 of them. Baylor and West teamed up for 11 seasons and seven Finals (losing all of them). The original Big Three lasted for 12 years and through three presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush). Magic’s Lakers had a 12-year run, with Magic and Kareem overlapping for 10 years, eight Finals trips and five titles. The Jordan-Pippen alliance lasted from 1988 through 1998, yielding six titles and surviving MJ’s 18-month baseball sabbatical in the middle.
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There’s been a misconception over these past 16 years that Duncan’s Spurs were boring, that America repeatedly rejected them. Uh-oh, here come the small-market Spurs again. Get ready for lousy ratings! It didn’t help that their signature stars never fit into a culture that rewarded cool commercials, YouTube clips and self-created nicknames. Despite unrivaled success, unprecedented continuity, enviable chemistry and innovative thinking, the Spurs never received the same mainstream recognition that, say, the Patriots always did. Gregg Popovich never developed Bill Belichick’s polarizing mystique (nor did he care to). Tim Duncan never became a mainstream celebrity like Tom Brady (nor did he care to). We never argued about the Spurs, and when we did, it always centered on some lame thesis like “Why don’t more people appreciate Tim Duncan?”
Their biggest issue wasn’t their fault: Until this month, they never found the right Finals opponent, someone who brought out the best in them and produced riveting basketball. Remember, the Patriots played five unforgettable Super Bowls against the Rams, Panthers, Eagles and the Giants (twice). Until this month, the Spurs never drew a Finals opponent that made you say, “I can’t wait for this one!” That’s just bad luck, even if that same luck helped them win all four of those series.
Are the Spurs a dynasty? Of course not. More like a compelling television series that churned out an inordinate number of high-level seasons — like South Park, actually. Think of them as The Duncan Show and it makes more sense. The Duncan Show is a lot of things, but it has been rarely, if ever, boring.
THE CREATION: 1996-97
What Happened: The ’96 Spurs won 59 games before collapsing in the playoffs for the umpteenth time, losing a deciding Game 6 in Utah by 27 points. That triggered a summer of “David Robinson is too nice; you need to be a killer to win titles and he’s not a killer” stories. Which wasn’t untrue.2
I always thought it went beyond being nice; Robinson was too intelligent, if that’s possible. He understood the magnitude of every postseason, how it swayed his legacy one way or the other. Regular Season Robinson and Postseason Robinson weren’t the same guy. (If you want more details, I covered these problems extensively in my NBA book.) I always thought this little tidbit was funny though: Someone told me once that MJ and Magic always tried to stack the Dream Team practices so they were on one team and Robinson, Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler were on the other. If they got those three on the other team, they always knew they would win.
When Robinson missed the first six weeks of the ’97 season with a back injury, the Spurs staggered to a 3-15 start. He returned and immediately broke his left foot, inadvertently murdering their season and thousands of Robinson’s fantasy owners. (Note: I was one of them. You know how many total games Robinson played? Six! I’m still bitter.) After then-GM Popovich fired Bob Hill and took over coaching duties, some mistakenly remember the Spurs tanking for a Duncan lottery ticket. Not entirely true! Injuries decimated them: Robinson, Chuck Person, Charles Smith and Sean Elliott missed a combined 264 games. They finished 20-62; only Boston and Vancouver did worse. Since the expansion Grizzlies were ineligible for the no. 1 pick, the Celtics had a 36.3 percent chance at getting Duncan. San Antonio? 21.4 percent.3
The Karma Gods didn’t like how Boston unapologetically tanked, losing 34 of its last 38 to secure the best Duncan odds. San Antonio went 6-16 over its last 22 and at least pretended to give a crap. For the record, San Antonio DID tank to get Sean Elliott: The ’89 Spurs were 10-20 before free-falling to an 11-41 finish. You know how we know this was fishy? Larry Brown was their coach. From 1973 through 1996, this was the only season Brown EVER finished under .500 as a coach.
You know what happened next.
Hold on, I have to throw scalding acid in my eyes. Just give me one second.
