Tim Duncan is the Window

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On the one hand, the Spurs have 2010 cap flexibility and the ability to put the pieces in place for a competitive post-Duncan team. On the other hand, there is the allure of adding more banners to the legacy. Either direction holds the promise of good. The Spurs are pinned between the horns of a dilemma; they’re caught up in superlatives. Their internal debates are not between good and bad options; they debate between good, better, and best. It’s hard for some to stomach, but San Antonio refuses to go gently into the night.   The Spurs annual ascent into the  league’s elite class  is underway, and the possibility of a  fifth championship looms large on the horizon. Pop and Buford are charged with mapping the path.

The chatter of expected decline has been lost to the Spurs once again this season.  Tim Duncan, who apparently has nothing but deaf ears to rumors of his demise, is having a banner season. He won’t win the MVP award, but he’ll certainly be amongst the small band of players who receive votes. Duncan won MVP  in ’02 and ’03, back when he still played 40 minutes per game. His game averages from 01/02: 25.5 pts, 12.7 rbds, 3.7 ast, 2.5 blk per contest. The following season, his other MVP campaign, he posted a slightly less gaudy 23.3, 12.9, 3.9, and 2.9.  That’s a sick line by any standard. But again, that was at 40 minutes per game.

Tim Duncan may be older, but he is more or less the same player he’s always been. I’m convinced that his type of game–which is based more on intelligence and fundamentals than athletic ability–will treat him well as he ages. This is not to say he won’t decline. He will, but at a slower rate than someone who’s dominance is predicated on superior athleticism. Duncan, for all his ability, has never been accused of that. Most of the things he does well, he’ll continue to do well until he retires. Put differently, he has blocked shots without leaving his feet for the last 6 or 7 seasons. Straight up, tree top. That bank shot of his doesn’t go in because of the vert on his jumper. It’s the smart angle. His 19 foot pick and pop is practically a set shot. He can do all those things just as easily at 36.

At 35 minutes a game, Duncan continues to fade into view. Rather than disappearing within the backdrop of age, he emerges in the foreground all full of life and vigor. Duncan’s numbers on the season–20.8, 10.5, 3.8, and 1.9–are off from his MVP numbers of six seasons past, but not by much, and especially when considering the adjustment in minutes. Tim Duncan remains the highest caliber player–he is the kind of player a GM can build around and more or less bank on multiple title runs. In the post Jordan era, this list would include Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James.  Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade may someday qualify, but the jury is still out.  Of Bryant, O’Neal, and Garnett, Duncan is the winningest. If you want titles, he’s the best player alive at getting them.

Notice who isn’t on the aforementioned list. Max contract players like Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki are worth every penny they earn, but they are destined to exist within that penultimate level of NBA dominance. They live in the place where Karl Malone and Charles Barkley live. It’s the level where talent and greatness flourish, but championship trophies are absent. Players like Bryant and Duncan soar in the highest atmosphere, they soar with MJ and Russel, with Bird, Magic, and Hakeem. There is greatness and there is greatness.

Why this, and why now?

The Spurs front office is currently deliberating their trade options. Those deliberations include the possibility of taking a talented player by way of someone else’s salary dump. Players like Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, and Chris Kaman are on the tongues of those who have talked to those who can not be named. The question before the Spurs is this: is it worth killing future cap flexibility for a chance at an impact player now? What is the best way to manage the proverbial championship window? I’ve twisted in the wind on this subject, but, at least in my mind, I’ve arrived at a place of peace. The answer is clear.

Tim Duncan is the championship window. The Spurs will be in a position to win a title every season between now and the day Duncan retires. As soon as he retires, the window closes. So, it’s not so much a question about whether or not the Spurs can extend the championship window beyond Duncan. The question is whether the players available to the Spurs in 2010 are windows of their own.  Assuming that James and Wade are not possibilities, the answer is no.

As the trade deadline approaches, I’m hopeful the Spurs will commit cap suicide. In death there is life. By adding one impact player, the Spurs vs. everyone else gets even odds. Not just this season. Now through 2012.

  • Gene

    Nice article, but KG. Really? I don’t think he deserves to be in the Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, and now Lebron conversation.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    He’s the one I debated.

  • Rand

    Poetry.

    A buddy of mine calls Duncan ‘Gettysburg’ – after Lincoln’s address, much panned at the time and actually containing the line “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Yeah … how’d that work out? The world, outside the tiny corner of SAS fandom, little notes #21 except in the occasional potboiler column about how little attention Duncan gets. But when all’s said and done, Timmy’s the winningest player of his generation.

