We didn’t notice this little tidbit in the comedown from San Antonio’s NBA Finals win last week when it came out in real time, but it’s worth digging up. Spurs owner Peter Holt was gregarious and charming in his postgame interviews, eagerly crediting his core of big man Tim Duncan, coach Gregg Popovich, and general manager R.C. Buford for supplying him with “one for the thumb,” and he managed to sneak one little snide aside at current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson along the way.
The smile that spread broadly across Holt’s face and the hearty chuckle that spilled from it revealed his satisfaction in doing so. Holt, basking in the immediate glow of his team’s fifth championship Sunday night, was asked if this title is the sweetest of them all. Holt said, yes it is, although the first in 1999 will always be special, and that’s when you could start to see Holt’s face light up and the smile begin to build…
“Even though it was a shortened, asterisked season,” Holt said, now sporting a full-on grin. “Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil, we all played the same amount of playoff games, didn’t we, Phil?”
Holt was quickly reminded that Jackson was retired that season, his first out of the league following a second three-peat with Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
“Yeah, uh-huh.” Holt said. “Well, he bailed out.”
Jackson, you’ll recall, once responded to questions about San Antonio’s 1999 title – only after winning the 2000 title, of course – by referring to it as an “asterisk season.” Partially because of the 50-game schedule that the NBA and players agreed upon in the wake of the NBA locking out its players, but mainly because Phil is never slow to remind anyone who will listen of his importance.
The insinuation being, “if I had been Lakers coach in 1999, San Antonio wouldn’t have had a chance.”
San Antonio didn’t have much of a chance to defend its 1999 title in 1999-00; Portland and Los Angeles battled for the league’s best record all season long, and Duncan injured his knee with just eight games to go in the regular season, knocking him out for the playoffs. San Antonio would go out in the first round that year.
In 2001, a fully healthy Duncan and his Spurs took on the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, but a white hot Los Angeles team swept San Antonio right out of the playoffs. The Spurs also ended up losing in the second round to Los Angeles in 2002 by a 4-1 mark, but the Spurs would get their revenge in 2003, taking down the Lakers in the second round on their way to a title. A 2004 rematch seemed to be going in San Antonio’s favor before this …
In end, the Duncan-led Spurs and Shaquille/Kobe/Phil Lakers teams met four times with San Antonio taking just one series. Comparing the respective dynasties between the two teams is a bit silly – Shaq played his last game for the Lakers a decade ago, Kawhi Leonard was seven years-old when San Antonio won its first title – so we’ll have to settle for the series’ we’ve been given and hypothetical arguments.
Would a Jackson-led Lakers team have taken down the Spurs in the 1999 playoffs? Hard to say. That year’s Lakers squad was dysfunctional on an Indiana Pacers-style level, working through ex-coach Del Harris and eventual interim replacement Kurt Rambis as it bickered and failed to muster cohesion on the defensive end. A mid-season trade for Glen Rice, dealing away what seemed like the superfluous Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones along the way, did nothing to change Los Angeles’ fortunes, and the team went out in the second round in a blaze of incompetence.
Jackson needed an entire summer to both bring in triangle offense-friendly parts like Ron Harper and A.C. Green, something he wouldn’t have been afforded during the truncated 1999 “offseason,” and also to meet and compare notes with a frustrated Shaquille O’Neal. And even midway through 1999-00, it was the deep and talented Portland Trail Blazers that seemed like the cream of Y2K’s crop, working with the NBA’s best record.
San Antonio had its own fits and struggles during the lockout year, starting off 6-8 before righting the ship and finishing on a 31-5 tear, and while the team’s cast of role players doesn’t stick like the names “Shaq” and “Kobe” often do, we’ve learned not to doubt any team that Popovich and Duncan are a part of.
And Peter Holt hasn’t learned to leave well enough alone. He’s earned that.
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