Lakers hope their lottery season is as good as one Spurs had in 1997
If the Lakers ever need inspiration during their darkest season ever, they can always look to one of their sworn enemies.
The San Antonio Spurs were there too, not that long ago.
They lost future Hall of Famer center David Robinson for almost an entire season, finished 20-62, got lucky in the lottery and won Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft.
The Spurs have taken four championships since then and own the NBA’s best record this season with Duncan still a huge factor, averaging 15.1 points and 9.9 rebounds at age 37.
As a casual reminder of the importance of lottery picks, San Antonio (50-16) plays the Lakers (22-44) on Wednesday at Staples Center.
Their lottery seasons aren’t quite perfect comparisons.
The Spurs were in better shape than the Lakers — Robinson was 30 and in the prime of his career, and San Antonio had Sean Elliott, a two-time All-Star forward on its roster. And the Spurs didn’t exactly bottom out the season before Robinson’s injury, losing in the conference semifinals in six games to Utah.
The Lakers are at the opposite end — brittle, aging and only a handful of losses from their worst record since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
But they can still listen and learn from the Spurs’ story. And bring a few lucky charms with them on lottery night (May 20).
San Antonio had the NBA’s third-worst record in 1996-97 but the Boston Celtics were favored to take the top pick because they held the second-worst record and also Dallas’ lottery spot (sixth overall) from an earlier trade. Both picks gave Boston a 36.3% chance of winning No. 1. The Spurs held only a 21.6% chance with their lone pick.
“I was back in college and at a friend’s house watching the lottery,” Duncan later told the Boston Globe. “I was pretty sure I was coming to Boston. They had the two picks. Then the sixth pick went by and the third pick went by, both to Boston, and, all of a sudden, I kinda had a renewed interest in what was going on.”
Philadelphia’s name was called for the second pick, which would ultimately become Keith Van Horn, and the Spurs celebrated.
San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich remembered the progression of events while eating in a tent next to the TV studio where the lottery took place.
“As it dragged on and I didn’t see our name, I stopped eating and drinking,” Popovich told the Globe. “And when I found out we got the No. 1 pick, I dropped my sandwich and beer and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And the rest is history.”
Duncan was special from the start. Almost.
As Spurs personnel remember it, Duncan got beaten up by beefy center Greg Ostertag in his first summer-league game.
“I don’t think we put too much stock into it,” San Antonio General Manager R.C. Buford recalled in a phone interview Tuesday.
The Celtics ended up with Chauncey Billups as the No. 3 overall pick and traded him within a year. The Spurs weren’t close to doing such a thing with Duncan.
He averaged 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds, incredible numbers for a rookie working his way around a veteran-laden team. The Spurs lost in the West semifinals to Utah in 1998, but they won the championship in Duncan’s second season by beating the New York Knicks.
“It was clear he was going to be a very good player,” said Buford, a scout with the Spurs at the time. “I don’t think any of us knew he was going to be a player to lead a franchise for over a decade like he has.”
The Spurs and Lakers had some things in common leading up to their injury-marred lottery seasons.
Robinson, the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, missed the first 18 games in 1996-97 because of a back injury, played six games in December, and was done after sustaining a broken left foot.
Kobe Bryant missed the first 19 games this season because of a torn Achilles’ tendon, played six games in December, and was done after sustaining a fractured left knee.
Because of health issues, the Spurs got only 39 games out of Elliott, an All-Star the previous season, and a combined 19 games out of veterans Charles Smith and Chuck Person. The Lakers have cajoled only 10 games out of Steve Nash.
But the Spurs made a coaching switch in 1996 with the team sitting at 3-15. Bob Hill was fired and Popovich came down from the front office to take over.
“Your best player [Robinson] wasn’t there but it was clear we were establishing a system that was going to be important to a championship-quality team,” Buford said. “Playing well whether you won or lost games was often more important than getting more ping-pong balls. It wasn’t like we were holding people out to try to position ourselves for the draft.”
Regarding lottery teams nowadays losing game after game after game, “Those scars are not easily undone,” Buford said.
The Lakers have already won more than that dreadful San Antonio team. But they’re not going to finish with the league’s third-worst record because Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando are several losses ahead of them.
Instead, the Lakers are locked in a battle with Utah, Sacramento and Boston for the fourth-worst record. Whichever team ends up in that fourth spot holds an 11.9% chance of landing the top pick in the June 26 draft. The team with the fifth-worst record will be at 8.8%, sixth-worst at 6.3% and seventh-worst at 4.3%.
They aren’t monumental differences. But as the Spurs proved back in 1997, every percentage point counts when luck seems to be the only way to win.
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