MIAMI — It is, without any doubt, the greatest what-if scenario in NBA history.
What if Tim Duncan signed with the Orlando Magic as a free agent in 2000.
What if Grant Hill, who did sign, had stayed healthy?
“I don’t know if we’d have been the best team in NBA history,” said Tracy McGrady, the third member of that blueprint Big Three. “But we would’ve been in the conversation. That, I have no doubt. That would’ve been awesome.”
On a team bus ride to the NBA Finals, before the Spurs took a 1-0 lead over the Heat, McGrady raised the subject with Duncan, who smiled. The story about the greatest team that never was, about the Big Three that never united, was one that had grave consequences for everyone involved except Duncan. He’s the only one who emerged unscathed, who won multiple championships, who eventually joined a Big Three when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili arrived later to turn the Spurs into a dynasty that decade.
Hill and McGrady and the Magic, they all must live with the what-if, a painful memory that’ll follow them the rest of their lives.
“Things didn’t work out,” said McGrady.
Yeah. You might say.
In 2000, the Magic and GM John Gabriel did what Pat Riley did prior to 2010 in Miami. They cleared cap space to make a run at three All-Stars who were just reaching the prime of their careers. Hill was coming off a season in which he averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists. McGrady was about to blow up; in his time in Orlando, he averaged 28 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Duncan had helped the Spurs to the 1999 title and already was among the top big men in the game in just his fifth season. The Magic had money and sunshine to offer; back then, Orlando was a destination place for free agents because of weather and favorable taxes.
It just so happened that Hill, McGrady and Duncan all became free agents that summer. A 6-11 post player and a pair of 6-8 swingmen would’ve given the Magic a lethal lineup and made the franchise forget what happened a few years earlier, when Shaquille O’Neal bolted for the Lakers and caused Orlando’s championship dreams to collapse.
McGrady was an easy sell; he was from the Orlando area and wanted to escape the cold winters of Toronto and the large shadow of Vince Carter, who played the same position. Hill was also leaning toward Orlando after being a one-man show in Detroit and coming up short. And then there was Duncan, intrigued by the prospect of linking up with a pair of young stars and leaving an aging one, David Robinson, behind in San Antonio.
“We were scared,” said Spurs GM R.C. Buford. “There were some sleepless nights.”
Orlando went all-out to recruit Hill and Duncan, sparing no expense. They were flown first class and housed in a luxury suite at Disney World. The theme park closed one night for all except two customers: Hill and Duncan, along with their significant others. There were billboards erected on Interstate 4 begging Hill and Duncan to sign.
As the two watched fireworks at Disney, in the middle of a lake at Epcot was another sign in lights that said: Grant Us Tim.
Duncan was scheduled to leave the next day but decided to extend his stay. He and Hill were met at a golf course by Tiger Woods. It was whirlwind of stretch limos and lobster and, really, anything they wanted.
Duncan went home and his head was spinning. Buford thought the Spurs had lost him. That’s when an emergency call was placed to Robinson, who cut short his Hawaiian vacation and flew home pronto.
“Tim,” Robinson said, “what do you think you’re doing?”
Robinson drew on Duncan’s guilt, saying he had sacrificed so much for Duncan to that point, how they weren’t finished winning championships, yada, yada. And then Duncan heard the phone ring. It was Gregg Popovich.
“So, what do you think?” Popovich said, nervously.
“I don’t know,” Duncan replied.
“You should stay. This is home,” Pop said.
“You’re right,” Duncan said.
And that was it. Duncan told McGrady on that bus ride to American Airlines Arena for Game 1 that “Pop convinced me to come back” and that McGrady and Hill were on their own. Or actually, McGrady was on his own. Hill developed foot issues that would consume his entire seven-year career in Orlando. McGrady was at near-MVP level throughout his stay in Orlando but was miserable, and soon bolted to Houston.
“It’s been the story of my career, injuries destroying any hopes I had of winning a championship,” McGrady said. “I was on top of my game in Orlando, but it was a struggle. I spent four years there wishing I had Grant Hill, then down in Houston wishing I had Yao Ming. When I was healthy, Yao was hurt. When (the Rockets) finally made a run in the playoffs, I was hurt.”
Duncan won four titles with the Spurs and is three wins away from making it five. Hill just retired without any titles. As for the Magic, they never won a championship and are now picking in the draft lottery.
But McGrady was granted a basketball lifeline when he received a call from Popovich shortly after returning home from playing in China two months ago. The Spurs had just cut Stephen Jackson and needed help.
“You won’t play much, probably not at all,” Popovich warned McGrady.
McGrady took the next flight to San Antonio.
“This is a chance, maybe my last chance,” McGrady said. “All I know is Tim owes me one, for everything I’ve gone through. Until now, all I’ve been thinking is, what-if?”