San Antonio Spurs: (Re)Defining Tim Duncan

Dec 16, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs players (from left) Danny Green and Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili watch from the bench during the second half against the Washington Wizards at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 16, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs players (from left) Danny Green and Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili watch from the bench during the second half against the Washington Wizards at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Tim Duncan’s most important role for the San Antonio Spurs may not be on the court.

Jan. 25, 2016 is a day that will live in San Antonio Spurs franchise infamy. That is the day that the Spurs got blown out by the Golden State Warriors in the first regular season matchup between the teams. This 30-point loss was the worst in franchise history, and the worst of the Tim Duncan era.

Duncan missed the game with a sore knee that has kept flaring up over the past month or so. That he missed playing the game was not as important, though the Spurs sorely missed his rim protection skills and other savvy, little things that he does on the court to help the team win.

What was most important was that he was not there at all, having been sent home to San Antonio after the Saturday practice in San Francisco, to get rest and rehab on that knee.

The Spurs bounced back with a trouncing of their own, beating the Houston Rockets for the second time since the ugly loss on Christmas Day. Duncan sat out for that game as well but was active on the sidelines, cheering his teammates from the bench, giving advice to the newer players, and participating in the coaches’ huddles.

Cameras caught him taking the pen from the clipboard in head coach Gregg Popovich’s hand, ostensibly to draw up a play. Life went on, and life was good.

Next up: the Cleveland Cavaliers, whom they beat over a week ago in Texas.

Duncan sat out for the third time, and didn’t travel with the team to Ohio. The Spurs regressed back to the mindset (and playset) of the Warriors game, and the Cavs won by 14 points.

Once again, the Spurs didn’t look like themselves. Their defense was shoddy, they were often confused and allowed Cleveland to take complete advantage of mismatches. It didn’t help matters that the Cavs stepped up their game pace under new head coach Tyronn Lue, and Kevin Love came out of the shadows and hit three-pointers like they were going out of style.

Still, at the end of the day, the Spurs knew what the real problem was: Duncan’s absence. He has already been listed on the injured list — his fourth missed game — for the Spurs’ game Monday evening against the visiting Orlando Magic, who will be on the second game of a back-to-back.

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There has been debate that Duncan’s presence wouldn’t have mattered much in the final box score against Golden State, other than perhaps the Spurs would have lost by less than 30 points. That may or may not be true, and we can’t send him back in a time machine to replay the game and find out.

But what can be garnered from that game is that, aside from his defensive contributions,  the Spurs would have been more like a team — his team — if he had been sitting on the bench in Oracle Arena. Likewise, the Spurs wouldn’t have seemed like such a collective mess in Ohio if their battle-scarred leader graced the bench.

Much has been said and written about the intangibles that Duncan brings to both the team and the game. Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron James of the Cavs have both praised him as being the epitome of professionalism.

Coaches laud his coachability, high basketball IQ, and consistency (there is a reason for the catch phrase “Death, taxes, and Tim Duncan”).

Teammates appreciate his steadiness, leadership, dry sense of humor, and penchant for practical jokes, in addition to his quality rim protection and passing ability.  

It was these intangibles that were sorely needed when the Warriors took the Spurs to the woodshed, and again when the Cavaliers spanked the Spurs in Ohio. Post-game analysis for both games mostly centered around one recurring theme: the Spurs didn’t even look like themselves, and got sucked into both Golden State’s and Cleveland’s games  in an uncharacteristic way.

I watched the games myself and noted that even on the bench, Duncan would have been able to calm the team down and help them get their heads in the game, instead of letting the Warriors and Cavs get into their heads.

Equal parts father, guru, and big brother, Duncan would have been an anchor for what ended up being a rudderless ship. In his absence, though, others are going to have to step up. I’ve written before that the Spurs have gotten used to Duncan cleaning up their messes. Now, as the sun sets on his career they need to realize sooner, rather than later, that he won’t be around to do so. Someone needs to step up when Duncan is not there, and Kawhi Leonard agrees.

Duncan will turn 40 in April (fun fact: his birthday is two days after mine). He has managed to survive and thrive 19 seasons in a league that is ever-changing. His deliberate, post-up, rim-protecting, back-to-the-basket game is becoming an anachronism in an increasingly uptempo, position-melding, guard-dominant league.

The quirkiness of his over-the-right-shoulder bank shot is often overlooked amid the highlight-reel hubbub of three-pointers made (hi, Danny Green), wicked steals (I see you, Leonard) and swift yet serpentine Eurostepped cuts to the basket (looking at you, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili).

His waning years have seen him taking a more plodding approach to get back on defense, perhaps in deference to his run-down knees (the left one, on which he wears a custom-fitted brace, was surgically repaired in 2000; the right knee is the current issue).

His on-court production, while still effective, has decreased dramatically. He often plays roughly 24 minutes a game and, since most of the Spurs’ games this season have been blowouts of their opponents, usually won’t play after the second half of the third quarter. All of this is in concordance with an aging yet elite player who knows that retirement is coming sooner rather than later.

Duncan remains the poster boy for the franchise’s “team first” mantra. He has willingly sacrificed his on-court presence and production (and salary) to make way for the new generation, spearheaded by Leonard and new team addition LaMarcus Aldridge.  He is no longer the go-to person for media sound bites after games, and he is hardly questioned by media during practices. He is backing away from being the face of the franchise, willingly (and some may say, happily) turning that honor over to Leonard.

Make no mistake: Duncan’s stamp is still on this team, and will be until he finally decides to walk limp away from the AT&T Center…or maybe even beyond.

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While missing games for that sore right knee, or even for general rest purposes, Duncan can be seen on the bench in dark jeans and fashionable shirts beneath his sports jackets, giving encouragement to the newer players and exchanging laughs and commentary with his fellow Spurs veterans. Or drawing up plays. He is still The Man, even if he’s not banging beneath the basket.

This may be his most important team role to date and while I still enjoy watching him play, I’m here for it.