    To date, the greatest achievement of King-without-a-ring LeBron James has been to play four (and only four) championship games on the same court as the Big Fundamental. When and if everybody’s favorite GQ coverboy hangs a title banner, I hope he has the humility to realize that he’s still three … at least … away from stepping into the same conversation as Tim Duncan.

  • Bryan

    Very convincing and well written article. You almost had me swayed until I realized you missed one thing: the Duncan window doesn’t close in 2010. Duncan will not be retiring once his current contract is up. Here’s to hoping that he is around until 2013 at least. If the Spurs can land a serious contributor in the summer of 2010 who can pick up more of the slack as Duncan’s capabilities dwindle, I’d think the Spurs would be in the title hunt until that Duncan window is closed. If they go out and land Rasheed or Vince, I just don’t see that working out much beyond this year and next. I do realize that the Lakers seem seem a difficult obstacle right now, but I’d rather take my chances with the current squad after they’ve continued rolling through the current road trip, and be competitive for the next 5 years.

  • Jimbo

    Absolutely. This whole 2010 thing is for teams are have no shot of winning now like the Knicks. Teams that have a legit chance of winning a championship like the Spurs must go all-out right now to acquire that one piece that can put them over the top, and not worry about the future.

    We need a post about which players are potentially available to us AND which we could plausibly get!

  • dtm

    i heart this blog!

    please, take kg out of that group.

    winningest? as in games or ‘ships? shaqs got 4 as well, which is why i can’t wait for timmy to get #5.

    not looking forward to the day timmy hangs em’up, cause popp said he’d hang em up too, right?

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Win percentage. Tied with Shaq for trophies, but Shaq rode Wade to his last one.

  • Mason

    I really wanted Duncan to get his fourth Finals MVP so he could be second only to Michael Jordan. The award should have been his because like you said, when he’s gone the window closed. He was and still is the MVP of this team.

  • dtm

    gotcha, timmy is the winningest in all major sports in the “duncan era”…

    and agreed… shaq rode wade, similar to how kg rode pierce, imo…

    and agreed regarding the 4th finals mvp, i think that was debateable… timmys numbers were solid, but all the highlights had parker doing his 1 man fast break show.. still well deserved for tony.

  • Juan

    Inspiring article. I sure hope Pop and R.C. don’t read it because, like Bryan said, I rather take a chance with the current team (maybe plus a “minor” trade) and keep riding Timmy until he retires, which hopefully is well beyond 2010, through Parker’s prime.

  • NL

    Tim Duncan will be 33 in April. I think he can and will play at a high level until he’s 38. Maybe I’m optimisic because he’s my favorite play in all professional sports of all time. Regardless, I think Rasheed Wallace may be the smartest buy for a short-term contract. All his past teammates loved him and admired his hard work. ESPN the mag ran an article in April saying that his coaches thought he was one of the brightest players in the game. Of course, maybe we go younger. There’s so many decisions I honestly don’t know how one can handle being a coach and handle GM responsibilities.

    I know this is a pipedream, but what about Kobe in 2009? He loves Pop and the Spurs and wants to win. I think he has a unique respect for the Spurs and gets along with Duncan well.

  • Rodrigo

    So in between the lines… Get Kaman now…

  • Mavis Beacon

    I think the Spurs should be going after Salmons. Kings just want cap relief and I think he might be that extra little something the Spurs need. The Spurs should be willing to give up Bowen or Olberto for him. Now I’m not a Spurs fan so I don’t really mind if they don’t do it, but I think they should be trying. Anyone agree, disagree? Somebody put in a call to RC.

  • ChillFAN

    Brilliant post. Opportunities now should not be squandered in the name of “the chance to overpay a big name two seasons from now.” What’s worse, mistakes or inaction? I have a Mavs fan friend who is still unapologetic about Harris and AJ’s departure. “Who cares, what they were doing for us was not working anyway.”

    Maybe a signing can wait til summer, but the greatest risk is not adding a quality guy. It’s not difficult to predict where the Spurs will stand in relation to the Lakers, Portland and New Orleans for the next couple of years without any changes. I thought the Spurs greatly over-performed in last year’s playoffs.

    Great comments, too. I guess my question to everyone is, can this Spurs team, as is, beat LA and NO? What about in 2009?

  • ChillFAN

    I guess it is 2009. I mean 2009-10.

  • ChillFAN

    Sorry for the many posts, can’t pass this one up.

    NL, thanks for the comment on Kobe to Spurs? Kobe is one-Pau injury away from throwing the entire franchise under the bus, so anything is possible, but not sure we could pay him well. If I could cheer for Jerome Kersey, I could learn to cheer for Kobe.