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 1: 1997-98
Playoffs: Round 2, lost to Utah in five
Returning core: David Robinson, Vinny Del Negro,4 Avery Johnson, Will Perdue, Monty Williams, Sean Elliott
New additions: Tim Duncan, Jaren Jackson, Chuck Person, Malik Rose
The Big-Picture Story Line: “Here Come the Twin Towers!!!” As crazy as this seems now, some experts wondered if Duncan and Robinson could coexist. Before the ’97 draft, some Spurs fans argued for Keith Van Horn over Duncan because they already had a center.5 A brief history of NBA Twin Tower duos: Wilt Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond (one Finals trip); Walt Bellamy and Willis Reed (no Finals trips); Kevin McHale and Robert Parish (five Finals trips, three titles); Bill Cartwright and Patrick Ewing (no Finals trips); Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon (one Finals trip). Only the McHale-Parish tandem generated rings, but Larry Bird was Boston’s best player for all three titles. Could you actually build around the Twin Towers gimmick?
Longtime Spurs media guy Tom James reminded me of this recently — he said their local newspaper polled San Antonians before the draft and 30 percent of the fans wanted Van Horn. To be fair, his stock was much higher than everyone remembers now and there was a whiff of “The Next Bird” buzz that everyone has blocked out of their mind now. Check out this New York Times story from January 1998 — they make it seem like “Duncan or Van Horn?” was still an argument!
What Went Right: Not only did Duncan win Rookie of the Year, he became the first rookie since Larry Bird to make first-team All-NBA.6 Meanwhile, the Celtics traded their top lottery pick (Chauncey Billups) after 51 games. Oh, and they passed up T-Mac for Ron Mercer with their other lottery pick. I need a drink.
Duncan’s rookie year: 21.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 54.9% FG, 22.6 PER, 12.8 win shares, second-team All-D. Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry, Connie Hawkins, George Mikan and Max Zaslofsky were the other rookies who made first-team All-NBA. Not a bad list.
What Went Wrong: Elliott missed the postseason with a quad injury, leaving the Spurs with Jackson and Person as their outside shooters (playoffs combined: 11.3 FGA, 32% 3FG). Against Utah (their 1990s nemesis) in Round 2, they blew Game 1 and Game 2 by a total of four points, never recovering as Robinson’s playoff choke-a-rama continued (42.5% FG). Also not helping: Duncan wasn’t quite Duncan yet (nine playoff games: 20.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG), and Karl Malone had mastered Rounds 1 and 2 at this point (26.3 PPG, 11.3 RPG in Utah’s four wins). That wasn’t a compliment.
Fun SI Vault Reread: Our first Duncan-Robinson feature (November ’97) includes a halfhearted attempt to give them a nickname (either “Officer and a Gentleman” or “Twin Peaks”) before the writer abruptly gives up, and also includes the revelation that Duncan “collects everything from switchblades to samurai swords because, he says, ‘I just like sharp things.'” He just likes sharp things???? Can we retroactively start calling him “Dexter”?
Best Game You Definitely Didn’t Remember: Game 2 in Utah, when the Spurs blew a two-point lead in the last 20 seconds (on a Malone layup that sure seemed like a charge — watch for Pop’s reaction at the 7:43 mark of the clip below), then blew a three-point lead in OT and got killed late by two missed Duncan FTs (down one, 54.9 seconds left). It’s a YouTube rarity: one of the few times someone outchoked Karl Malone.
Enduring Story Line Heading Into the Summer: “I hate myself for bringing this up because David Robinson is such an awesome human being, but should we build around Duncan and trade Robinson for guys who might, you know, come through in the playoffs?”
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 2: 1998-99
Record: 37-13 (best in the NBA)
Playoffs: Won title, beat Knicks in Finals
New additions: Mario Elie, Steve Kerr, Antonio Daniels and Jerome Kersey
Secretly Fascinating Preseason Story Line: Check out those three free-agent signings — it’s like they ordered “better shooting” and “been-in-a-few-wars veterans” from hotel room service. As Elie said before the season, “[The Spurs] lacked a little fire. They didn’t have guys who’d been champions, who’d won hard playoff fights as I have. You can’t be satisfied with having just a great regular season.” Translation: WITH GOD AS MY WITNESS, I’M GONNA MAKE A MAN OUT OF DAVID ROBINSON! I MIGHT EVEN CONVINCE HIM TO GET A TATTOO AND GROW A FU MANCHU! I GOT THIS, SAN ANTONIO!7
Leave room for Elie on the All-Time Underrated Role Players/Respected Locker Room Vets team (he won rings with the ’94 Rockets, the ’95 Rockets and the ’99 Spurs) and the How The Hell Do You Pronounce His Name? team (was it “Ellie” or “Eee-lee”?).
