The last time San Antonio missed the playoffs, way back in 1997, Bill Clinton had just begun his second term as President of the United States, the average price of a new car was less than $17,000, it cost just $4.59 to buy a ticket to a movie, and Tim Duncan had recently completed his senior campaign at Wake Forest, averaging 20.8 points, 14.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game. On top of all that, our recent fan survey results indicated roughly 13 percent of folks who will have read this article have yet to experience a Spurs-less NBA Playoffs during their lifetimes. To the other 87 percent: Yes, this lede was intended to make you feel old, as I shall not suffer this reality alone.
Since then, however, this city has loyally embarked upon 22 consecutive postseason journeys (tied for the NBA record) alongside its team, a stretch which also included a run of 18 straight years with 50 or more wins (and it was basically a lock to be 20 straight had it not been for the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season). Times have not been difficult from a basketball perspective in San Antonio for a while now, but the Spurs’ 27-36 record through the first 63 games of the 2019-20 regular season has rained on what has been the fan base’s annual proverbial springtime parade. Now, it could be a decision made by the league amidst a global pandemic that could ultimately seal the team’s fate and cut off any chance to make the playoffs and establish a new NBA record all to itself.
Adam Silver and the rest of the powers that be have a million and one questions to answer in a short period of time if they want to safely resume play in the coming months, including what type of scheduling format would potentially be used. While health is the obvious top priority in the equation, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Saturday the league sent out a survey to all its general managers late Friday outlining a number of scenarios being considered. Not all teams have played the same number of regular-season games — the Spurs and Lakers each have 19 remaining, more than any other team in the league — which affects paychecks, playoff seeding and lottery odds, just to name a few topics of discussion. The NBA is going to need a machete to cut through all the red tape wrapped around the proposed alternate formats.
As for San Antonio — outside of the “advance directly to playoffs” option that’s on the table — it just needs to cross its fingers and hope to qualify as a “bubble team” in order to keep its playoff hopes alive. While plenty of Spurs fans are ready and willing to move on and occupy a spot in the lottery, there are still many who want that 23rd consecutive postseason berth even if it means another early-round exit. Regardless of what decision is made by the league or what the end result may be, those 22 years prior saw a slew of good teams come and go, five great ones hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy and seven numbers retired to the rafters. It’s worth taking a look back at the eras within an era.
The “Twin Towers” era (1997-2003)
Here’s how bad the injury-riddled 1996-97 Spurs were: Their leader in total win shares was Will (bleeping) Perdue. David Robinson played in just six games with back and foot injuries keeping him out of the other 76, and Sean Elliott didn’t even play half a season. Even people in their early 30s right now might not remember San Antonio was pretty damn good in the seven years leading up to that disastrous season, then Duncan fell into its lap and launched the Spurs into a stretch of sustained greatness rarely seen in professional sports.
During Duncan’s rookie year, the “Twin Towers” averaged a combined 42.7 points, 22.5 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per game, and it took just one season and a Western Conference Semifinals loss at the hands of the Utah Jazz before the Spurs steamrolled their way through the 1998-99 postseason, going 15-2 in the playoffs on their way to the franchise’s first title. And it was almost comical watching opponents try to score against that San Antonio team, as the Spurs’ defensive rating was 93.6 that season, per the NBA’s stats site. In the 21 years since, only one team has put up a better number on that side of the ball — the 2003-04 Spurs (93.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).
And the timing couldn’t have been better, as the aging Robinson began to decline as he moved into his mid-30s and handed the reins over to Duncan. The Spurs would fail to repeat the following season after Duncan suffered a torn meniscus with only a handful of games remaining in the 1999-2000 regular season and the Lakers three-peat began, but a sneaky pick in the NBA Draft the summer before quietly initiated San Antonio’s start sequence for what would eventually become the team’s future, even though said future nearly didn’t have the chance to see the light of day.
