The NBA was apparently so distraught by the end of the Michael Jordan era following the 1998 NBA Finals that they didn’t want to play anymore. The owners locked out the players, the start of the season was delayed and a 50-game schedule was put in place upon their return. It turned out a new dynasty, albeit one of a different kind, would be starting with the 1999 San Antonio Spurs.
San Antonio had drafted Tim Duncan prior to the 1998 season and the power forward joined center David Robinson in creating a potent front line. Duncan averaged 22 points/11 rebounds, while the 33-year-old Robinson averaged 16/10.
Further veteran help came in the form of guard Avery Johnson, the 33-year-old point guard who dished seven assists per game and ran the offense.
Greg Popovich’s first full year as head coach had also been 1998, and as he would do so many times in the ensuing years, Popovich maximized the talent of a deep cast of role players. In 1999, he relied on veterans. Sean Elliot chipped in 11 ppg on the wing and 35-year-old Mario Elie gave double-digit points in the backcourt. Jaren Jackson and Steve Kerr also played roles, and Jerome Kersey helped out up front.
It added up to a 37-13 record, tied with the two-time defending Western Conference champ Utah Jazz and their MVP forward Karl Malone, for the best in the NBA. The Spurs won the tiebreaker with Utah within their own Midwest Division and took the top seed into the playoffs.
Another talented young power forward was starting to make his mark in the NBA, and it was Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that awaited the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. After San Antonio took the opener behind big games from Duncan and Johnson, Garnett threw a monkey wrench into the mix.
KG put up 23 points/12 rebounds as the T-Wolves stole Game 2 in what was then a best-of-five round. There was no guarantee the Spurs were coming back home, and this was a franchise that had spent the 1990s making playoff disappointment part of the rhythm of life for the fan base. Robinson struggled to just 11 points in Game 2, and had been subpar in both early games.
If someone could have looked into a crystal ball, it would have come as no surprise to learn the Spurs would not lose a second game to the Timberwolves. What would have been surprising is to learn that San Antonio would not lose a second game in the entire Western Conference playoffs.
Robinson came out rebounding hard in Game 3, grabbing 18 boards, and Johnson shot 12-for-15 from the floor as the veterans delivered an 85-71 win to restore the first-round series to its proper trajectory. The Spurs then controlled the fourth quarter in a tight Game 4 and closed out the series with a 92-85 victory.
The Los Angeles Lakers were up next. This was the second year of the Shaq-Kobe era in Hollywood, but Kobe was still only 20-years-old and there was no Phil Jackson overseeing the Lakers. The team had fired Del Harris early in the year and Kurt Rambis had coached them into the playoffs.
Duncan’s 25 points led all scorers in Game 1 as San Antonio opened up a second-quarter cushion and then hung on to win 87-81. Game 2 was sloppy, with 35 combined turnovers, but the Spurs survived 79-76. It still had the look of a series where the home teams would hold serve, when Duncan simply took over.
Over the next two games in Los Angeles, Duncan scored 70 points and hauled in 28 rebounds, completing a series where he averaged a 29/11 against an elite veteran center in Shaq. The Spurs controlled the fourth quarter in both games and the victories of 103-91 and 118-107 sent them to the Western Conference Finals for the second time of the 1990s.
The third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers had upset Utah in the second round. The Blazers had 24-year-old Rasheed Wallace, but they were really no match for San Antonio and another Spurs sweep showed it.
Duncan and Robinson combined for a 42/23 night in the opener, negating 28 points from Wallace in an 80-76 win. Portland had a 14-point lead at halftime of Game 2, but the Spurs cut that lead in half in the third quarter and then rallied to win 86-86. Robinson did not play well but Duncan had a 23/10 night and Elliot was a big hero, shooting 8-for-10 from the floor, including five treys.
Just as they had in the second round, San Antonio played even better on the road in Game 3 & 4 of the Western Conference Finals. The played suffocating defense in Game 3, holding Portland to 25 percent shooting. Oddly enough, Wallace wasn’t the problem, hitting 7-for-11, but the Spurs didn’t let him get enough shots and Wallace’s supporting cast couldn’t step up in an 85-63 game.
The first-ever NBA Finals appearance was now at hand, and Robinson stepped up to meet the moment he had been drafted to bring back in 1990. He led a balanced attack, with a 20/10 night, the Spurs controlled the fourth quarter of a close game again and won 94-80.
The opponent in the 1999 NBA Finals was the New York Knicks, who had been the 8-seed in the East, but in this strange NBA year, caught fire in the playoffs after center Patrick Ewing was injured. The Knicks were coached by future ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. The reality is though, that with or without Ewing, no one on New York was any match for Duncan.
Duncan posted a combined 58 points and 31 rebounds in the first two games. He got clutch help from Jackson in Game 1, five three-pointers off the bench and San Antonio won 89-77. Defense delivered the Spurs in Game 2, as they held the Knicks to 33 percent shooting in an 80-67 win.
New York answered with some great backcourt play in Game 3, as Allan Houston lit up San Antonio for 34 points and Latrell Sprewell scored 24 points. Duncan and Robinson combined for 45/22, but in a rare occurrence, got no help from anywhere else. San Antonio’s 12-game playoff winning streak came to an end in an 89-81 Knick victory that threatened to make the Finals competitive.
But “The Big Fundamental” was having none of that. Duncan posted 28 points/18 rebounds in Game 4, while Robinson attacked the glass for 17 rebounds of his own. The Spurs won the board battle 49-34 and took the game by a 96-89 count.
The Finals were realistically over, as the Spurs still held the hole cards of Games 6 & 7 being in San Antonio if necessary (the Finals was on a 2-3-2 homecourt format from 1985-2013). But the next time the Spurs returned home would not be for a basketball game, but for a victory party.
Game 5 in Madison Square Garden came down to the wire. Duncan knocked down 34 points, while Sprewell answered with 35. It was Johnson who hit the big shot for the Spurs, a baseline jumper with 47 seconds left to give his team a 78-77 lead. The San Antonio defense made it stand up, holding off one final attempt by Sprewell from a bad angle underneath the basket.
San Antonio has won five NBA titles, made the Finals six times and Duncan is a certain Hall of Famer, one of the greatest to ever play the power forward position. The Spurs have never won back-to-back championships, so whether they are a dynasty is subject to reasonable debate.
But averaging a title every three years is at least the mark of an organizational dynasty, and the 1999 San Antonio Spurs were the edition that started it all.