It could change history: Tim Duncan and the big three that was going to meet at Orlando Magic

The power forward had decided to leave the Spurs and go to Florida in 2000. What happened, with touches of urban legend, is NBA history.


History, you know, is written straight ... but with crooked lines. Each narrative is full of details, fine print, asterisks, and crossroads that could have changed everything. Of course, also in sports. And also in the NBA. A competition where it is increasingly difficult to see a great star committed in the long term to a franchise or completing all or almost all of his professional career with it. It is the evolution of a market in which there was hardly any freedom until almost the 90s and in which now the players (especially the stars) are at their ease. It's the reality of the empowered gamer era.

Damian Lillard is an exception for now with his commitment to his Trail Blazers. And Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a major step in the same direction after signing his historic extension with the Bucks and exiting the free agent market next summer. Before, some of the last great NBA legends completed their entire careers in the same jersey: 20 years of Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, 21 of Dirk Nowitzki (a record) with the Dallas Mavericks and 19 (1997-2016) of Tim Duncan with San Antonio Spurs. The three faithful and united forever to franchises that are a watchword ... but with which they had turbulence. The opposite is impossible in such extensive stretches. Kobe's flirtations with the Clippers or the Bulls of his admired until the obsession Michael Jordan, Nowitzki's problems in his first steps in Dallas, when he dreamed every night of returning to Germany and, in the clearest case and surely the one closest to him. It did happen, Tim Duncan's commitment to play for the Orlando Magic and form a big three that would have changed the history of the modern NBA.

In 2000, Duncan (number 1 in the 1997 draft) had already accumulated three seasons in the NBA and had a ring as MVP of a Finals (1999) that Gregg Popovich summed up to Jeff Van Gundy, coach of the defeated Knicks: “I I had Tim Duncan and you didn't. At that moment, he signed a crucial contract to extend his stay at Spurs, which was never questioned again: three years and $ 32.6 million. On the table was a six-year-old, $ 67.5 million who was about to sign with the Orlando Magic. Ready, really ready. The Florida franchise smoothed out the last fringes of its big hit with the assured arrival of Grant Hill (from the Detroit Pistons) and Tracy McGrady (tired of living in the shadow of Vince Carter in the Toronto Raptors). John Gabriel, who is still linked to the Magic, was at the time the general manager who had drawn up one of the most ambitious plans the NBA had ever seen: Hill, McGrady and Duncan signed at the same time as free agents and placed under the orders of Doc Rivers, who had just been named Coach of the Year in his first season (1999-2000) on the team.

From "let's scare us" to the urban legend

All testimonies agree that Duncan (who was still 24 years old) really was determined to change Texas for Florida. Rivers acknowledged years later that "he was sure" they had the yes of the best power forward in history. And Popovich also made it clear that he came to internalize what was going to be a fatal loss: “It was hell. I did not allow myself to hope that he would stay, I was just preparing for his departure. Duncan stayed and played 16 more years (his entire NBA career) at Spurs, where he won another four rings (2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) and where he established himself as one of the greatest players ever.

Tracy McGrady spoke of the new big three as something almost consummated: "We are going to be scary, we will be the rival of the Lakers for years." The Angelenos had just added the first title of the three that they linked with Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, who had precisely left the Magic as a free agent to settle in California.

What happened? In popular culture, and Grant Hill himself fueled this theory (almost an urban NBA legend), Duncan backed down at the last minute because Doc Rivers had an unbreakable rule that prevented players' couples and families from traveling with the team. . According to Hill, someone in Duncan's environment raised this issue and Rivers' no-no ended with almost closed negotiations. The coach has denied this for years, also ensuring that several times during the seasons he made exceptions and allowed players to be accompanied on team tours.

Finally, the theory that points to John Gabriel (who was just Executive of the Year) and a beginner's error seems more plausible. The Magic had treated Duncan on his visit to Orlando with all the luxuries of the area: private passes to Walt Disney World, the possibilities of living in the luxurious Isleworth neighborhood (where Shaq had lived) and even a few holes of golf with Tiger. Woods. But they left ends untied. At dinner they chose a menu that Duncan did not like and, above all, allowed the player to return to San Antonio without signing a contract that the Magic believed was inevitable that he would end up initialed. But Duncan reserved the last interview, out of courtesy, to the Spurs. And he met with Popovich and a David Robinson who interrupted his Hawaii vacation and flew to San Antonio in the face of what was an emergency of the first magnitude. From that talk came a continuity in the Spurs that Popovich did take care of ensuring as soon as possible.

The 2000-01 Magic won 43 games with McGrady Most Improved Player and Mike Miller (No. 5 in the draft) Rookie of the Year, a shooter who would have been a perfect fit for the big three that never formed. McGrady played four years in Florida (his home state) before going to the Houston Rockets. He was a two-time Top Scorer and three all-stars in the Magic jersey, but Grant Hill's ankles kept him from getting past the first round of the playoffs, a curse that was later repeated with Yao Ming's injuries in Houston. Hill came from being an almost perennial all-star in Detroit and being considered the great successor of Michael Jordan (a concept that obsessed the NBA at the time). In MoTown, he had averaged 22 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. In the Orlando Magic, ankle injuries reduced his presence to four games in the first season, 14 in the second, 29 in the third… and none in the fourth. When he returned to have more rhythm of activity, in the 2004-05 season, he was already 32 years old. And McGrady had gone to the Rockets.

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