Do you remember the summer of 2000, Spurs fans? If only Twitter was around back then. The Magic nearly convinced Duncan to join Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in Orlando to form what certainly would’ve looked a lot like the “superteams” we’ve seen assemble over the last decade-plus. Instead, Duncan, who has admitted he was very close to signing with the Magic, remained in San Antonio, Hill played in just 57 games over the next four seasons due to ankle problems that derailed his career, and McGrady was free to take all the shots in Orlando before he, too, began an early decline in his late-20s because of injury after injury.
The Spurs survived disaster, and in doing so, allowed for that aforementioned future to flourish. San Antonio took a swing on a kid out of Argentina with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, though you wouldn’t hear from Manu Ginóbili for another three years unless you were watching Kinder Bologna games. Then, two summers later, the Spurs threw another dart with the 28th overall pick at teenage Tony Parker. With that, San Antonio had put together a young supporting cast to surround its veterans and usher in a new era as Robinson retired on top with the 2003 title.
The “Big 3” era (Phase 1, 2003-2010)
We all know where it goes from here. The Big 3 era in San Antonio is the period of time for which the Spurs will forever be known. It’s a little difficult to believe something that was that good for that long is going to come around anytime soon. The seedlings that had been planted during the “Twin Towers” era began to bloom as more and more control was given to both Ginóbili and Parker along the way. The post-Robinson days were filled with the names of serviceable centers — names like, Rasho Nesterović, Nazr Mohammed, Fabricio Oberto and Tiago Splitter — but Duncan’s overall presence along with the intelligence and playmaking of Manu and Tony made the job easy for those guys.
“The Admiral” might have been gone, but the Spurs still played the type of grind-it-out, defense-first game they did while he was there, even as the league began to play faster and shoot more 3-pointers. Teams like the Suns, Nuggets and Warriors were pushing the boundaries of conventional basketball, but Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio teams remained steadfast in its ways during the mid-2000s, just with a little more added flair from Ginóbili and Parker. It helped to have a guy like Bruce Bowen, who was one of the best perimeter defender in the league for much of his eight years as a Spur.
San Antonio was able to win in all two more times (2005 and 2007) during what I’m calling “Phase 1” of the “Big 3” era behind its defense and offensive efficiency, but the NBA as a whole began to latch on to what coaches like Mike D’Antoni, George Karl and Don Nelson were doing with their teams offensively. Little by little, the Spurs’ vaunted defense began to drop off, but the offense mostly stayed in place. They posted 50 wins on the nose during the 2019-10 season, their lowest win total in 11 years, and were then swept in the second round by Phoenix.
It was time for a change.
The “Big 3” era (Phase 2, 2010-2014)
While the offensive shift had begun the season prior to the 2010-11 campaign with the acquisition of Richard Jefferson during the summer of 2009, he didn’t find his comfort zone in the system until his second year — during the regular season, at least. RJ played more like a role player than he did one of the top options on the team, which is where he’d found himself for much of his career. He hit 44 percent of his 3-point attempts, which was by far the best number of his career, and did a decent enough job of capitalizing on what the defense gave him. His growth within the system, along with the development of George Hill and the instant offensive spark off the bench provided by the signing of Gary Neal out of NBA Summer League helped clear more space for the “Big 3” to operate, and the Spurs jumped from a 50-win team to a 61-win team and grabbed the top seed out West as they played faster and began to further embrace the deep ball.
But Memphis, a team that had already given San Antonio problems over the course of that year, came in to the first round healthy after giving some of their bigger names a couple of nights off over the final two games of the season despite being in a battle for both the sixth and seventh seeds. They opted for rest over trying to push for a matchup against the Mavericks or Lakers, and it paid off. The Grizz were just bigger and tougher than the Spurs, who had no answer for Zach Randolph throughout the series, and the offense that carried San Antonio during the year and the impact guys like Jefferson, Hill and Neal made withered away against Memphis’ physicality. It certainly didn’t help matters when Ginóbili hyperextended his right elbow on the final night of the regular season and missed Game 1 of the series, or that Duncan was all beat up from the knees down — he went on to lose weight that offseason to take pressure off his lower extremities and extend his career — but it had to kill Pop to watch the Grizzlies beat his team the way he’d always wanted his teams to win games — with physicality and defense.
