In an alternate reality: Tim Duncan’s odd homecoming
In an odd sort of homecoming, when he steps on the AT&T Center floor he once helped build, Magic center Tim Duncan will face not only Dwight Howard, but the greatest What If of his career.
Duncan, of course, has been at the center of many trade rumors circulating out of Orlando. At the end of his career, surrounded by a mediocre supporting cast with a bloated payroll his fading all around talents can no longer support, Duncan’s combination of expiring contract, leadership, and production are being shopped as the only asset for a Magic team looking to rebuild.
Duncan’s impending free agency is vastly different from his first one. It was nearly a decade ago, coming of a knee injury that cost the Spurs an opportunity to defend their championship, that Duncan quietly slipped into free agency only to make waves by landing in Orlando with Grant Hill.
Then, there was no animosity between Duncan and the Spurs, no national television show, and no scathing comic sans letters from Peter Holt. It was simply a decision made by Duncan to get closer to his home, and to what was then, on paper, a better basketball situation.
Paper, however, does not always translate to reality. The pairing of Duncan and Hill never came into fruition as Hill never fully recovered from a devastating ankle injury that stole the prime years of his career.
Lacking cap flexibility, star players next to him, and the type of player-coach relationship he once shared with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan still managed to keep the Magic in the upper echelon of playoff teams, though a second title proved elusive for the better part of the decade as he piled up multiple MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
It wasn’t until Magic general manager Otis Smith paired Duncan with coach Stan Van Gundy, at the tail end of the height of Duncan’s basketball powers, that the Magic were able to break through for their lone championship in 2008.
The Magic paid an excessive price for that championship, having overspent for middling free agents to compensate for years of iffy draft picks. In the post championship glow, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis begat Vince Carter and Gilbert Arenas, which begat Jason Richardson and—again—Hedo Turkoglu.
When Duncan left San Antonio, it was a moment that could have easily broken the Spurs. Instead Spurs owner Peter Holt doubled down on Popovich and a system that had granted the Spurs their first NBA championship.
There were no overreaching free agent expenditures, no panic trades. Instead Popovich and the Spurs tested and validated their famous pounding the rock mantra, grinding along until an opportunity presented itself.
That opportunity came in 2004, With David Robinson retiring the Spurs turned to their fledgling international backcourt of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, with little else, and bottomed out. When the Spurs once again won the draft lottery, and the rights to high school phenom Dwight Howard, Robinson was brought in to work with the Spurs youngest franchise centerpiece.
The difference between Duncan and Howard as rookies was night and day. Where Duncan was mature both in wisdom and in game, Howard was merely a child in both regards. An energetic and playful young man, Howard learned under the veteran tutelage of David Robinson how to balance his youthful antics with the work ethic and responsibilities required of a franchise center.
While Popovich jokingly jousted back and forth with Howard—who could forget Popovich responding to Howard’s offbeat impersonations of him by sending Howard to the free throw line for every technical foul during a regular season game and joking with the media afterwards about it—he also held him accountable.
If fellow team captain Tony Parker could survive and thrive as a teenager through Popovich’s verbal assaults, and former 2007 Finals MVP Manu Ginobili could be moved back and forth between the bench and starting lineups, what excuse would Howard have to break the examples they set?
In 2007 the Spurs were able to win their second championship, with Howard beating LeBron James to a first championship ring. Coming off a second championship victory over James last year, Howard signed an extension that set the Spurs up for contention for the foreseeable future.
And as Howard steps on the court that Tim Duncan built he must ask his own what ifs. What if he hadn’t joined a team with access to an NBA veteran like David Robinson to help show him the ropes? What if he began his career with an organization that failed to hold him accountable? What if the Orlando Magic never signed Tim Duncan?