The Butterfly Effect: Robinson as a Celtic

We continue our third day of our tribute to David Robinson with a guest post by John Karalis of Red’s Army.  In a 2007 article, there was speculation Robinson might have gone to the Lakers or Celtics (after his two year commitment to the Navy was completed) as a free agent.  John takes a look back and wonders if the Celtics might have more than 17 titles with Robinson in Boston instead of San Antonio. Be sure to also follow John on twitter.

By John Karalis, Co-Creator

In the arsenal of vocabulary, the words “what” and “if” are foot soldiers.  Infantrymen.  They are completely necessary, but they are nothing fancy. 

But together, they form perhaps the most volatile phrase in humanity.  “What if” triggers the imagination into overdrive.  “What if” can erase horrible accidents or create great triumphs.  “What if” can make your high school crush into your wife, rather than a “I wonder what she’s up to.”  “What if,” if unchecked, can create an alternate universe where everything you know no longer exists.  You can play God, and decide how the dominoes fall after you change one single event. 

Well for now… I’m Yahweh, and you and I are going for a little ride.

The event we’re changing:  David Robinson’s choice of agent in 1987.  Here’s the situation.

Much to the Spurs’ dismay, Robinson was in no rush to meet after the lottery. He wanted to pick an agent first, and three were in the running — Lee Fentress of Washington-based Advantage International; Bob Woolf, who represented Larry Bird; and Donald Dell’s ProServ, Inc., whose client list included Michael Jordan.

So the Spurs waited and worried. Their biggest fear was Robinson would pick the Boston-based Woolf, who was pals with Celtics boss Red Auerbach. The Spurs wanted Fentress, who had close ties to (Spurs VP Angelo) Drossos.

Robinson chose Fentress, signed with the Spurs, and began his career in 1989-90 after a two year stint in the Navy.

But what if he chose Woolf, sat out two years, and signed with the Celtics as an unrestricted free agent?

First things first, Robinson would have come out of the Navy as a hated man.  The good folks of San Antonio would have branded him as a greedy spotlight-hog who was no different than any other “me-first” athlete.  Just look at the reaction to Ricky Rubio.  Basketball players make a deal with the NBA:  you get a chance to play in the greatest league on earth, but you’ll have to enter a draft and accept where the roll of the dice (or bounce of the ping pong balls) sends you.  If Robinson had skirted that system, he would have thumbed his nose at the small-market Spurs and their fans.  He would have joined the Celtics, who have always been viewed in a “you either love ’em or hate ’em” team, and spawned even more haters.

You would have gone to your graves hating The Admiral.

In 1989-90, the Celtics were 52-30.  Their Big 3 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were aging.  Parish was 36, Bird was 33 and McHale was 32.  But Bird was still a stud averaging 24.3 ppg and 9.5 rpg.  McHale was averaging 20.9 ppg and 8.3 rpg.  Parish, in 30 minutes a game, was averaging 15.7 and 10.  By contrast, David Robinson came in and averaged 24 and 12 his rookie year.

redsarmyWith Robinson coming off the bench to spell both McHale and Parish, the Celtics would have gotten more out of their aging vets.  McHale might not have scored 21 points, but he would have grabbed more rebounds.  Parish could have matched his 15 and 10 with a few more minutes on the bench.  Meanwhile, Robinson would have been able to play 20 minutes a game and put up close to 15 and 10 himself.  Whatever he put up, it would have been more than what Joe Klein provided off the bench.

The 1989-90 Celtics without David Robinson finished a game behind the Philadelphia 76’ers.  With D-Rob, the C’s would have easily passed Philly.  They would have beaten Cleveland in the first round to face Chicago in the 2nd round.  At that point, Scottie Pippen was only in his 2nd year.  Bill Cartright, Horace Grant, and Stacey King would have been absolutely no match for Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and David Robinson.  Jordan would have done his damage, but Bird would have too.  The Celtics easily march past the Bulls to meet the “Bad Boy” Pistons.

Again, the C’s with their front court would dominate the Pistons in the paint.  Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars would inflict their damage, but not enough to overpower the Celtics.  They march on after a hard-fought win to face Portland in the Finals.  Portland would have been just as overwhelmed and just as overmatched.  The Celtics regain their championship form, and start the 89-90 season with a title.

