May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka (9) during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs: Is Serge Ibaka The Spurs' Next Star Big Man?

Tim Duncan can’t play forever – even if it seems he wants to. When asked about the possibility of retirement, he responded, “Retirement will happen when it happens. I’ll feel it and I’ll know it, and I’ll call it a day.”

Those are definitely not the words of a player looking to slow down any time soon.

Duncan is still enjoying a pretty sweet ride in the NBA. It’s only natural that he’d keep his foot on the gas. At the moment he’s averaging 16.7 points, nine rebounds and a block in the NBA Finals. His production has dipped in comparison to previous years, but he’s still effective. Duncan’s career stats in the postseason are 21.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.

Eventually Gregg Popovich’s masterful management of floor minutes won’t be enough to keep Duncan fresh by the playoffs. The fountain of youth may very well reside in San Antonio, but at the Spurs consumption of whatever miracle tonic they’ve got in the water – it’s bound to run out at some time.

In the regular season, Duncan averaged 29.2 minutes per game. His time on the hardwood is expiring, and the Spurs have a rich history in big men. From Artis Gilmore, David Robinson to Duncan, San Antonio will soon need to pass the torch, and after complimentary remarks delivered by coach Gregg Popovich, Serge Ibaka seems to be a likely candidate.

Fact is he might rarely be one to flatter his own players, let alone the competition. However in Round 2 of the NBA playoffs, Gregg Popovich had some very flattering things to say about the Oklahoma City Thunder big man.

“I think he’s a special player and a special person, the way he handles himself, the class that he exudes, I think he’s the best defensive player in the league.” Popovich added, “I think he’s been overlooked to some degree in that (defensive) regard. But he also does what he does at the offensive end. I think he’s one of the most gifted players in our league because he’s a dual player. He does it at both ends of the court. But he’s also a fine man, so that’s a pretty great combination.”

Perhaps it’s Popovich’s disdain for the AAU system, or his love for foreign-born players. In fact the Spurs set an NBA record with 10 international players on their 2013 opening-night roster. However with an aging Duncan, it’s completely understandable as to why Popovich would seek to remain on Ibaka’s “good side.”

Approaching his sixth year in the league, Serge Ibaka recently had his most impressive statistical year. He poured in 1,227 points for a 15-points and nine rebounds average. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season, and most importantly will be playing at the pinnacle of his career.

The timing couldn’t be more perfect for the Spurs to snatch Ibaka in free agency. Tim Duncan is expected to exercise the player option on his current contract to capitalize on a $10 million dollar payday next season. With no word on retirement a still effective Duncan could receive the Spurs rendition of a “Farewell Kobe Contract,” paying him close to the maximum amount right before he decides to send his No. 21 jersey into the AT&T Center rafters.

Ibaka is a great fit in Spurs offense. He’s already a better spot-up shooter than Duncan, hitting better than 40 percent in 11 zones on the hardwood, which include interior perimeter and from 3. Ibaka also beats Duncan out in overall field goal percentage, dropping 54.7 percent of his career field goals, compared to Duncan, who hits 50.6 percent of the time.

That’s not to say Ibaka is currently a better player than Duncan, or that his growth in the league has been at a greater acceleration than Tim. Ibaka’s current statistics simply suggest his current skill set is comparable at the least, and would be a seamless fit into the Spurs style of play, if Popovich is still at the helm three seasons from now.

Not to mention that paired with Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs would own one of the best defenses in the league. A few extra pieces imported from Popovich and Spurs foreign farm system and the Spurs don’t lose their competitive edge.

With an aging Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, it seems as if the Spurs current big three could possibly finish their careers together. Bringing in Ibaka, continues a cycle that have made the Spurs famous contenders for decades. They proverbial “torch” is passed between bigs in the Spurs franchise. Artis Gilmore passed it to David Robinson, it moved to Duncan, and could finally end up in the hands of Ibaka – especially if the Thunder fail to win it all within the next two seasons.

Tags: San Antonio Spurs Serge Ibaka Tim Duncan

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