How the 1996–97 San Antonio Spurs Built an NBA Dynasty

San Antonio Spurs David Robinson tries to maneuver around Atlanta Hawks’ Todd Mundt.
San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson tries to maneuver around Atlanta Hawks’ Todd Mundt. | Doug Collier/AFP/Getty Images

You could have been forgiven for thinking that this game would have been an entirely forgettable March matchup, particularly when the San Antonio Spurs started the contest against the Charlotte Hornets by taking a 28-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. At one point in the first half, they built up a 23-point lead. But the defense began to break down, Jeremy Lin had one of his best games in recent memory, and the Spurs blew the lead on their way to loss No. 11 on the season. An upsetting defeat for what was undoubtedly a great team, and the biggest blown lead of the Tim Duncan era.

The Duncan dynasty, which began all the way back in the 1997-98 season and concluded this past offseason with the Big Fundamental’s retirement, was one of the most singularly great runs in modern sports. They won five championships and made it to the NBA Finals six times behind different cores built around or alongside Duncan. It all began in the mid-’90s, when the Spurs had center David Robinson, one of the best players in the league, along with forward Sean Elliott, point guard Avery Johnson, three-point specialist Chuck Person, shooting guard Vinny Del Negro, and enigmatic rebounder Dennis Rodman.

The Spurs were 62-20 in 1994-95, making the playoffs as the top seed in the Western Conference behind Robinson’s best season of his career. San Antonio made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being upended by the reigning champion Houston Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon. The Spurs traded Rodman to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason for backup center Will Perdue. The team didn’t fade nearly as much as many predicted; they won 59 games in 1995-96 and made a trip to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the Utah Jazz.

Tim Duncan during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals.
Tim Duncan during Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

However, things were becoming stale in San Antonio. Head coach Brian Hill took the team to the playoffs the previous two years and had great regular-season success, but he wasn’t able to get the team over the hump. Robinson and Elliott were great players in their prime, but Del Negro as the third scoring option didn’t seem like the recipe for winning the championship.

The Spurs began the 1996-97 season digging themselves out of a hole, as it was. Person was set to miss the entire season, and Robinson wasn’t healthy either. After returning from back issues in December that year, Robinson broke his foot in a game against the Miami Heat and had to sit out the rest of the season — after playing just six games total. The Spurs started the season 3-15, fired Hill, and hired relatively unknown Greg Popovich as the interim coach.

According to win shares, Perdue was the best player on the team — which finished the season 20-62 — with just 4.4. For comparison sake, Robinson had led the team in win shares for the previous seven years and had no less than 13.2 in any single season. Even Elliott wasn’t immune to the injury bug, getting into only 39 games that year. The Spurs were led in scoring by 37-year-old Dominique Wilkins, who returned from playing in Greece in 1995-96 to average 18.2 points per game.

NBA: Remembering the 1996-97 Spurs and How They Built a Dynasty
The Spurs celebrate after the 2014 NBA Finals. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This was the first year the Spurs missed the playoffs since 1988-89, which was also the last year before Robinson made his NBA debut. And while Robinson came in and brought the Spurs legitimacy in the early ’90s, the bad season they had in 1996-97 had a similar effect. They won the NBA Draft Lottery, landing the first pick and taking Duncan, who was just 20 years old at the time.

Duncan paired with Robinson at the forward and center spot, along with a healthy Elliott, Del Negro, and Johnson. The Spurs rebounded to win 56 games in 1997-98. Duncan averaged 21.1 points on 54.9% shooting in 39.1 minutes per game — fairly unheard of for a rookie these days. He took home the Rookie of the Year Award, and although the Spurs were eliminated in the playoffs by the Utah Jazz — who were on their way to a second straight NBA Finals appearance — the wheels were in motion.

During Duncan’s second year, a lockout-shortened season that saw the demise of the defending champion Bulls, the Spurs make their first trip to the NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. Behind fantastic performances from Elliott, Johnson, and the rest of the supporting cast, the Spurs took the series in five games and were on their way.

San Antonio hasn’t won less than 50 games in a season since, and even though the supporting cast has changed — with Johnson, Elliott, and Robinson eventually being replaced with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and later Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge — the team built a system that allows them to be viable contenders for years to come.

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Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Basketball-Reference.