Secretly Fascinating In-Season Story Line: “Can Robinson accept taking a backseat to Duncan?” As Duncan’s MVP candidacy gained steam (he finished third), Robinson’s numbers dropped to 15.8 PPG and 10 RPG (and just 10.8 shots per game). We even had the requisite April ’99 SI feature with the semi-insulting headline “Rear Admiral”; the piece includes details on Pop reinventing Robinson’s role as a rebounder/shot blocker, Robinson claiming he could still score 25 a game, and Elie giving the damning quote, “I remember the old Dave could go by a guy, any guy. Now Dave has that some nights, some nights he doesn’t. Tim has it on a consistent basis.” Who else is getting LeBron/Wade flashbacks? Er, flash-forwards?
What Went Right: After starting out 6-8, the Spurs won 46 of their last 53 games (including a 15-2 playoff run). We would remember that league-wide butt kick more favorably if the lockout season hadn’t been such a car crash. The Spurs held opponents to a 40.2 FG percentage (lowest since the ’72 Bucks); swept two talented Blazers and Lakers teams;8 won the title in MSG (first time an opponent ever did that); and held the Knicks to 77, 67, 89, 89 and 77 points in those five Finals games (getting a break with Patrick Ewing sitting, but still). Even in a lockout year, that 52-15 mark was no joke. Here’s everyone in NBA history who won the title with 20 losses or fewer.9
That ’99 Lakers team had Shaq in his prime, Kobe in Year 3 (20 PPG), Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox — remember, they won the title a year later.
You know who could have made this list? The 2013 Miami Heat. Sadly, you can’t make this list when you have an on-off switch.
What Went Wrong: The Spurs swept the Lakers so convincingly that Dr. Jerry Buss said, “I need to pay whatever it takes to bring Phil Jackson here.”
Fun SI Vault Reread: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s our first major “Tim Duncan is awesome at basketball, so why aren’t more people excited about him?” magazine feature!10 Bonus points for the Duncan-Spock comparison. By the way, Duncan averaged 23.2 PPG and 11.5 rebounds in 17 playoff games, hitting a Game 2 game winner against Shaq’s Lakers (1:52 mark), dropping a 37-14 on them in Game 3, and scoring 31 in the title clincher. Throw in the Finals MVP and there was definitely some “Is this becoming Duncan’s league?” buzz building.
An excerpt: “So why haven’t you heard or seen much about him? The problem, besides Duncan’s pointed disregard for attention from the fans and media: He doesn’t give the impression that he’s doing anything especially important.” Over the next 15 years, you’ll end up reading a variation of this point roughly 12,455,319 times.
Best Game You Definitely Remember: The Memorial Day Miracle against Portland (Game 2). Why is Sean Elliott’s game winner the most famous Spurs shot ever? Because they had never won a title and had a three-decade-long history of choking in big moments. This was the first time Spurs fans said to themselves, “Screw it, I believe!”
Best Shot You Might Not Remember: Avery Johnson’s title-clinching jumper in New York (4:28 mark below). Everyone spent that postseason packing the paint and daring Avery to beat them, so there was more than a little symbolism here. Seven years later, he’d be coaching the Mavs past San Antonio in a Game 7. Whoops — spoiler alert!
Story Line You Definitely Don’t Remember: Spurs fans love the ’99 team most because it was their first title, but also because little ol’ small-market San Antonio — not even one of the two most famous cities in its own state, a place known for the Alamo, BBQ, Tex-Mex and that’s about it — somehow toppled the Big Apple in the Finals. Remember, San Antonio doesn’t have a major college presence or any other professional teams. Everything revolves around the Spurs. Beating NEW YORK CITY for the title was a monumental “We’ve arrived!” moment for them … followed by everyone shitting on it because the lockout season sucked. And you wonder why Spurs fans have such a gigantic chip on their shoulders.11
I found this out the hard way after my “NBA Footnote Titles” column last spring. In retrospect, I could have posted a YouTube video of me shitting on the Alamo and probably not made San Antonians as mad.
