What if the Spurs Passed on David Robinson in 1987?

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers / Focus On Sport/GettyImages
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San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio Spurs Sean Elliot / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

1988-89 Season

Will Perdue is quickly labeled as a poor pick, which is becoming a trend. Gilliam continues to play well, although it becomes clear that the Spurs just need to add talent. After picking 11th last season, the poor play of their new center results in them lucking into the second overall pick, where they take Arizona wing Sean Elliott.

Fans are elated, as Elliott makes an immediate impact as a high-volume shooter. The tandem of Gilliam and Elliott overperform. Elliott does the unthinkable and averages 18 points, leading San Antonio to an early playoff exit. Due to the duo leading SA to the playoffs nearly single-handedly, Elliott actually beats out Mitch Richmond for Rookie of the Year despite Richmond being the better individual player.

This was a high point for San Antonio basketball. The future looked solid as both Gilliam and Elliott seemed to be the right picks. Sure, Will Perdue didn’t pan out, but the Spurs are in good hands.

San Antonio Spurs
David Robinson / Harry How/GettyImages

1989-90 Season

Forget everything I just said. The Phoenix Suns, who drafted David Robinson, finally got their star prospect. He puts up okay numbers in his rookie season, averaging a cool 25 points and 13 rebounds, is Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, and for good measure, is the first rookie to ever win Defensive Player of the Year over Dennis Rodman. Spurs fans are livid, Suns fans are elated, and it’s already clear that the Spurs made a colossal error.

Back in Texas, the Spurs are riding the high of a middle-of-the-pack playoff exit from last season, and both Elliott and Gilliam regress slightly. From this point on, the Spurs are a middling team. They aren’t good enough to be major players in the playoffs, but they aren’t good enough to draft franchise-altering players. 

The hype from Elliott’s Rookie of the Year season is too much for the Spurs to package him and Gillian away for a total rebuild, so the Spurs are stuck in mediocrity for what feels like forever. The front office is doing okay since there is just enough hype to sell tickets, but there is no hope the Spurs will ever win the NBA Finals.

1990-91 Season

You might notice I didn’t list who the Spurs drafted last season. I have a question for you. Do you care? It’s some nobody that nobody has heard of since 1998 and had no impact on leading the Spurs to any real success. It’s hard for Spurs fans to imagine. Remember the Bucks before Giannis? Just withering away, the forgotten team of the NBA. The Spurs aren’t good enough to garner attention, but they aren’t bad enough to be laughed at.

They are just forgotten, which is the worst place to be. They’re treading water. If you swim, you get applauded. If you sink, you get rescued. Somehow, San Antonio is doing neither.

On the other hand, the Phoenix Suns have maybe the best center in the league on their team. They are quickly becoming the team to beat in the West as the Lakers fade, and David Robinson is the star of the show. In an interview, he comments on how different the desert of Arizona is from his time on naval bases. “Dry,” he says. “I think we can build something special here.”

He’s so right it hurts.