About 20 years ago, the now-champion San Antonio Spurs were in the midst of the worst season in team history.
David Robinson, the franchise player at the time and one of the best centers in NBA history, had broken his foot only six games into the 1996-97 season. The team only managed to win 20 games during what was considered to be a lost season early on. Injuries to Robinson and Sean Elliott, who missed about half the season, kept the Spurs at the cellar of the Western Conference.
Bob Hill, who was the coach of the Spurs at the beginning of the season, was fired after the team predictably went 3-15 to start the season. Then-VP and general manager Gregg Popovich took over the team for that season and, obviously, he’s been the head coach ever since.
The terrible ‘96 season for San Antonio had such a huge silver lining that it effectively transformed the championship-less Spurs into the juggernaut that it currently is. With such an abysmal record, San Antonio qualified for a lottery pick and eventually landed one Tim Duncan, a modest, unassuming big man from Wake Forest, with the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft.
As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Duncan and Robinson, a duo nicknamed “the Twin Towers” for obvious reasons, led the Spurs to their first championship against the New York Knicks in 1999. David Robinson retired after San Antonio won its second championship in 2003, and Tim Duncan proceeded to win 3 more championships and 2 league MVP’s along the way.
One could argue that the Spurs just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Getting the first overall pick in the draft certainly helped their cause, but it was also Gregg Popovich taking over the team as head coach that created the strong nucleus that San Antonio has to this day. In any case, the worst season in Spurs history allowed the franchise to reap benefits that resonate almost 20 years later.
Again: the worst season in a prominent NBA franchise’s history allowed it to become one of the most successful dynasties in NBA history. See where this is going?
There are so many parallels between the ‘96 Spurs and the ‘14 Knicks that it seems too good to be true. Franchise player out for the season? Check. Hall of Fame coach working in the front office who could potentially take over as head coach? Check. Terrible season with a terrible record? Check.
The Knicks would obviously need a plethora of events to turn in their favor for any hope of Spurs-like success to occur. First off, they would need to procure the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Having the worst record in the league certainly helps their cause, as it gives them a 25% chance at winning the number one pick.
Even more odd is that the top player in the 2015 NBA Draft is likely to be a center. Common consensus has narrowed the number one pick overall to be between Jahlil Okafor of the Duke Blue Devils and Karl Anthony-Towns of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Okafor has been so impressive during March Madness that it seems unlikely that anyone will bump him for the top pick. In Duke’s most recent game against San Diego State, Jahlil Okafor scored 28 points on 12-16 shooting. He was so dominant offensively that San Diego resorted to double and sometimes triple teaming him in the first half alone. Let alone the fact that he also had 3 blocks on the defensive end, which is only a bonus considering how elite his skillset is offensively.
If the Knicks somehow manage to win the lottery, literally, by getting the first pick in the NBA Draft, history has proven that they choose wisely. They won the lottery in 1985, and they chose a center (go figure!) from Georgetown by the name of Patrick Ewing. Apparently, he had some success with the Knicks, merely leading them to two NBA Finals and becoming one of the greatest players in New York Knicks history.
Assuming the Knicks choose Okafor if they get the first pick, Phil Jackson would have his work cut out for him next season. With a nucleus of a healthy Carmelo Anthony and a Jahlil Okafor, the Knicks could easily make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Combine that with the fact that the Knicks have roughly $30 million in cap space next season, and you’re looking at a potential championship contender in the making.
Even more enticing is the idea that the most successful coach in NBA history, championship-wise, is not only a member of the Knicks franchise, but the primary basketball decision-maker. Could Phil Jackson fire Derek Fisher or even demote him to assistant if the Knicks struggle out the gate next season? Certainly. Obviously there will be criticism and negative backlash if Jackson ever decides to coach again because if that indeed occurs, it will appear as though Jackson is attempting to salvage a ‘failed experiment’ that he conducted.
No matter what the coaching situation becomes, the Knicks are guaranteed a top-10 draft pick, a fresh Carmelo Anthony, and enough money to sign one or two more star players. The Knicks essentially have the ingredients to become a successful, championship-contending franchise for years, if not decades to come.
If you think that sounds crazy, check out the ‘96 Spurs.