The San Antonio Spurs Worst Season: 1997

The San Antonio Spurs, all the way back to their ABA days, have been one of the sport’s most consistently excellent franchises.

Before 2021, the team had never missed the playoffs in consecutive years. They fell short in 1973, 1984, 1987, 1989, and 1997.

Which, in turn, means their three straight playoff misses account for 37.5 percent of all the team’s missed playoff years going all the way back to the founding of the ABA in 1967.

And while you can (and I will, later) dump on Gregg Popovich for not retiring as the sport has passed him by, let’s instead look at that 1997 season, where one season of injuries led to tanking and to the ingredients for five championships in 15 years.

The On-Court Record

David Robinson played in just six games in 1997, and his injury was the catalyst for the team deciding to just pack it in and reload in the draft.

But despite a 20-62 record, they were never a truly hopeless outfit. It’s more like they were just bad enough to lose and lose often. It’s the difference between “good team tanks for one year” and “team just stinks.”

Sure, they were 2-13 after 15 games. And sure, they added a 1-11 stretch that included the Rodeo Road Trip. And oh by the way, they also lost six straight to close the season and secure their lottery position as the league’s third-worst team (Denver went 14-68 and Boston barfed out that 15-67 campaign.)

But San Antonio never lost more than eight straight. And once Popovich took over as coach after Bob Hill got fired, their three worst losing streaks were a seven-game skid and a pair of six-game slides. As we’ve mentioned, that latter six-gamer came at the end of the season.

Sure, they had the league’s worst defense and second-worst Net Rating, but if you’re going to be bad on purpose, the Spurs showed exactly the best way to do it. Fair to say their fans understood. And when they got Tim Duncan, fans definitely understood.

The Featured Players

Not only did Robinson miss almost the whole season, so did Sean Elliott. He played in just 39 games. Dominique Wilkins came back from exile in Europe to lead the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game in 63 contests.

But when you run out guys like Vinny Del Negro, Will Perdue, a washed-up Vernon Maxwell, and Greg Anderson and give them starter’s minutes, that’s undeniably a 20-win team.

Maxwell posted just under zero Win Shares (minus-.001 WS/48). Carl Herrera managed .002 WS/48. Perdue led the team in WS at 4.4 and WS/48 among guys with at least 150 minutes played at .110.

I say “with at least 150 minutes played” because Robinson, in six games and 147 minutes, posted .227 WS/48, a superstar as always.

Basically, it’s the same old bad team song, just set to a cowboy guitar this time.

The Coach

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

Bob Hill lasted 18 games, going 3-15. He later emerged in Seattle for the 2006 and ’07 seasons. Those Sonics teams stunk, fan interest cratered, and the team moved to Oklahoma City. Nice job, Bob.

Popovich, meanwhile, knew what he was getting himself into when he took the reins. His 17-47 record was a masterstroke in walking the line between a tank job and a culture-of-losing problem. And the rest, for him, is history.

Again, we’ll have to do a postmortem on the collapse of the Spurs post-2019 once the dust settles and the franchise finally blows it up, including the coach, and starts over.

The 1997 season served a purpose. And…

The Aftermath

Oh, what a glorious purpose a one-season tank job served. The Basketball Gods looked at what Boston had done and scowled in anger. They looked at Denver and shook their heads in pity.

Then they looked at San Antonio and saw righteousness. And lo, they did cause the sacred lottery balls to bounce. The Chosen Ones earned the Holy Duncan. And there was much winning.

San Antonio won the title in 1999. They did it again in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. And in shorter terms than that, the Spurs went 56-26 in 1998.

Plenty of teams have tanked in NBA history. Some have been momentary forays into awfulness that resolved the old-fashioned way. The Pacers in the ’80s got Reggie Miller and Rik Smits. The Bulls wandered in the wilderness until they got Derrick Rose. There’s plenty of that sort of thing around.

Others have been perpetually bad teams finally catching a break. Cleveland in 2003 comes to mind. So do the Clippers when Blake Griffin happened.

But never in NBA history has a perpetually successful team just faceplanted for one terrible year only to get the ultimate reward that set off 15 years of being the class of the league.

My gods, San Antonio. That was one heck of a show.

NEXT: Toronto Raptors. In which we consider the birth of Vinsanity and ask ourselves, just what is a Zan Tabak anyway?

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!