Warning signs amidst Duncan’s woeful shooting
No one on the Spurs will ever admit they’re concerned for Tim Duncan, unless that worry comes as a result of an injury. But a shooting slump? Nah.
“It’s not a big deal,” Manu Ginobili says about Duncan’s struggles. The rest of the Spurs shrug it off as well.
Few have been around the NBA’s block as many times as the Big Fundamental, and he’s seen it all. Working on his 17th season in the league, nothing surprises him—well, a couple things. A shooting slump, though, is a affliction that comes and goes like the wind.
Right now, Tim Duncan is in a slump. Averages of just 11 points and 7 rebounds a game with a less than 45 percent true shooting percentage (a shooting percentage that factors in the value of both free throws and 3-pointers) are what ails him in this early season. This all coming against a run of weak competition.
Technically, Ginobili is correct. Duncan’s shooting slump in and of itself is not a big deal. San Antonio is still off to a tied-for-league-best 13-1 start. The fact that Duncan shot at least 50 percent from the floor in each of the last two games, after starting the season shooting 38 percent, is a positive trend.
But what Duncan’s slump could signify is a major concern for the long term prospects of the Spurs this season.
Last year Duncan opened the campaign—one in which he had his best season in three years and the Spurs, not coincidentally, made it back to the Finals—like an animal. Through the first 14 games of 2012-13, the Big Fundamental was putting up 19 points a game on 51 percent shooting, grabbing 10 boards, blocking two and a half shots and shooting more than five free throws a contest.
He was also showing a spryness that we’ve rarely seen from him this season, if at all:
Not only dunks over two of the better defensive big men in the Western Conference, but Duncan was running the floor and rotating well defensively. It looked as if a couple (or five) years had been shaved off his career mileage.
This season he’s missing layups from point-blank range and clanging 18-footers off of the front rim. He’s lacking that little bit of explosiveness he possessed 12 months ago. If the Spurs want to get back to the Finals, they need the same Tim Duncan they had last season come playoff time and what we’re seeing now, in November, doesn’t bode well for May and June.
A deep bench capable of making up for off nights from the starters is carrying the Spurs right now. Boris Diaw is a early-season Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Manu Ginobili isn’t done yet, Marco Belinelli is a excellent fit with this team, and Patty Mills figured out a way to use the frenetic pace he was blessed to its maximum effectiveness.
The bench is a strength for the Spurs in what is a painfully long regular season. Gregg Popovich is a master a limiting players’ minutes over the long haul and this deep bench allows him to do that while picking up wins along the way. It’ll even come in handy for the first round or two of the playoffs.
After that, when there are just a handful of teams still playing as the San Antonio heat transition from scorching to deathly, the bench doesn’t matter quite as much. Rotations are shorter and the balance of minutes becomes skewed in favor of the stars. It usually comes down to your top four or five guys being better than the other guy’s. Two years ago, Oklahoma City’s top four were better than San Antonio’s. In last year’s Finals the Heat’s top four were better than the Spurs. It takes a good bench to get that far, but top stars to take it home.
Playing 90 games last season and getting 14 weeks of an offseason before training camp started back up, Duncan—at the age of 37—is in for a long year, no matter how much Popovich is able to limit his minutes. This season could be the one where Pop takes a leap and finds a way to sit Duncan for a month to six weeks in the middle of the season with a “nagging injury.” Might I suggest February 2 as the start date?
With Wednesday night’s game against the Thunder and matchups with the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers upcoming, the time for Duncan to snap into gear is quickly approaching. Duncan submitted his best performance of the season in San Antonio’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers early this season, when he posted 24 points on 12-for-23 shooting and seven rebounds. It gives hope to fans that this is all just an old dog not in the mood for a lazy game of fetch. He wants the real thing.
It’s irresponsible to write off Duncan or any of the Spurs until they’re the proverbial six feet under, basketball-wise, but the Fundamental’s early season performances inspire visions of 2010 Duncan against the Suns—the one who couldn’t rotate on defense and got torched by Steve Nash and Co.—more than last season’s All-NBA version. No matter how deep San Antonio’s roster is, a second consecutive trip to the Finals doesn’t happen unless Duncan is an all-around force and 21 doesn’t have that look right now. That should concern the Spurs, not a little shooting slump.