San Antonio Spurs: The darkest timeline for the 1997 offseason

By Rob Wolkenbrod
CHARLOTTE, NC - JUNE 25: Tim Duncan taken number one overall by the San Antonio Spurs shakes NBA Commissioner David Stern's hand during the 1997 NBA Draft on June 25, 1997 at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1997 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - JUNE 25: Tim Duncan taken number one overall by the San Antonio Spurs shakes NBA Commissioner David Stern's hand during the 1997 NBA Draft on June 25, 1997 at the Charlotte Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1997 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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In an alternative timeline, how would the 1996-97 NBA season look for the San Antonio Spurs?

The 1996-97 NBA season was historically bad for the San Antonio Spurs. They finished 20-62, the third worst record, but won the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Lottery. One selection of Tim Duncan later, and the next 19 seasons of the organization was shaped.

In sports, there’s always the “what if” scenario. It’s how things could look if a different decision was made on a transaction or if a specific event never transpired, which meant it never had its domino effect on the game. We looked at this with the Kawhi Leonard trade of 2011. 

However, there’s also something called “the darkest timeline,” a theory that looks at how there could be different universes that produce alternative scenarios to a situation, with there being the worst possible outcome in one of them. Former NBC show Community brought this to prominence.

For this, we’re going to look at the worst-case scenario for the 1996-97 season. Sure, it resulted in the NBA’s third-worst record, but also produced the No. 1 overall pick and Duncan. What if things turned out differently?

David Robinson went down with a back injury in the preseason and a foot injury in December, after playing just six games. It’s difficult to predict injuries, so let’s go with this happening and the rest of the 1996-97 season turning out the same.

In the 1997 NBA Draft, beyond Duncan, the field of players turned into a handful of role players or part time starters, but produced Tracy McGrady and Chauncey Billups.

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Let’s say the Spurs lost the lottery and got the No. 3 pick, the spot they would be lined up for with the third worst record. If Keith Van Horn still goes second, that means Billups is available. With Avery Johnson in place at age 31 and years left on his contract, that takes the future Mr. Big Shot away from the Spurs and sees him fall in the draft.

With center, small forward, and point guard set, it leaves power forward and shooting guard. No player at the latter went until McGrady at No. 9, who was the first high school player to be selected. Tony Battie and Danny Forston went in the top-10, with Battie going No. 5.

So, at No. 3 overall, the Spurs take Battie to play next to Robinson at the four spot. That means San Antonio is in for a player that averaged over 25 minutes per game just once in his career and never had a double-digit season.

That means for the next four years, Robinson and Battie play together as the starting front court. With a healthy version of the Admiral, the Spurs make the 1997-98 NBA playoffs, but not with a 56-26 record. There’s no Twin Towers to work with, but most of the supporting cast from the previous season remains.

The Spurs begin to deal with Robinson’s decline in the 1998-99 season, as he goes from a perennial 20-10 player to a few shades below. He remains the No. 1 presence, however, as the team works him to the bone on offense and defense. It doesn’t lead to a NBA championship, but a No. 7 or 8 playoff seed in the Western Conference.

Instead, this clears the way for the Los Angeles Lakers to win the 1999 NBA championship. They go on to win the other NBA Finals from 2000-03, as the Spurs never make it to the 2003 series against the New Jersey Nets. It makes the Lakers five-time champions under the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-Phil Jackson age.

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Despite being worn down, Robinson remains healthy for the 1999-00 season, as the Spurs make the NBA playoffs as the No. 8 seed, but fall in the first or second round. They don’t have the supporting cast to work with an aging Robinson and the draft picks aren’t high enough to produce a star player.

By the 2000 offseason, the Spurs decide to rebuild and tear it down, as they choose to go in a different direction for the team’s future. They trade Robinson, in order for him to get a chance at the NBA championship at age 35. He goes to the Philadelphia 76ers and teams with Allen Iverson, before Dikembe Mutombo arrives for the run to the 2001 NBA Finals.

However, it lines the Spurs up for the historically 2000 NBA Draft. Since they made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, their pick will fall just outside the lottery. It’s where future NBA veterans Hedo Turkoglu, Desmond Mason, Quinton Richardson, and Jamaal Magloire were selected. The Spurs decide to grab Speedy Claxton, as point guards Avery Johnson and Terry Porter are both in their mid-30’s. Given Johnson’s commitment to the team, let’s say Porter is traded or released after the 2000 NBA Draft.

Next: 25 forgotten players that were on the Spurs

For the next handful of years, the Spurs battle to regroup in the NBA Draft and toil near the bottom of the Western Conference. They never win the 2003 NBA championship and don’t come near the 2005 title, so just like that, the franchise’s real ring total is cut down by three.

Next, we’ll look at the darkest timeline that begins in the 1998 offseason for the Spurs.

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