Overall Contribution to San Antonio’s “Boring” Reputation: Eight out of 10. Everyone detested the ’99 lockout season … well, unless you had a soft spot for out-of-shape millionaires, dreadful officiating, and 50 regular-season games and four playoff rounds crammed into five short months. That season was a feces sandwich. And don’t sleep on Patrick Ewing missing the Finals; suddenly you had “An Officer and a Gentleman” (see how bad that was?) lighting up the likes of Chris Dudley and Kurt Thomas. You can’t blame the ’99 Spurs for any of this. Wrong place, wrong time.
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 3: 1999-2000
Playoffs: Round 1, lost to Phoenix in four
New additions: Chucky Brown, Terry Porter, Samaki Walker
What Went Right: With the 57th pick of the ’99 draft, the Spurs took a promising Argentine guard named Emanuel Ginobili and stashed him abroad.
What Went Wrong: Elliott missed 63 games after his kidney transplant, and Duncan’s April knee injury knocked him out of the entire playoffs (the only time he has missed meaningful action). The Duncan-less Spurs got worked by an underrated Phoenix team (the highlight of the Jason Kidd–Penny Hardaway era), becoming our first no-repeat champs since the ’86 Celtics. Oh, and the Lakers won 67 games and their first post-Magic title, followed by everyone deciding, “It’s Shaq and Kobe’s league now!” So much for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”12
I still love this movie even though it was revealed years later that Debra Winger hated Richard Gere so much that she actually cried during their love scenes. Watch for this if you ever watch the movie. It’s really disorienting. Regardless, I have Gere vs. Gossett as one of the 10 best unexpected movie fights — it might even be no. 2 behind Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live on my all-time list. Need to think about it more. Feel free to e-mail me any suggestions.
Enduring Big-Picture Story Line: “Could Duncan be leaving???” You forgot about this one! Armed with enough cap space for two superstar free agents, Orlando spent the summer of 2000 trying to lure two of the following guys: Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and Eddie Jones. (Wait a second … Eddie Jones??? How the hell did he get in there?) Duncan did some polite flirting before Robinson and Pop wooed him back for a max deal with a three-year out. Jones landed in Miami and quickly became a perennial Top-Five Overpaid Guy, the Joe Johnson of his generation. And Orlando happily settled on T-Mac and Hill, never imagining they’d win ZERO playoff series with them.
Wait, Here’s a Wildly Underrated NBA What-If: What if Duncan had signed with Orlando to play with a soon-to-be-chronically-injured Grant Hill and nobody else? He could have turned into the Florida version of KG in Minnesota, right? And who’d have won the 2003 title if Duncan was stuck in Orlando? Could the Lakers have pulled off a four-peat? Would he have bolted after the 2003 season for a different team, or maybe even back to San Antonio? Would Popovich be a CIA agent or the editor-in-chief of Wine Spectator right now? My head hurts.
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 4: 2000-01
Record: 58-24 (best in the NBA)
Playoffs: Western finals, lost to the Lakers (sweep)
New additions: Derek Anderson and Danny Ferry
What Went Right: Anderson signed for a one-year, $2.25 million free-agent exception, hoping a contender would boost his value long-term … and that’s exactly what happened. He played better than anyone expected (15.5 ppg, 39.9% 3FG), parlaying that success into a hilarious $48 million overpay from Paul Allen’s Blazers. Yes, I made fun of this at the time.13
My take: “For the 87th straight season, [the Blazers] brought in an accomplished, second-tier star (Derek Anderson), overpaid him ($48 million over six years) and put him in a situation where he’ll battle for minutes and shots. This team will finally fall under the cap again in the year 2029.” A rare win in the archives for Simmons!
What Allegedly Went Wrong: Right after a confident Spurs squad rolled in Round 2, Anderson suffered a separated right shoulder thanks to a hard foul from Dallas’s Juwan Howard. (Sadly, it’s not on YouTube, but here’s a picture. Don’t bring up Juwan Howard to any Spurs fans during this month’s Finals. Just avoid it. Trust me.) Anderson missed the first two losses to the Lakers, then went 0-for-10 in the other two losses.14
Another problem: Johnson, Elliott and Danny Ferry just got old. All three guys shot less than 40 percent in the playoffs. The Spurs needed young blood.
