Let’s talk about the last of the the trinity of great centers of the of 1990s who recently retired, David Robinson. It seems like there was much fewer memorable moments or controversies with Robinson than there were with Hakeem or Ewing. Even in retirement, Robinson seemed to sneak into the sunset. Rehashing Robinson’s career better separate the perceptions and realities of him as a player.
What Was San Antonio Like Before the Admiral?
Not good. The Spurs had about a six year hangover between the end of the George Gervin era and the beginning of the David Robinson years. As you all remember, the Spurs snagged Robinson with the first pick in the 1987 Draft even though they knew he had a military commitment in the Navy. In fact, Larry Brown was willing to come coach the crappy Spurs for one year before Robinson came to town. It was not a pretty year. The Spurs went 21-61 with Greg “Cadillac” Anderson playing the center spot and Alvin Robertson was the team’s best player. (This was before it was known the Robertson would become a repeat felon). Not a good squad but the Spurs had Robinsons coming plus a high draft pick that they used for Sean Elliott.
Robinson’s Early Years: What Could Have Been?
Everyone remembers that when Robinson came to the Spurs the next year and they improved by 35 games, going 56-26. What people might not remember is that that Spur team actually seemed like the heir apparent to the Lakers. They were young and talented. Check out this starting lineup going in the the 1990 playoffs:
This is a very young team with a ton of potential, with four All Star level performers and Anderson who was above average. So it seemed to be the potential team of the 1990s. It didn’t end up working out for a variety of reasons. The team was together and at full power for two seasons, 1989-90 and 1990-91. The 1990 playoffs ended bitterly with the Spurs losing a tight seven game series against the Spurs in which Strickland threw away the ball trying a behind-the-back pass late in the deciding game. The 1990-91 season was even more disappointing, the Spurs won 55 games only to be upset by a mediocre Warrior team in the first round.
That was this core’s last shot. David Robinson broke his hand right before the 1992 playoffs and the team was eliminated in the first round without him. Robinson got healthy the next year but Strickland was non-tendered as a free agent because of contract squabbles and legal issues. Strickland went on to have a very nice career and he was replaced with Avery Johnson. At the same time, the wheels fell of of Cummings and Anderson. Cummings played only 8 games in 1992-93 and Anderson played in 38. When Cummings came back, he was never the scorer he was before (though he lasted seven years as a nice bench player). Anderson prematurely aged because of leg injuries (he had metal rods placed in a broken leg) and he was never the same player again. Robinson’s original core was reduced to Sean Elliott, who continued to improve (a one year stay in Detroit in 1993-94 notwithstanding). They young comers and the in-his-prime Cummings were replaced with such fodder as Vinny Del Negro, Sleepy Floyd, J.R. Reid, and Dale Ellis.
Ultimately, the Blazers, and not the Spurs, were the Western Conference power of the early 1990s. It was more injuries than anything else that kept the Spurs from the Finals. However, the unfortunate upset to the Warriors really represents the blown opportunity of that team. It was the one time they were all truly healthy and ready to make a run and they fell down. This is not to say that the Spurs disappointed because of anything any did wrong but rather it illustrates how tenuous a team’s future can be, even if it seems it is set with a starting lineup for a decade to come.
Sidebar: DRob versus MJ
The most prevalent criticism of Robinson was that he was soft and reluctant to be tough or mix it up. He was also criticized for not being a vocal team leader, in particular when Dennis Rodman acted out in the key playoff games with the Spurs. It might surprise you to hear that the two times that Robinson publicly put down anyone it was Michael Jordan. In 1991, Robinson made some public comments questioning whether the Bulls would ever win built around a scorer like Jordan (see Jordan Rules by Sam Smith). Then in an April 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated, Robinson likened Jordan’s initial comeback to a dog chasing his tail (in that Jordan wouldn’t ever be able to reach his former heights). These were rather strong words for a deeply religious guy like Robinson. The comments were obviously not meant to be hurtful or snide, but it was surprising to see him be so strongly condemnatory of Jordan.
Both the comments in 1991 and 1996 were noted at the time and, like most minor stories, were quickly forgotten in the annals of sports history. To me, the most interesting aspect was that Robinson’s 1991 criticism of MJ captures a brief moment in time when people were still questioning whether Jordan was a team player. People were also wondering who the team of the 90s would be. A few months later, Jordan established the answers to both those questions.
The Admiral’s Peak
Despite losing his entire up-and-coming supporting cast, Robinson put together his best run of seasons after the loss of Strickland and company. From 1993-94 through 1995-96, Robinson put up as good numbers as anyone in the NBA, averaging 27.5 ppg and 11.2 rpg over that stretch. His rebounding numbers actually dipped about 1.0 to 1.5 rpg for the two years that they had Dennis Rodman, but that was to be expected. Despite the fact that the team around him was not as good as in the early 1990s, the Spurs won just as much (they won 55, 62, and 59 games in that stretch).