Title in hand, the Celtics go into the NBA draft with the 26th pick, rather than 19.  They don’t choose Dee Brown.  His famous “pump the shoes” dunk (dunk #8 in the video) never happens because he goes to the small market Timberwolves at 20 in the draft and never gets the Reebok contract.  The Celtics, at 26, take Toni Kukoc in hopes of him playing along side Reggie Lewis in the future.  The drafting of Kukoc takes a key cog out of the Bulls dynasty… which never materializes without him.  The Bulls only win 2 titles, not 6.  Kukoc, meanwhile, is now Celtics property… and he will join the team in 1993 after the C’s free up cap space and Kukoc finishes off a contract in Europe.

The 1990-91 Celtics is a passing of the torch.  Reggie Lewis nearly leads the team in scoring off the bench as Larry Bird accepts a reduced role as his body breaks down.  Robert Parish moves to the bench as David Robinson assumes the role of franchise center.  The combination of youth in Lewis and Robinson… combined with the experience of Bird, McHale and Parish… go on to repeat as champions.  In fact, the Lewis-Robinson combo dominates the league and ends up capturing 3 straight titles.

The 1992-93 season proves to be a disappointment for the Celtics as they’re upset by the eventual champion Chicago Bulls.  That offseason, Reggie Lewis collapses and dies, leaving the Celtics with Robinson as its main cog.  He carries the team valiantly and, along with Toni Kukoc using the space opened by Robinson to average a respectable 15.5 ppg, manages to lead the Celtics into the playoffs for the next few years.  But by the 1997-98 season the Celtics fall out of running, leaving David Robinson at a crossroads.  What’s he going to do now?

San Antonio, meanwhile, struggled to recover without David Robinson in the fold. The 89-90 Spurs never made their historic turnaround.  They lingered at the bottom of the draft.  Their luck seemed to turn around when they won the 1990 lottery.  They, not New Jersey, end up selecting Derrick Coleman with the number 1 pick that season.  He ends up helping the Spurs to middle-of-the-road status… but he never realizes his full potential.  The petulant star never seems to play to his ability, he frustrates team ownership, and ultimately wears out his welcome after 5 seasons. 

In 1995, the Spurs swing a trade for the talented but troubled Coleman to Minnesota, for a number 1 pick.  The Spurs use that pick to select Kevin Garnett, who develops into a stud player.  He brings excitement to San Antonio, but the Spurs have problems getting over the hump.  After developing for a couple of years, KG leads the Spurs to the 1998-99 conference finals, only to lose to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets and their twin-tower combination of Antonio McDyess and Tim Duncan. 

The 1999 season begins with the Nuggets as heavy favorites.  The Conference finals bring about a rematch with the Spurs, but Garnett averages 28 points, 15 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 2 steals in an epic conference finals to launch the Spurs into the NBA Finals… where they meet a surprise team:  The Boston Celtics. 

The Celtics in 1998 managed to grab Paul Pierce, who somehow slipped to 10 in the NBA draft.  Along with a rejuvenated David Robinson… who played through an injury that threatened to end his season… Pierce wills the Celtics to the NBA finals.  The Spurs and Garnett seem to have the upper hand and take a 2-1 series lead.  But in game 4, Garnett and Robinson get into a huge fight that gets both suspended for 2 games.  It solidifies the hatred Spurs fans have for Robinson… especially as Paul Pierce takes over and the Celtics take Games 4 and 5.  The Celtics ultimately win the series in 7, leading to another disappointment for the Spurs.  

The Robinson-Pierce combo would win one more title before Robinson retired.  The Celtics, to this date, would not return to the Finals.  Neither, unfortunately, would the Spurs.  Ultimately, KG could never lead the Spurs all the way to a title.  In 2006, the Spurs would package Garnett in a trade to the Philadelphia 76’ers.  Garnett would team with Allen Iverson to immediately win the NBA title, leaving Spurs fans even more depressed about their fate.

They say that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could lead to a hurricane in another part of the world.  Looking at all this, it’s easy to see why “they” say that.  Maybe this all wouldn’t have gone down exactly like I laid out here… but it’s obvious that the entire fate of the NBA would have changed.  David Robinson’s choice of agent back in 1987 changed the entire face of the NBA.  It changed where hundreds of players could have played.  It changed entire record books.  It changed champions and legends and multi-millionaires. 

And some other team would have been destroyed by Rick Pitino.

What if David Robinson ended up with the Boston Celtics back in the late 80’s?  Nothing you know would exist as it does today.

About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.