What Really Went Wrong: A loaded Lakers team peaked at the ideal time, going 15-1 in the playoffs and beating the Spurs in Games 3 and 4 by a combined 68 points. You could have given the Spurs a healthy Anderson, then placed him on Barry Bonds’s 2001 PEDs program with the orders “just double the doses,” and the 2001 Spurs still wouldn’t have beaten the 2001 Lakers. Duncan averaged 24.4 points and 14.5 rebounds in the ’01 playoffs, peaking with a 40-15 in Game 2 against the Lakers. Shaq and Kobe? They averaged 59.9 points and 22.7 rebounds. Not a misprint. That’s the greatest basketball team of the 21st century.
Best Game You Definitely Didn’t Remember: Kobe stole home court in Game 1 with a 45-point barrage (including 28 in the second half). As the president of the Tim Duncan Is the Best Player of His Generation Club, I can tell you these Game 1 highlights do NOT help my case. You couldn’t have made the price of Kobe’s rookie card high enough in May 2001.
Enduring Big-Picture Story Line: “Should Duncan have fled San Antonio when he had the chance?” Put it this way: That summer, I wrote a column handing out Boogie Nights quotes to all the winners and losers from free agency. Here’s the quote I gave to Duncan …
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 5: 2001-02
Record: 58-24 (second-best in the NBA)
Playoffs: Round 2, lost to Lakers in five
New additions: Steve Smith (via trade for Derek Anderson and Steve Kerr), Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker
Retroactively Fascinating Story Line: For all the fuss about San Antonio’s shrewd front office (mostly deserved), Popovich and GM R.C. Buford never helped Duncan until the summer of 2001. That’s when they traded Anderson and Kerr for Smith, the prototypical Savvy Veteran/Good Chemistry Guy/Reliable Shooter Who’d Been There Before. They landed Captain Jack after placing an ad for an Irrational Confidence Guy on eBay. They swiped Bowen from Miami as a possible Kobe stopper (and really, he was a Kobe slow-it-downer, but still). And they snared Parker 28th a few picks after Boston stupidly changed its mind, picking Joe Forte as Parker was holding a Celtics hat and expecting they’d take him. Hey, at least there’s not video of him telling me this story as I try to figure out how to impale myself. WAIT, WHAT? (Fast-forward to 9:00 mark.)
This helped San Antonio rule the West because the Maloofs badly overpaid Chris Webber (seven years, $123 million) even though his knees were going on him. Within three years, they were done. The Maloofs and Jimmy Buss were secretly two of the best things that happened to The Duncan Show.
[/footnote] before settling with Robinson on a two-year, $20 million extension. During that process, he reportedly told Robinson, “I just don’t think you can play anymore.” And you know what? He was right. Robinson slumped badly and even feuded with Pop (in the most benevolently Christian way possible, but still), then got unexpectedly crippled by a herniated disk. Unable to play more than 20 minutes per game in the playoffs, Robinson missed 80 percent of the Lakers series and wasted a vintage Duncan postseason in the process: 27.6 PPG and 14.4 RPG. Everyone forgets Robinson’s bangedupedness (I just made up that word) during those final two Spurs seasons. He could barely move.
Perversely Fun ESPN.com Reread: In my 2002 Trade Value column, I ranked Duncan third (behind Shaq and Kobe), endorsed his MVP candidacy and joked, “[He] might get a little more recognition if he gave Pete Sampras his personality back.” You’ll enjoy the italicized note at the bottom: Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.
Best Game You Probably Didn’t Remember: In Game 4 in San Antonio, the Lakers rallied back from 10 down in the last six minutes, with Kobe pulling off a ridiculous rebound/putback for the winning hoop (5:30 mark of below clip — probably my favorite Kobe play other than his putback in Game 4 of the 2000 Finals). The Spurs couldn’t recover from Parker, Ferry and Daniels going cold (a grisly 1-for-12 combined down the stretch), followed by a curious postgame media backlash against Duncan for being too unselfish. (I swear, First Take wasn’t on the air yet.) In Game 5, Duncan responded with an outrageous 34-25 effort, to no avail. But for everyone who says the Spurs are boring … um … why were they involved in so many entertaining games?