    Would I trade Gino or Parker for Kobe straight up? In a second. GiiiiNNOOOObbilli!

  • Mike T

    The other thing to remember is that there is a very real possibility that we won’t be able to lure a top free agent in 2010 even if we have the cap space. There is going to be a lot of competition from other teams that summer and I still remember a few years ago when the Spurs were eyeing Jason Kidd and then Jermaine O’Neal and then P.J. Brown. Each of them signed with other teams and we settled on Rasho. If we can go for it right now via trade, I say do it. Take the uncertainty out of it.

  • http://hellabasic.com Thaddeus Clark

    Having the pleasure of watching the Spurs play last night in NJ is forcing me to back-peddle regarding the idea of making a trade of any significance (unless they can get Sheed for nothing).

    This team has unbelievable chemistry and leadership. The problem becomes a matter of who do they let go of?

    With the game already decided I saw a play involving Ginoboli inviting a double team at half-court, heaving a no-look pass to Oberto, and then watching Oberto tap the ball to a cutting Ginoboli all in the span of 2 seconds. This is not something normal players or teams do. I also saw Poppovich screaming at Parker going into a time-out and instead of sulking Parker walks back to Coach to make sure he understands the problem. I saw Duncan earnestly congratulating rookie George Hill, Bowen talking to Poppovich during time-outs or free throws several times, as well as Hairston and Finley and Bowen and Ginoboli clowning around together in warm-ups. This a very focused and loose team and while on paper they may not beat the Lakers I like our chances.

    Regarding Duncan as the window – this is spot-on analysis. The physical gifts he relies upon are essentially genetics (height + length) and conditioning. Every other aspect of his game is brains and heart. Things that do not diminish with time. While he didn’t play against a top-caliber center last night (Lopez will be an All Star by next year though), he still manages to near a triple double + 4 blocks in 34 minutes of play. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch him play and lead.

    Any talk regarding a Vince Carter trade is pure noise most likely being generated by Rod Thorn. Vince was making an array of shots and was hot for a while last night. However, once Bowen was brought-in to play D Carter began forcing shots, didn’t attempt to distribute the ball, and essentially became a moot player after 1 quarter of intense Bowen defense. There’s no way Poppovich could watch that and think “that’s Spurs basketball.”

    Another thing – by my estimates 15 – 20% of the crowd at the Izod Center were visibly pro-Spurs aka jerseys or clothing. As often as we have to hear about the boring and small-marketness of the Spurs, the NJ attendance suggests otherwise. People appreciate their style of play + their winningness.

  • Latin_D

    Perfect post. You echo my thoughts regarding Tim and our chances for the near future, but you put it so eloquently I feel like I just watched that epic speech from Braveheart again.

    What escapes some people is that building for the future is truly difficult. You can have the space, the money and even the draft picks, but you can never tell how the pieces you get will gel together.

    “Tim Duncan _is_ the championship window.” That’s truth, but not all the truth. Right now the Spurs have something special going: a collection of talented or semi-talented guys that play well together – and they’re rather inexpensive, to boot. I don’t believe star players can do it on their own, and Parker and Ginobili are the perfect complements.

    Let’s act now, and if we fail, at least it won’t be because we hesitated. (In fact, I kind of admire the gamble Kerr took with Shaq. It was crazy, and ruined the team, but ballsy nevertheless.)

  • Hollywood

    I would agree that Tim Duncan is the window, but within that time frame I would also say that Manu is the window within the window (not sure what the architectural term for that is.)

    In other words, Tim puts the Spurs in the conversation but without a healthy and brilliant Ginobili, I don’t think the Spurs can win the title. I would say Ginobili’s window is smaller than Tim’s.

    I’m not sure how we could afford to have a Big Four, so either we ride out with Manu or we have to spend to get a great player to replace him.

    Whether the FO decides to extend Manu is an interesting question.

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  • Scott Killy

    Tim,

    Great Post! But as a Laker fan I hope the Spurs front office doesn’t listen. I think you are dead on.

    It is easy thinking about the future, but great organizations think of the “now” unless they have no “now”.

    The Spurs are “now” along with maybe six or seven teams depending on movement of players.

    If things were to stand pat. Then really it is down to 4-5 teams which still includes the Spurs.

    I am hopeful the Spurs don’t go for it and stay pretty much as they are because as they are I like the Lakers chances even without Bynum.

    Go Lakers!

  • Scott Killy

    Oh yeah, KG?

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