The San Antonio Spurs: What Could Have Been

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The NBA Draft Lottery was held on May 20th and the Cleveland Cavaliers received the first pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

For the third time in the past four years, the Cavs will again be picking first overall come June.

One day later, the San Antonio Spurs took a 2-0 series lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 35 point throttling and now look to be well on their way to their fifth NBA Finals appearance during their remarkable 17 year playoff streak.

The Spurs were last at the draft lottery 17 years ago. During the 1996-1997 season, David Robinson played only six games before suffering a fractured left foot; the Spurs finished 20-62 that season, finishing with the third worst record in the NBA.

Much to the chagrin of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Boston Celtics, the Spurs landed the top pick in the 1997 NBA draft and selected the prized power forward from Wake Forest; Tim Duncan.

Since that draft, the Spurs have not stepped foot in the lottery; wondering many to think just how have the Spurs survived without a lottery pick since 1997. As we have seen this season with the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, generally there is a shelf life on winning and teams eventually need to hit the reset button for a season or two.

So, how have the Spurs been so successful for so long? Why haven’t they had to hit the reset button? Much of the well-deserved credit goes to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs executives. Over the past 17 years, time and time again have made the right personnel decisions. But what if they whiffed on their big three? It’s always fun to wonder what could have been if San Antonio did not win the lottery back in 1997, or if they missed out on picking Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili.

Scenario #1 – Spurs pick 3rd in the 1997 NBA draft

It’s hard to imagine where the Spurs would have been had they not landed the first overall pick. However, if the ping pong balls didn’t fall their way and they stayed at number three, who would they have drafted? Let’s assume the top two picks go the same way; Duncan goes first overall and Keith Van Horn goes second. The Spurs finished the season with Will Purdue and Carl Herrera on their front line, so it’s safe to assume they were looking to draft a big man. Can you imagine if the Spurs drafted Tony Battie to fill their big man void? Battie was the next big man taken in the 1997 NBA draft going 5th overall to the Denver Nuggets. Although having a serviceable 14 year career, Battie finished with career averages of 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game; with zero all-star appearances.

Even if the Spurs decided to draft Chauncey Billups or Antonio Daniels, who were drafted 3rd and 4th respectively in 1997, it’s safe to assume winning a championship during the 1998-1999 season would have been unlikely without Duncan.

Scenario #2 – Spurs pass on Tony Parker with the 28th Pick in 2001

With the 28th pick in the 2001 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs select… Gilbert Arenas! With Avery Johnson leaving via free agency in 2001, the Spurs were looking to add depth at the point guard position. After Parker was drafted 28th overall, Arenas was the next point guard taken at #30 by the Golden State Warriors. While Arenas finished his career as a 3x All-Star, injuries and off the court issues derailed a once promising career.

One could argue that if drafted into the Spurs system, Arenas probably would have had a better NBA career by playing with Duncan and being coached by Popovich. However, it’s also safe to assume that the Spurs would not have been as successful with Arenas as their floor general.

If you had a 2001 draft re-do, you could argue that based on his career Tony Parker would have been the first overall pick and the Spurs got him at #28.

Scenario #3 – Spurs pass on Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick in the 1999 NBA draft

What if the Spurs decided not to draft Ginobili with the 57th overall pick in 1999 draft? What if they traded out of the second round, or just stashed their draft pick in Europe with never the hope of bringing him over?

Ginobili has since become a two-time all-star, the 2007-2008 sixth man of the year, three-time NBA Champion and generally known as the key piece in the Spurs dynasty era.

Not taking anything away from Duncan or Parker, but Ginobili’s savvy play and clutch performances have been vital to the Spurs success over the past decade.

Spurs management either totally lucked out in 1999, or new exactly what they were doing when they drafted Ginobili; as you can pretty much guarantee that there are only a few late second round picks that even make it to the NBA, let alone become future hall of famers.

Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom and Johnathan Bender were the top five picks in 1999; again it’s quite possible that if the draft were re-done today, Ginobili could arguably have been the first overall pick.