Enduring Big-Picture Story Line: “We need to get Tim Duncan some more help! Hey, whatever happened to that dude we picked from Argentina? Didn’t he just win the Euroleague MVP and nearly drag Argentina to the 2002 World Championships title? GET HIM ON A PLANE! DO IT NOW!!!”
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 6: 2002-03
Record: 60-22 (best record in the NBA)
Playoffs: Won title, beat Nets in Finals (in 6)
New additions: Manu Ginobili, Speedy Claxton, old friend Steve Kerr, the Ageless Kevin Willis15
The Spurs signed Malik Rose to a seven-year, $42 million extension in 2002; it helped them in 2003 (10.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG in 24.5 MPG) and killed them long-term (until 2005, when they gave Isiah Thomas two future first-rounders for Nazr Mohammed and the promise to take Rose’s deal off their hands). The lesson, as always: Thank god for Isiah Thomas.
What Went Right: In the words of Russell Hammond, everything. In order … (1) a quality Spurs team flew under the radar thanks to MJ’s farewell season and the Shaq-Kobe relationship imploding … (2) Duncan won his second straight MVP (23.3 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 51% FG, 26.9 PER, 16.5 WS) … (3) they killed off the Lakers in Round 2 with a 110-82 Game 6 blowout in Los Angeles (featuring a 37-16 for Duncan)16 … (4) a hobbled C-Webb submarined a quality Kings team in Round 2 against Dallas, followed by a totally-breaking-out Dirk Nowitzki injuring his knee in the Western Conference finals17 … (5) the Spurs drew the overachieving Nets in the Finals (and beat them fairly convincingly) … (6) Robinson’s broken-down body miraculously cooperated in the Finals (especially the Game 6 clincher: 13 pts, 17 rebs) … and (7) Ginobili18 and Parker didn’t wilt from the pressure (playoffs: 14.7 PPG). Every bad Spurs break from 2000, 2001 and 2002 was repaid in 2003.
Before Game 6, I predicted on ESPN.com that “Game 6 will be more rigged than the Andre the Giant–Hulk Hogan match in WrestleMania III” and wondered, “The Spurs showed me just enough fear and hesitation down the stretch of Game 5 that it makes you wonder … are they ready to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series? Just doesn’t seem like it. LA IN 7.” Don’t forget — I’ve ALWAYS been bad at this. It’s not just a recent thing.
Dirk had 38 points in Game 1 (a win in San Antonio) and ended up missing the last three games.
Manu battled a sprained ankle for much of the season, belatedly exploding onto the scene in the playoffs and causing me to gush, “A cerebral lefty who penetrates with either hand, creates layups for teammates, comes up big offensively when it matters, and wreaks absolute havoc defensively. It’s like San Antonio ordered him on Amazon.com and rush-delivered him in time for the playoffs. Anyway, I always judge players by two questions: ‘Does he show up when it matters?’ and ‘How much would I enjoy playing with him?’ Well, wouldn’t you absolutely love to play with Ginobili? Over any other 2-guard in the league? Me, too.”
Enduring Story Line No. 1: “Tim Duncan has a chance to become one of the best players ever.” Think of 2003 as Mr. Duncan’s Opus. Some of the highlights …
• He reclaimed “Best Player Alive” status, got a little momentum for his “The Big Fundamental” nickname (sadly, it never caught on), unleashed a torrent of “Tim Duncan is great, what else is there to say?” stories, got briefly nicknamed “Tim B. Dunkin” by the late Ralph Wiley (never caught on), and even surged to no. 1 on my Trade Value list.
• En route to his second Finals MVP, Duncan averaged an astonishing 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks, peaking with a near-quadruple-double in the Finals clincher (21-20-10-8).
• He joined my 42 Club, created for anyone who played at least 13 games in one postseason and averaged at least 42 points, rebounds and assists combined (in Duncan’s case, 45.4).
