The basketball fans of San Antonio were getting used to first being teased and then having the rug out from under them, as the 1996 San Antonio Spurs got ready for a new season. The David Robinson era began with such promise in 1990, but quickly turned into successive first-round playoff exits.
Then John Lucas’ arrival as head coach triggered a new wave of success, but that didn’t last. Bob Hill took over the team and in 1995 led the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals in 1995, the deepest playoff run of the Robinson era. Unfortunately for San Antonio, 1996 continued the pattern of disappointment following hope.
Robinson was still one of the best, if not the best center in the game. He averaged 25 points/12 rebounds per game in 1996, to go along with three blocks a night, and was named 1st-team All-NBA. Sean Elliot had come into his own as a scoring force, and averaged 20 a night at small forward. Avery Johnson was a terrific playmaker, averaging ten assists. The Spurs got help up front from veteran forwards Chuck Person and Charles Smith, and Vinny Del Negro was a good complementary offensive piece.
San Antonio enjoyed a 14-3 stretch from mid-December to mid-January that really got them jumpstarted. On February 29, the Spurs started a 17-game win streak, one that included a 106-105 win over the Seattle Sonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder), the team that would end up with the best record in the West.
It added up to a solid 59-23 record and the #2 seed in the West behind Seattle. An NBA title was realistically beyond San Antonio’s grasp—Michael Jordan’s first full season back with the Chicago Bulls after a two-year sabbatical saw him and his team deliver one of the great championship teams of all-time. But winning the West was very much in play, and with San Antonio having never even reached, much less won, the Finals, no one in town would complain about just doing that.
The Spurs opened the playoffs with the Phoenix Suns. Three years earlier Phoenix had reached the NBA Finals, eliminating San Antonio in the process. The Suns still had Charles Barkley at power forward and Kevin Johnson on the point, but the depth was gone and Phoenix finished 41-41.
San Antonio opened by shooting 62 percent in a 120-98 Game 1 rout, a shooting display enabled by the brilliant passing of Johnson, who dished 18 assists. Game 2 was one of those special games that make the NBA playoffs worth watching—when Robinson and Barkley simply went toe-to-toe.
The Admiral had 40 points/21 rebounds, while Sir Charles posted a 30/20 line. The Johnsons at point guard were in rhythm—Avery dished 15 assists while KJ handed out 16. The Spurs survived 110-105 on their home floor and took command of the series.
The first round of the NBA playoffs was a best-of-five at this point, and Phoenix survived with a 94-93 win in Game 3, but San Antonio blew Game 4 wide open. The Spurs enjoyed a 47-30 rebounding advantage, thanks to Robinson’s 30/13 performance, and they pulled away in the third quarter to a 116-98 series-clinching win.
Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz awaited next. The Jazz were the 3-seed in the West with 55 wins and represented another city hungry to move beyond having nice regular season wins and occasional playoff series triumphs. They wanted the Finals, just like San Antonio did.
This should have been a great series, but instead San Antonio was simply manhandled. The Spurs won two games, but they were blistered in all four of the losses, losing by margins ranging from 15 to 30. Utah dominated the glass in taking homecourt advantage in Game 1. The Jazz were ahead by double digits at halftime in three of their four wins. Robinson was held to 11 points in both Games 3 & 4, the routs in Salt Lake City that put Utah up 3-1 in games and all but settled the series.
San Antonio won Game 5 to at least avoid the ignominy of having it all end this way at home, but the return to Salt Lake City for the sixth game resulted in Malone going for 25/13, while Robinson settled for 17/8. With the season on the line, the Spurs were beaten on the glass 47-35. There’s no sugar-coating how disappointing this loss was.
Perhaps the only purpose winning served would have been to delay the inevitable—Utah lost to Seattle in seven games in the conference finals, and the Sonics fulfilled their role as whipping boy to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. But for a franchise that was getting alarmingly used to postseason failings, 1996 was just another unfortunate chapter.
This season marked a brief end to the rise of the Spurs. Robinson broke his foot early in the 1997 season, and Hill was fired after a 3-15 start. The team struggled to a hideous 20-62 season. But the man who replaced Hill was Greg Popovich. And the result of the bad year was a lottery win that resulted in Tim Duncan. The really good times in San Antonio were still ahead.