Want to know how to ruin a Spurs fan’s day? Just utter these five words: The 1995 Western Conference Finals. I’d be surprised if more than half of you are still reading, but I might be able to help alleviate some of the pain of that playoff series, especially when it comes to David Robinson’s performance.
There’s no denying that the 1995 season ended in disappointment for San Antonio, and I won’t try and convince you that Robinson outplayed Hakeem Olajuwon. If you were too young (or weren’t born yet) to remember the events of that series, there’s a good chance that the basketball community (more specifically, r/NBA) has convinced you that Robinson got his you-know-what handed to him by The Dream.
The box score certainly backs up this narrative, but stats can often be misleading; there were plenty of external factors that led to the seemingly lopsided matchup between the two star centers. More specifically, there are three aspects in particular that stands out: Bob Hill’s questionable coaching, the supporting cast of both teams, and everyone’s favorite Spur, Dennis Rodman.
Let’s get started.
Bob Hill was outcoached, plain and simple. It’s not a coincidence that he was fired less than a year and a half after the series ended and was out of the league for almost a decade afterwards.
While the Rockets were double and triple-teaming Robinson every time he stepped past half-court, Hill had The Admiral play Olajuwon straight up, and the results were... less than ideal. Imagine having the offence run through your star player and also asking him to play one-on-one against the most dominant force in basketball. News flash: there’s not a single player in history who could have performed at their highest level when they’re playing over 40 minutes a game while doing the heavy lifting at both ends of the court.
Hill was reluctant to have the Spurs team up on Olajuwon because he was afraid of leaving Houston’s shooters open. This is understandable, but it’s still not an excuse for an NBA coach to fail at formulating a better game plan when they’ll be facing the same team over the course of an entire playoff series. Speaking of Olajuwon’s supporting cast, this leads me to my next point.
The supporting cast:
Looking at the record of both teams, one might assume that the Spurs surrounded Robinson with much better pieces than the Rockets did with Olajuwon. A closer inspection, however, reveals that Houston actually underperformed that season. They brought back most players from their 1994 championship team but only finished sixth in the Western Conference. The Rockets also acquired Clyde Drexler at the trade deadline, who had made seven consecutive all-star teams and was the focal point of some dangerous Portland squads.
On the other hand, San Antonio’s two best players outside of Robinson were Sean Elliott and Rodman. Elliott, for all the fanfare he (rightfully) receives, is no Drexler, while Rodman... well, we’ll get to him soon enough. The fact that Robinson was able to lead this team to 62 wins and the best regular season record was nothing short of remarkable, and he rightfully deserved to win MVP that season.
More importantly, Houston was truly ahead of its time when it comes to their roster construction. They built their team by surrounding Olajuwon with shooters who could punish the opposition if The Dream was being doubled in the post. Kenny Smith, Robert Horry and Drexler all shot over 35% from three while averaging a combined 12.4 attempts per game during the regular season. That may not sound like much today, but it was unheard of back in that era.
In that fateful series, the Spurs only made 23 shots from beyond the arc while Houston made 44. That’s a huge difference, especially when half of the games were decided by five points or less, and the Rockets only outscored San Antonio by 10 over the entirety of the series. If the Spurs had surrounded Robinson with more shooters, we might not even be having this discussion right now.
Last but not least, there’s performance of Rodman, whose job was supposed to be the leader on defense and alleviate some of Robinson’s heavy workload. Unfortunately, he never fit into the Spurs’ culture and often clashed with both Hill and Gregg Popovich.
During the most critical stages of San Antonio’s season, Rodman refused to guard Olajuwon when asked. In his book, Bad as I Wanna Be (NSFW cover), he stated that “[the Spurs] asked me to guard Olajuwon, and I refused. Bob Hill came up to me and asked if I would take Hakeem in the first half, and I said no.”
Moreover, he was causing locker room problems before the Conference Finals even began. Following the Spurs’ second round victory over the Lakers, Rodman said that “[he] wanted to go to Las Vegas during that time off, so [he] did... This, of course, drove everyone crazy. [The Spurs] didn’t know where [he] was, and they were worried that [he’d] just bailed on the team.”
Not performing up to standard is one thing, but Rodman went one step further by actively refusing to do his job. This put even more pressure on Robinson, who was already carrying a heavy offensive burden.
The Admiral was facing an uphill battle no matter how favored the Spurs were in that series. Not only did he have to match up against the most dominant player at that time, he also had to carry a weaker supporting cast which included a lackluster coach and a player who was purposely hindering the team. It’s a miracle that San Antonio was able to stretch the series to six games.
So, the next time anyone brings up the 1995 Western Conference Finals to tries and diminish The Admiral’s legacy, educate them about these factors and see how they react. It might not change their mind, but at least you can feel better about the performance of Robinson in that fateful series against Houston.