• He fully mastered the Tim Duncan “I can’t believe you just called that and I’m bulging my eyeballs like this because I’m hoping they fly out of my head and knock you unconscious” face.
• He played 105 games and logged a staggering 4,202 minutes in all. Duncan, Larry Bird, Tayshaun Prince, Shaq and Dan Majerle are the only living members of the 3,000/1,000 Club19 — comprising those who played more than 3,000 regular-season minutes and 1,000 playoff minutes in one season. Duncan’s 2003 season was one of the greatest start-to-finish basketball seasons ever played. Tim Duncan = not boring.
Did you notice who did it first? THE LEGEND. Does that mean we need to rename the 3,000/1,000 Club “The Larry Bird Club”? I think it does!
Enduring Story Line No. 2: “Basketball suddenly sucks — I blame the Spurs!” This took hold after an aggressively unentertaining Finals that yielded the NBA’s lowest Finals ratings in 26 years. Even the tape-delayed 1981 Finals did better than 2003’s glorified rock fight. Combined, the Nets and Spurs couldn’t average 170 points a game (169.8, to be exact). New Jersey shot 37 percent and failed to break 90 points even once. Kenyon Martin’s Game 6 summed everything up — he went 3-for-23, coming within one made field goal of being named 2003 Finals MVP. (I couldn’t resist.) Here’s San Antonio’s 19-0 run to clinch Game 6 if you have hours and hours to kill at work and secretly hate yourself.
Enduring Story Line No. 3: “Could Duncan and Kidd team up next year???????” A bizarre Finals subplot that extended into the summer: Here’s San Antonio, blessed with gobs of cap space from Robinson’s upcoming retirement, not even denying their wishes for a Kidd-Duncan partnership … and here’s young Parker, battling Kidd in the Finals and wondering if he’s going to be traded or marginalized that summer. It’s relatively amazing that Parker didn’t (a) disintegrate in that series, or (b) foster a lifelong grudge against Popovich.
Even more bizarre: Kidd stayed in New Jersey over hopping on the Duncan-and-Pop freight train, supposedly because his wife wanted to stay in New York to advance her blossoming broadcasting career.
They ended up having one of the most acrimonious divorces in sports history. Welcome to another fantastic Spurs-related “What If?” — What if Kidd had signed with the Spurs? Could Kidd and Parker have coexisted? (I say yes.)20 Would they have flipped Parker for another asset? Would they have immediately morphed into a dynasty? And can you think of a worse career move than Kidd NOT signing with the Spurs? Thanks anyway … I think I’ll pass on joining the best power forward ever and one of the best coaches ever, just so I can stay here in New Jersey with Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and Byron Scott. That’s what you get for hiring David Caruso, Shelley Long and Anthony Edwards as your agents.21
Kidd was one of the easiest players to play with — not just in 2003, but in the history of basketball. He would have figured out how to fit in. Plus, Kidd could have defended opposing 2-guards, and Parker was more of a scoring point guard, anyway. And since when is having two ball handlers a bad thing? I think it would have worked. Kidd, Parker and Ginobili would have been the greatest three-guard backcourt ever. Alas.
After I had already written this section, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski posted an entire column about this saga last week. The one revelation that I never knew: Kidd didn’t plan on staying in New Jersey until the Nets agreed to overpay Alonzo Mourning, even though he was still battling kidney issues (and eventually needed a transplant). This is why your best player should never be your GM.
The Second-Best Game You Probably Didn’t Remember: Game 1 of the Phoenix series in Round 1 … a.k.a. Stephon Marbury’s Greatest Playoff Moment … a.k.a. Stephon Marbury’s Only Playoff Moment.
Best Game You Probably Didn’t Remember: In Game 5 of the Spurs-Lakers series, the Spurs nearly blew a 25-point lead before Big Shot Rob missed — repeat: MISSED — a wide-open, game-winning 3. That miss comes at the 10:10 mark of the embedded clip — pay special attention to Kobe briefly raising his right arm and assuming it’s going in.
Which reminds me …
How the heck did that NOT go in? That’s the biggest dodged bullet of The Duncan Show, hands down, bar none: the one night Big Shot Rob didn’t come through. Unbelievable.
