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More than a decade later, Duncan’s decision still paying off

During the NBA Finals, Philip Rossman-Reich of Orlando Magic Daily will be contributing to Project Spurs during the San Antonio Spurs' chase for title number five.

In Orlando, Grant Hill’s retirement this weekend served as a major reminder of what could have been. And that would have been the Miami Heat before the Miami Heat.

In July of 2000, Hill and Tracy McGrady stepped off a plane in Orlando and were greeted as heroes, signing multi-million dollar deals that would almost assuredly make the Magic the East’s elite team for the better part of the next decade. There was not a giant stadium celebration or promises of “not three, not four . . .”

Hill, of course, found it difficult to shake an ankle injury and five surgeries later he was not the same player and rarely contributed to the Magic. McGrady became a superstar, but disgruntled quickly with the Magic’s inability to build a strong team around him.

And then there was the player that was not there. The player who decided not to join this endeavor and shift the balance of power in the NBA (with or without Hill).

The Orlando Magic were not the Miami Heat. Not even close. The key part of that triumvirate did not take his talents to Central Florida. 

That would be Tim Duncan.

In 1999, during the lockout-shortened season, Duncan won a championship with David Robinson but had a free agency decision to make during the summer of 2000. Like any young player, he was going to test the market and see what else was out there for the first time.

The Magic put on an all-out blitz for Duncan, hoping to use him and Hill as a centerpiece of a “Big Three” of sorts. As Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel remembers, the Magic greeted Duncan and Hill at the airport with a banner placing Duncan and Hill in The Creation of Adam and the words, “Believe.” There was the large pool party held at the house of the owner’s son-in-law in the neighborhood Tiger Woods lives in – and also a meet and greet with Woods on the fifth hole.

Duncan was incredibly close to spurning San Antonio and taking those three titles he won in 2003, 2005 and 2007 with him. Bianchi, digging through the Orlando Sentinel archives, found a quote from Duncan’s personal adviser, Marc Scott, “Tim, this is where you need to be.”

The Spurs dynasty was close to breaking up. Then the Spurs had their chance to blitz. David Robinson cut his vacation to Hawaii short and flew back to San Antonio to speak with Duncan.

The breaking point for Duncan might have come from the Magic denying Duncan’s then-girlfriend and future wife (the couple is now filing for divorce) her request to fly on the team’s charter on occasion. That was something Doc Rivers was not willing to allow at the time.

Whatever the tipping point was, Duncan returned to San Antonio and the rest, as they say is history. One franchise became the most celebrated organization of the past decade and the other has been wandering the desert of mediocrity and relevance until a ping pong ball gave the team a championship-caliber player again in 2005.

This story exemplifies the precarious balance in the league between a championship dynasty and something much, much worse. If Duncan leaves that Spurs team in 2000, the whole power dynamic in the NBA shifts. A Duncan and McGrady combination in their prime (even without Hill) would have possibly dominated that depleted Eastern Conference of the early 2000s.

Similarly, LeBron James shifted the entire balance of the league in deciding to leave Cleveland for Miami. The plan from the Heat to bring in three superstar players was a seismic shift. If that plan failed, the Heat would be figuring out how to rebuild right about now and not celebrating championships.

The Finals are not a time to think about the what-ifs of the past. In the Finals, sitting four wins away from the ultimate goal for each season, it is purely about the now and doing what you can now to achieve that elusive goal.

This is a superstar’s league for sure and these moments in history bear that out. Winning titles takes incredibly good fortune, the right mix of players and key decisions from the best players in the league.

Duncan may have made his "Decision" more than a decade ago, but the Spurs are still reaping those benefits. It is clear to see now that Duncan made the right choice sticking with San Antonio. And now he has an opportunity to truly cement his legacy with a fifth title.

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