The 2000 San Antonio Spurs were coming off the first championship in franchise history, and the future was bright, with Tim Duncan in just his third year. But there was some inconsistency in the season and then an untimely injury cost the Spurs their chance to repeat.
Duncan, still only 23-years-old, averaged 23 points/12 rebounds, and David Robinson—now 34—put up an 18/10 nightly average, as San Antonio could match up with anyone down low. But they were long in the tooth. Point guard Avery Johnson was also 34-years-old, and his production dipped to six assists per game. The rest of the minutes were filled in by more players on the wrong side of 30, from Mario Elie to Terry Porter to Jaren Jackson to Sean Elliot.
San Antonio still came out of the gate quickly, with a seven-game win streak keying a 14-3 start. Then they split their next eighteen games. This included a Christmas Day loss on the road to the Los Angeles Lakers. Phil Jackson had arrived in Los Angeles, to teach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant how to win, and the Lakers were about to rip off three straight titles. On Christmas Day of this season, Shaq posted a 32/11, the Spurs shot 38 percent and lost 99-93.
Duncan led the way in a revenge win over Los Angeles on February 1st, when went for 29/18 in a 105-81 blowout for the home fans. Johnson turned back the clock, with 22 points/9 assists, and Robinson had 12 rebounds. With the Laker core still unproven at the biggest moments, it was the kind of game that sent a message about San Antonio could do in the playoffs.
The Spurs never really got on another major winning streak and though they ended the season 53-29, they were edged out by the Utah Jazz for the Midwest Division title, meaning San Antonio would be the 4-seed for the playoffs—and on the Laker side of the bracket.
But the big decision would be head coach Greg Popovich’s. With four games left in the season, Duncan tore a lateral meniscus. The power forward insisted he was ready to go for the playoffs, repeatedly demonstrating his lateral movement for the head coach.
To call this a tough decision understates the case. With the Lakers unproven at crunch time, and Duncan and Robinson perhaps the only tandem in basketball that could provide an answer for Shaq, a championship may have hung in the balance. But Duncan’s career—and the future of the San Antonio franchise did as well. Popovich played it safe and shut his star down for the year.
San Antonio played the Phoenix Suns in the first round and had a terrible offensive game in the opener, losing 72-70. The Spurs rebounded well in Game 2, literally and figuratively. Robinson had a 25/15, while Elliot pulled down ten rebounds and the series was evened with an 85-70 win.
But the first round was best-of-five in 2000, the Spurs had no guarantee of coming back home and they wouldn’t make it back. Robinson did what he could, scoring 58 points combined in Games 3 & 4, but without Duncan there just wasn’t enough offensive firepower. Phoenix blew open the third game in the fourth quarter, and then won 89-78 to close the series.
Their strongest rival eliminated, Los Angeles won a title on a playoff run where their immaturity and inability to close out obviously weaker teams was an issue. No one else was good enough to really make the Lakers pay. The Spurs might have.
The flip side is we have the benefit of history and knowing how Duncan’s career, and the historical arc of the franchise turned out. Five more trips to the NBA Finals. Four more championships. There was some disappointment at the end of Y2K, but Popovich’s long-term thinking paid off.