Best Game You Definitely Remember: The Steve Kerr game! Really, this could be called the Captain Jack–Steve Kerr game — Jackson and Kerr triggered a 42-15 barrage to clinch Game 6 for the Spurs, with Kerr making four 3s while covered in mothballs and formaldehyde. If there’s a defining Spurs YouTube clip, it’s this one — not just for how much fun it was, but for the way Robinson and Kerr’s teammates were reacting on the bench as he kept draining 3s. There’s no better “DON’T THINK BASKETBALL CHEMISTRY DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE IT TOTALLY DOES” clip sequence on YouTube right now. In my NBA book, I wrote that Robinson jumping up and down like a kid was his defining basketball moment — maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to count on him carrying you in a Game 7, but on the right team, with the right people around him, you would have loved playing with him.
Fun SI Vault Rereads: That December, Duncan and Robinson were named SI‘s “Sportsmen of the Year,” with Jack McCallum writing, “in a sports world gone mad with narcissism, Duncan is a two-time MVP who eyes a camera as if it were a poisonous snake.” I’m almost positive that was a compliment.
S.L. Price’s accompanying Duncan feature, “The Quiet Man,” compares him to Spock (again) and chess player Garry Kasparov (feel the excitement!), eventually quoting Duncan’s wife, Amy, more than Duncan himself. Larry Brown coached Duncan that summer for USA Basketball and gave the best Duncan take of all: “He’s the ultimate team player. He’s just as happy getting eight shots up and seeing his team win as he is scoring 35. It’s what our game is supposed to be about. I laugh when people say he doesn’t have enough pizzazz. I know him personally. He’s incredible; his teammates love him. I would love my son to have him as his role model. I want to carve Tim Duncan’s body into little filet mignon cubes and eat them with béarnaise sauce.” Fine, I made that last line up. Everything else was true.
Overall Contribution to Spurs’ “Boring” Reputation: 9.5 out of 10. At this point, the Spurs were the Floyd Mayweather of basketball. They couldn’t find the right opponent for a marquee fight.
THE DUNCAN SHOW, SEASON 7: 2003-04
Playoffs: Western semis, lost to Lakers in six
New additions: Rasho Nesterovic, Robert Horry, Hedo Turkoglu, Devin Brown and Ron Mercer
Retroactively Perplexing Story Line: It’s time for another shocking misfire from San Antonio’s much-ballyhooed brain trust! Blessed with gobs of cap space thanks to the Kerr and Robinson retirements, as well as the league’s back-to-back MVP (re-signed for $122 million), San Antonio’s big free-agent “splurge” ended up being Rasho Nesterovic for …
(Hold on, you’re not gonna believe this … )
(Seriously, you should sit down and take a deep breath … )
FORTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS over six years!!!! Holy David Kahn!!!!! If Popovich and R.C. Buford were Matt Damon’s IMDb page, the Nesterovic signing would be The Legend of Bagger Vance. Also not helping: Captain Jack overplayed his negotiating hand that summer, leading to the Spurs walking away and Jackson settling for a $2.2 million pittance from Atlanta. Whoops. Everyone lost in that one: Jackson, the Spurs, Duncan, Popovich, San Antonio’s strip clubs …
What Went Wrong: The Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the Western semis, lost Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles (Shaq was a beast), and then … this happened.
Can someone take and make a fall-away 18-footer in less than a half-second? My expert opinion remains “NO F-ING WAY!” But that was that. Thanks to Derek Fisher’s miracle shot, the reeling Spurs dropped Game 6 and watched Detroit eventually celebrate their championship. There’s never been a tougher-to-swallow buzzer-beater in the history of the league. Seriously, find me one that’s worse.22
Cut to Pistons fans yelping, “WE WOULD HAVE BEATEN THEM ANYWAY!”
Enduring Story Line: “Did we really just give Rasho Nesterovic $45 million??????” Just kidding, it was actually, “We just suffered one of the worst breaks in NBA history … we’ll be back.” That summer, the Spurs signed Ginobili and Parker to six-year extensions for a combined $118 million. Even better, the Lakers traded Shaq to Miami, officially blowing up a team that should have owned that decade. Fisher’s shot may have been unlucky for San Antonio, but the Shaqobe Era’s implosion made up for it. And then some.
Click here for Part 2.