Do the Spurs really want three to five more years of Tim Duncan?
While the last month has seen the FIBA Eurobasket and Americas Championships whet our appetite for competitive basketball, our offseason is still lacking a dearth of player movement. The only transactions completed during the lockout are those that come in the ranks of coaches and staff, and frankly, that’s not exciting. Before the lockout kicked into effect in June, Mike Brungardt, the longtime San Antonio Spurs Head Strength and Conditioning Coach, retired. A few weeks ago, his post was filled by Matt Herring, former strength and conditioning coach with the University of Florida men’s basketball team and Florida’s men’s and women’s golf teams.
While it should take some time for the switch to be noticed, Herring already has some goals with the Spurs. Jeff McDonald of the Express-News had a tidbit on how Herring wants to squeeze three to five more years out of Tim Duncan’s career:
Herring might not arrive in San Antonio with players to coach, but he does arrive with goals. One of them: He hopes to help Tim Duncan add years to the tail end of his career.
“You can have a positive impact on a guy like Tim Duncan and helping him get three, four, five more years out of his career and end on his terms,’’ Herring, formerly of the University of Florida, tells GatorZone.com.
If Herring can really help Duncan discover the Fountain of Youth, it would make him the Spurs’ most important addition since perhaps Duncan himself. At age 35, Duncan is clearly slowing down.
I can’t find that quote on the GatorZone post that Jeff linked, but let’s discuss it anyway. Is it really in the Spurs’ best interests that they get three to five more years out of Tim Duncan? Duncan is an institution in San Antonio, so he’s allowed to stay as long as he wants. But long term, it is probably better for the Spurs if Duncan retires sooner rather than later.
When we talk of aging big men, two players come to mind for me: Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. Patrick Ewing retired at the age of 39 in 2002 with the Orlando Magic. He averaged six points and four rebounds in about 13 minutes per game in that final season. The Dream also retired in 2002 at the age of 39. Olajuwon finished his career with the Toronto Raptors averaging seven points and four-and-a-half rebounds in 22 minutes per game. These were both two Hall of Famers who went out with a whimper on teams their legacies had no ties to.
Personally, I don’t want to see Duncan do the same. Tim Duncan was able to maintain a consistent level of output, statistically, through his career. It was only the last two seasons where his numbers dropped significantly. As today’s NBA has evolved, greater emphasis has been placed on perimeter scoring. The hand checking rules allow players easier avenues to the hoop. This has made drive-and-kick the focus of many NBA offenses, including the Spurs. Duncan’s 13.4 points per game last season were by far the lowest of his career.
Feeding Duncan in the post is now an option reserved primarily for a change of pace or to settle the team when things get frantic. In a regular season win against the Dallas Mavericks back in December, the Spurs went to Duncan in the post several times in a row in the third quarter to take control of the pace. While Duncan’s back-to-the-basket game is still strong, San Antonio cannot rely on going to Duncan in the post for possession after possession. Being the primary offensive option is a exhausting responsibility. The Spurs rely on Duncan to be their defensive backbone and they’d rather him expend his energy on the defensive end of the floor.
Duncan may be a top-notch defensive quarterback for the Spurs, however his foot speed is nowhere near what it used to be. Being the vocal back line of the defense is an important role for the Spurs, but San Antonio needs someone who can successfully defend the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, an ability that passed Duncan by several season ago.
There are also financial implications to keeping Tim Duncan around. Duncan is due over $21 million for next season, assuming the NBA plays a full season. If they don’t, Tim Duncan gets a prorated portion of that $21 million. After next season, his contract expires and he’ll be a free agent. Duncan will likely take a smaller salary than the max contract he’s been playing under if he re-signs, but how much smaller? Generally, veterans are paid much more than they’re worth later in their careers. Part of that is because they’re typically underpaid when playing under their rookie contracts. Another reason is their skills tend to diminish as they get past their peak while their yearly salary increases. Regardless of what Duncan signs for next season, the chances are great that he’ll be signing a contract that pays him more than what his on-court production would be.
In the NBA, defense tends to be underpaid. The Spurs could more efficiently use the money that would go to Duncan to sign a couple of big men who can rebound and defend the pick-and-roll. Doing so would likely give the Spurs more bang for their buck. With scorers like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still under contract, protecting the rim is more of a premium than scoring.
Another few seasons of Tim Duncan would also slow the Spurs’ rebuilding process. San Antonio was fortunate twice to bottom out and end up with the top overall draft pick, netting Duncan and David Robinson before him. The NBA is a star-driven league and it’s practically impossible to win an NBA championship without one. Duncan — and even Manu Ginobili — sticking around after his contract expires could keep the Spurs in purgatory-like level of barely making the playoffs while failing to secure a high draft pick. As has become obvious over the years, San Antonio is not a top destination for high-level free agents as Tim Duncan has declined. If the Spurs want to grab another star, they’ll need to do so through the draft. And if Duncan is around to prevent the Spurs from hitting bottom, the chances of them striking oil are slim.
The Spurs can’t put a dollar figure on the effect Tim Duncan made on the franchise since the team drafted him in 1997. He delivered the organization its first championship in 1999 and three more for good measure, all while helping the small market Spurs remain competitive, relevant and profitable. No one will ask Tim Duncan to leave, as they shouldn’t. He’s earned the right to put on his #21 jersey for as long as he likes, but that doesn’t mean it’s in the best interests of the franchise for him to do so.