Then came the draft-day trade that was considered the “rare win-win” for both teams at the time. The Spurs dealt one of the team favorites in Hill for the rights to Kawhi Leonard and Dāvis Bertāns, brought Danny Green back off the scrap heap, eventually traded Jefferson for Stephen Jackson (though that reunion didn’t last very long) and would end up signing both Boris Diaw and Patty Mills in late March of the 2011-12 season. San Antonio would go on to lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals that year, but the rejuvenation process had begun. The roster was younger, deeper, bigger, longer and more versatile, and the best was yet to come.
Outside of a little scare from the Warriors and a peek into the future of what Golden State was about to become, the Spurs handled the Western Conference side of the bracket with relative ease before the epic 2013 NBA Finals loss to the Heat in seven games. But the icing on the “Big 3” era’s cake came the following summer in the form of a revenge tour against Oklahoma City and Miami, the last two teams to oust them from the postseason, on the way to the franchise’s fifth river parade behind some of the most beautiful basketball you’ll ever watch. And they did it with a mixture of youth, experience and a handful of players nobody seemed to want when they were available. San Antonio went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs in the span of one year, and with all that went into building that team, the fifth trophy might’ve been the sweetest of them all for Duncan, Ginóbili, Parker and Pop.
The transition (2014-2016)
The “Big 3” knew the time had come. They’d seen during the previous postseason run it was time to hand things over to the reigning Finals MVP and what they hoped would be the face of the franchise for years to come in Kawhi. It looked like that’s what they had. Leonard continued to make unbelievable strides offensively over the next two seasons and would eventually win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards to boot. San Antonio signed LaMarcus Aldridge during the summer of 2015 and would be competitive through the end of Duncan’s career, but the future of both its team and the rest of the NBA was obvious as the Warriors juggernaut emerged to take over the league. The Spurs took full advantage of what was likely their final opportunity to get one more ring during the summer of 2014, and Duncan quietly walked away from the game before it beat him to a pulp.
The “Post-Duncan” era
Kawhi Leonard’s injury during the 2017 postseason was a series changer. (Kyle Terada / USA Today Sports)
If there was a time of real hope for a happy life after Duncan, it came over the course of the 2016-17 season. Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate and the Spurs thought they had a chance to upset Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. Up 23 points roughly midway through the third quarter, it appeared they had at least the sketch of a blueprint rolled up in their sleeves.
Then Zaza Pachulia’s foot got in the way. Leonard was forced out of Game 1 after landing on the big man’s foot, spraining his ankle. He wouldn’t return for the rest of the series, and the floodgates opened for the Warriors on their way to a sweep. Little did we know at the time it was the last we’d ever see of Kawhi at his best and healthiest in a Spurs, as things only unraveled from there between the team and their superstar. The rest is history, as they say. The Leonard trade to Toronto, which included Green, threw the team off its axis in more ways than one, and Manu’s retirement along with the departure of Parker for a strange one-year stint in Charlotte before he hung ’em up made the summer of 2018 one to forget for San Antonio.
Now that the deep cuts from a couple of years ago have had a chance to heal a bit, there is a sense of acceptance for Spurs fans who are ready to land in the lottery. And that’s understandable, considering it’s often better to dive in headfirst rather than continue to just dip a toe in the water. Maybe this is the time to do it, too. It could end up being the highest pick San Antonio has owned since Duncan walked into its life, and given how odd the potential finish to this season will be and the total unpredictability (at this point, at least) of the offseason, maybe now is as good a time as any to find the best way out of a future in purgatory.
As for those who still want to see their Spurs make the playoffs, I get that, too. Setting a new NBA record would be a nice consolation prize after what has thus far been an ugly season. But more than that, it would create at least some sense of normalcy for a city that’s so accustomed to being represented this time of year.
No, the “Big 3” aren’t around to sweep you off your feet anymore, and the 1997 draft and title runs that followed seem like a speck in the rearview mirror; but perhaps now, as the world in which we live seems like it’s upside-down, some feeling of normalcy is what is needed most.
Either way, life will go on. And eventually, so will basketball.