What to Expect when you are Expecting: The Admiral

In our last piece, we took a look at Chris Paul’s advent with the Hornets.  This time, we move southwest and contemplate the arrival of the Admiral in San Antonio.

The Team

1986-1989 San Antonio Spurs

In 1986-1987 the San Antonio Spurs were an bad mix.  Headlined by the 15-year veteran Artis Gilmore, that 7-3 giant plodded along in the wake of the rest of the team as it blitzed up and down the court behind speedy PG Alvin Robertson.  The rest of the team running past Artis was very young indeed, with six of the top eight players having 3 years or less of NBA experience.  The mismatch in personnel and all that youth resulted in a poor season opening, and the Spurs fell into a 9-28 hole.  Even a surprising 9-1 run at mid-season wasn’t enough to get them back to respectability and the team closed the season with a 9-25 finish and the 4th worst record in the league.

The Spurs, however, were lucky.  The lottery earned them the first pick in the upcoming draft and the rights to one of the most polished and hyped big men to ever came out of college.  It was good luck, but they had to wait a little bit for that luck to come home, for David Robinson delayed his entry into the NBA for two years to fulfill obligations to the US Navy.

That left the Spurs with two years to wait until their game-changing star arrived on the scene, and the Spurs proceeded to blow up the team in preparation for his arrival.  They moved veteran forward and defensive master Mychal Thompson to LA for the draft rights to Greg “Cadillac” Anderson and power forward Frank Brickowski, then followed by trading Gilmore to LA for a draft pick, shedding the only two significant veteran rotation players from the year before.  For the 1987-88 season, Coach Bob Weiss gave the ball to Alvin Robertson and sophomore Walter Berry and told them to run, baby, run.

Run they did, averaging 105 possessions per game.(The Hornets averaged 89 last year) They scored 113 points per game and six players averaged in double figures.  Sadly, they also allowed 119 points a game, took their lumps and ended the season with only 31 wins and the 10th pick of the draft, which they spent on Willie Anderson, a slashing wing player.

They seemed like they were on the way up.  But then they did the unexpected. They dumped 18 ppg Walter Berry for nothing to Philly, fired Bob Weiss and hired defensive-minded Larry Brown – who proceeded to do what Larry Brown does:  Force his brand of defensive, slow basketball on his team, uncaring of his personnel.  Alvin Robertson’s speed was caged as the team went from 2nd fastest to the 9th slowest.  The ball was pounded inside to the inefficient Cadillac Anderson and Frank Brickowski.  The defense did improve dramatically, from last to 16th but the offense fell apart.

In the end, the team tanked and only won 21 games, earning the third pick in the draft, which they used to select the highly regarded Sean Elliott (over Glen Rice!?) to join slashing guard Willie Anderson on the wing.  Then they traded away Alvin Robertson and Cadillac Anderson to land veteran point guard Mo Cheeks and a highly skilled power forward in Terry Cummings.  They had almost everything now.  They just needed the man in the middle.

The Player

David Robinson entered the league as a man.  Unlike most prospects, no one would ever say the seven-foot-one chiseled specimen that entered the NBA in 1989 as a rookie needed to get stronger.   Robinson played 4 years at the US Naval Academy – and then did his two years of required service in the Navy before getting his discharge and joining the San Antonio Spurs two years after he was drafted.  Now 24, he entered the league with a bang, averaging an amazing 24 points, 12 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.9 blocks on a team that had the 6th slowest pace in the league, which makes those numbers even more extreme.

Robinson was a force to be reckoned with, managing those lofty scoring totals on a bare 15 shots per game.  Robinson was, in fact, so ready for the NBA that throughout his fourteen-year career, he only topped his rookie scoring numbers four times and his rookie rebounding numbers three times.

The Results

As you can imagine, the Spurs posted a huge turn around, winning 35 more games than the previous season and finishing with a record of 56-26.  The turnabout, however, was not entirely to Robinson’s credit, as the team only had one returning member of it’s starting five.  The young team had been replaced, and no less than 5 veteran players got significant minutes.

The result was a team that cut its turnovers by 313 over the course of the season.  Yes, that’s not a typo.  313.  The team, which had no one earn more than 4.7 free throws a game the previous season, earned close to 200 more free throws on almost 600 fewer shots per game.  Much of that, specifically, is due to Robinson, who dominated the paint and averaged 10.4 free throws a game by himself.

On the boards, the team improved from 22nd in the league to 6th, and blocked more shots than anyone else.  More, opponents earned 513 fewer free throws as the team’s foul rate declined sharply.  The defense went from mediocre (16th) to great (6th).  Robinson had arrived.

What can the Hornets learn from the Spurs

What did the Spurs do that the Hornets could emulate?  Simple. They tried to sign people who would complement each other.  They had a big man who could operate in the paint – so they signed a sweet shooting power forward in Terry Cummings, a solid rebounder who also doubled as their best three-point threat on the season.  They brought in Sean Elliott to join Willie Anderson, both players being non-shooters with reps as slashing scorers that could break down the defense. (Sean Elliott, famous for threes later in his career, hit 1 as a rookie.  On only 9 tries.)  They brought in Vernon Maxwell to be a shooter. (a role he failed at, but still)  They pulled in an over-the-hill but solid Mo Cheeks to run the whole effort.

In some respects, the Hornets are trying the same sort of thing, bringing in Ryan Anderson as the outside component to Davis inside.  They signed Gordon and Rivers to be slashers and keep defenses off-balance.  They brought in Mason to be a shooting threat on the wing.  They have taken the first steps in the process.

The thing to recognize, however, is it took the Spurs two years to put together the supporting cast that actually helped Robinson take the team to respectability, and some players had to be turned over to build that group.  If Robinson had arrived the year before, the team would have improved to mediocrity, not excellence.  The Hornets are on their way, but expecting amazing this year – or even next year – may be premature.  This summer was pivotal, reversing the Hornets fortunes.  The next two summers, however, should be viewed as the launching pad.

7 responses to “What to Expect when you are Expecting: The Admiral”

  1. I think Davis (at least this season) will look like Serge Ibaka with more boards and more offense. Eventually, I think he will grow into something much more, but for now, that’s pretty darn good. I’m hoping we see Davis at the five with Ryno at the four. Lopez looked like a D-League bench player last night and at the end of the season in Phoenix. Smitty looked sharp though, he will bring it off the bench every game. I also think Sock (LT) can be a solid rotation player. I am stoked to have Brian Roberts on the bench (if he stays there–watch out GV!)–I suggest we call him Dayton. I think between Vegas and Mexico City he has earned a nickname. Thoughts?

    Geaux Hornets! Sting the Cats Tuesday night!

  2. Love this article for its realism. What it basically says is you need time, measured in several years, and very mature David Robinson (or, hopefully, Anthony Davis) to become a respectable team.

    Twisting a great quote: ‘Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day’ and the Hornets won’t be either. But the Hornets are on the right path in rebuilding year one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.