All Robinson Team
Here is the best single seasons for players around Robinson:
PG Avery Johnson 1995-96: 13.1 ppg, 9.6 apg, .494% fg
SG Willie Anderson 1989-90: 15.7 ppg, 4.4 apg, 4.5 rpg
SF Sean Elliott 1995-96 : 20.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, .466% fg
PF Tim Duncan 2001-02: 25.5 ppg, 12.7 rpg
Hakeem v. Robinson I: The 1995 Playoffs
1994-95 was the first time that the Spurs had the best record in the conference. They seemed like they were on the express into the Finals before running into the crazy Rockets. Hakeem outplayed Robinson in that series and it is traditional lore that Hakeem was inspired by watching Robinson be presented with the MVP Trophy in front of him. Rocket announcer Bill Worrell described the scene thusly:
“They gave David his award on the floor right before the game started. When [Robinson] got the trophy, he said it was such an honor to receive an award that so many other great centers had won. He didn’t name Hakeem. I always thought that was David’s biggest mistake in the series.”
In other words, Hakeem went out and schooled him over the perceived slight. “Schooled” isn’t exactly accurate. Hakeem averaged an awesome 35.3 ppg in the series but Robinson, himself, almost average 30 ppg. The even more prominent fact was that a team led by Hakeem beat a team led by Robinson. This is a simplistic syllogism. Fact is, Robinson was a incredible player and six games in 1995 is not necessarily a fair basis of comparison. (Incredibly, this series was the only time that Robinson faced Hakeem in the playoffs).
Hakeem v. Robinson II: Who was Better?
Okay, the 1995 Playoffs was only six games, so who was better? The numbers are very close:
Robinson 21.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 2.5 apg, .518% FG (14 Seasons)
Olajuwon 21.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, .512% FG (18 Seasons)
Granted that is a very cursory look at the numbers favors Hakeem. He put up slightly better stats in a longer period of time. Of course, it is difficult to penalize Robinson for missing two years serving in the Navy but hey it was his decision. But as we said, this is only raw numbers. When we look at some analytical stats, Robinson has the edge. His career efficiency is slightly higher than Hakeems at 29.0 versus 28.0. Further, if you look at John Hollinger’s PER stats, you see that Robinson had higher numbers than Hakeem head-to-head every year but one (excluding the injury years later in their careers). In fact, these numbers rate Robinson as the best player in the NBA three times. Overall rating formulas have their flaws but they tend not to miss the best players in the league. But the real problem is that the formula debate, like the raw career total debate is so close that it determines nothing. So, let’s compare intangibles:
1. Hakeem has two rings as a featured player, Robinson has two only as a complementary player
2. Hakeem has a better post game then Robinson
3. Hakeem outplayed Robinson head-to-head in their one playoff match up
These are the reasons that people cite as reasons why it is a foregone conclusion that Hakeem was better than Robinson. These reasons are overstated and the two are actually almost a dead heat. Still, I think that they are just enough to tip the scales in Hakeem’s favor.
How Good Was Robinson When Duncan Got to Town?
This is a roundabout way of asking how much “credit” Robinson should get for the Spur titles during the Tim Duncan Era? The answer is a lot. Robinson was the second best player on the 1998-99 champs and he was the second or third best player on the Spurs last year (neck-and-neck with Tony Parker). We will ignore the 2002-03 team because Robinson had fallen off quite a bit as a player at that point. On the 1998-99 team, however, Robinson was still an All Star level center (15.8 ppg 10.0 rpg). Could Robinson have put up better numbers that year? Probably. Look at his shots per game in his prime leading up to the arrival of Duncan:
Year Shots Per Game Point Per Game
1993-94 20.7 29.8
1994-95 18.4 27.6
1995-96 16.8 25.0
1997-98 14.6 21.6 (Duncan’s rookie year)
1998-99 10.8 15.8 (Champs)
You see that Robinson’s shooting rates plummeted by Duncan’s second year. This is a strong indicator that Robinson made a conscious choice to subjugate his offensive game for the good of the team. How does this effect his “credit” factor for the championship you ask? It depends on how you assess credit. I tend to give a boost for the best players on championship teams and less for role players. This is because basketball teams, with few exceptions, are star-driven entities. It is possible, however, to have two stars on a team who deserve lots of credit (a la Kobe and Shaq). This doesn’t mean that credit is equal. The question to ask when assessing the second star is: how good/bad a player could the second star have been replaced with and the team still win it all? In this case, I suspect that the Spurs would have won it with an average center. Of course, this kind of test is all speculation but certainly Robinson deserves a measure of “second banana” credit in the Pippen mode for that title.