Sean Elliott knew that Tim Duncan, the No. 1 pick in the 1997
draft, would be good. He just had no idea how good. So Elliott,
the Spurs' small forward and undisputed video-game champion, was
in for a shock when he invited Duncan over to his house for a
friendly game of Mortal Kombat 3 this summer. "I lost," says
Elliott, still in disbelief. "You have to understand, I don't
lose at home. I'm King Video. When the neighborhood kids come
around to play, I make it a point to destroy them. None of the
other guys on the team can come close to me. But then this
rookie comes along, and he humbles me. He made me go out and buy
a game manual so I can study the moves more."
Duncan has sent coach Gregg Popovich running for the game
manual, too. As soon as he found out the Spurs had won the draft
lottery, Popovich started scheming about the possibilities of
playing the 7-foot Duncan and the 7'1" David Robinson together.
"We started tinkering with the X's and O's and trying to
reinvent the lightbulb," says Popovich. "Then we coaches looked
at each other and said, 'Boy, we are really going to screw these
guys up.' Hopefully, we've developed a framework in which they
can have the freedom to use all their skills."
Robinson's skills, out of commission for most of last season
because of injuries, are famously abundant--he was the NBA's
1995 MVP--and Duncan's have proved to be even better than
advertised. In eight preseason games he averaged 15.3 points,
10.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists. "He's a great passer, he shoots
the ball well, and he seems to be comfortable on the court,"
says Robinson. "He has a good sense of where people are and what
he needs to get done."
"He's really smooth," adds Elliott. "I guarantee you that
sometime this season he will be criticized for not playing hard,
because he makes everything look easier than it is."
Popovich points to Duncan's unflappability. In a summer league
game against the Trail Blazers, Duncan didn't bat an eye when
fellow rookie Kelvin Cato blocked his shot and taunted him with
a pointed finger. "Tim just sprinted back on defense," says
Popovich. "His facial expression and body language didn't
change. He's such a pro already."
Indeed, the perpetually chilled-out Duncan can't think of a
thing about his pro career that hasn't met his expectations.
"But then, I don't think I was really expecting anything," he
says with a shrug.
Duncan certainly isn't expecting or seeking the limelight, which
should make him a good fit on a team that, except for Dennis
Rodman's two seasons in San Antonio, hardly ever makes
headlines. "David Robinson just donated $5 million to a
community center," says director of media services Tom James,
"and I couldn't get anyone to write about it."
For the past year the only story on Robinson has been his
injuries. While suffering back and foot woes last year, he
played in only six games. But he was merely the most sorely
missed of the Spurs' many MIAs; also on the sidelines were
forward Charles Smith, who missed 63 games with an arthritic
right knee; Elliott, who was out for 43 with tendinitis in his
right quadriceps; and small forward Chuck Person, who missed the
season after undergoing back surgery last fall. With so many
players in orthopedic distress--did we mention that at one
point, center Will Perdue and forward Carl Herrera wore face
masks because of broken noses?--San Antonio won only 20 games,
an NBA-record 39-game plunge from the year before. Robinson says
that strengthening his back has put him in the best shape of his
life. Elliott and Person are almost fully recovered, which means
the Spurs could break the mark for the biggest one-season
upswing, a standard they set when they improved by 35 games in
1989-90, Robinson's rookie year.
Barring any further injuries, San Antonio could go deep into the
playoffs. "Talentwise, I think we can compete with anyone," says
Robinson. "But we've got a new offense, three guys back from
injury and a new guy. That's a lot to assimilate."
If the Spurs do put it together, they may end up rewriting the
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO IF THE POISED DUNCAN LIVES UP TO HIS BILLING, THE SPURS SHOULD BOUNCE BACK BIG TIME [Horace Grant and Tim Duncan in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [Chuck Person]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS Record: 20-62 (sixth in Midwest)
Points Rebounds Turnovers
per game FG pct. per game per game
(rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)
Spurs 90.5 (27) .442 (21) 39.4 (24) 15.2 (9)
Opponents 98.3 (19) .471 (25) 40.9 (13) 14.4 (26)
THE BIG DIP
The Spurs' collapse last year--from 59-23 in 1995-96 to 20-62
in '96-97--was the most dramatic in NBA history. It also had
something in common with two other teams' major drop-offs: the
loss of a star center.
LARGEST NBA SEASON-TO-SEASON DECLINES IN TEAM WINNING PERCENTAGE
SEASONS W-L PCT. DECLINE KEY LOSS
Spurs 1995-96 59-23 .720 .476 David Robinson misses
1996-97 20-62 .244 all but six games because
Rockets 1981-82 46-36 .561 .390 Reigning MVP Moses Malone
1982-83 14-68 .171 is traded to 76ers
Warriors 1963-64 48-32 .600 .387 Wilt Chamberlain is traded
1964-65 17-63 .213 to 76ers in January 1965
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
As opponents focus their attention on Tim Duncan and David
Robinson on the inside, they may find themselves crushed from
the outside. Of the three key Spurs--Robinson, Sean Elliott and
Chuck Person--who were out with injuries last year, only Person
(right), suffering from back spasms, still had not returned when
the season opened. In the preseason, though, his long-range
shooting picked up where it had left off two seasons ago. In
seven games the Rifleman, a career 36.8.% three-point marksman,
shot 41.4% (12 of 29) from beyond the arc.
PROJECTED LINEUP with 1996-97 stats
Coach: Gregg Popovich (second season with San Antonio)
G PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3FG%
PG Avery Johnson 76 10.5 1.9 6.8 1.26 0.20 .477 .690 .231
SG Vinny Del Negro 72 12.3 2.9 3.2 0.82 0.10 .467 .868 .314
SF Sean Elliott 39 14.9 4.9 3.2 0.62 0.62 .422 .755 .333
PF Tim Duncan(R)[*] 31 20.8 14.7 3.2 0.71 3.29 .608 .636 .273
C David Robinson 6 17.7 8.5 1.3 1.00 1.00 .500 .654 0 att.
C Will Perdue 65 8.7 9.8 0.6 0.49 1.57 .568 .579 0 att.
F Chuck Person[**] 80 10.9 5.2 1.3 0.61 0.33 .437 .644 .410
G Cory Alexander 80 7.2 1.5 3.2 1.03 0.20 .396 .736 .373
F Monty Williams 65 9.0 3.2 1.4 0.85 0.80 .509 .645 .000
F Carl Herrera 75 8.0 4.5 0.7 0.83 0.71 .433 .686 .333
[*]New acquisition (R) Rookie (college stats) [**]1995-96 stats.