Warning signs amidst Duncan’s woeful shooting

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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.

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Basketball Reference.


  • Eric Westerman

    I don’t agree. I think Duncan is still moving pretty well defensively (better than 2 years ago). He is blowing layups and jumpshots – but those are typically two things that age well. Much more likely in a slump that’s gotten to head his head a bit than he’s suddenly too hold to hit an open jumpshot.

    It bodes better for the rest of his season to be playing good defense & missing jumpers than to be hitting jumpers but looking creaky defensively.

  • golfer78015

    To write off Tim Duncan after 14 games is idiotic. His numbers are down, in part, because he has not been required to play as much. The second team has been outstanding.

  • charles f martinez

    the season is young and thier 13 and one

  • fkj74

    Way to see the dark lining in the silver cloud. I guess when a team has only lost once the media have to knit pick something. To be clear Duncan is off with his shot, but his D and rebounding are solid. I have noticed the last 2 seasons that we need less Duncan shots..if you compare the games when he scores up to 20 we mostly win, but close. When he has 12-15 we win big. Why.? More 3 point shots taken and made. We need him to be a big scorer at the big moments. He did that in game 6 and it was not his fault the free throws were missed and he was on the bench instead of getting those 2 rebounds. ugh..still hurts. Looking forward to this stretch to see how we do vs top teams. I think well and we win more than lose. Go Spurs!

  • Sammy

    I think if you look at the shots that Timmy is taking, you will see that other teams are pushing him out farther than his effective range. Also, he doesn’t have as much arc on the shots he is taking. My feeling is that it’s more in his head than in his body and when the shots start falling, he will be back to the number 21 we know and love.

  • Betsy Duncan

    Not concerned in the slightest. Timmy is our anchor defensively, and now that the guards, et al are battling for rebounds

  • split1956Srecko Vukovich

    Duncan will come around ,he is winner ,he is doing everything to help Spurs young players with advice ,on defense / offense .TD Have some trauma of late in personal life also ( divorced ) That is challenging .Probably in his head is that ” heart breaking Loss to Miami in final’s ” ( I know it is still in mine )
    On the end he is 37 pushing 38 , but still one of the Best Big men’s in the game. I would agree we REALLY need him for playoffs ,especially in the West finals and NBA Finals.

  • spurs2014champs

    Hes finally getting good sex. You see who hes dating. Must be exhausted. Hey he deserves it. Hes going out on top…or bottom.

  • Marcus B

    “Technically” you’re blowing this out of proportion.

  • sdedalus83

    His offensive slump is almost identical to what happened two years ago, yet he’s playing far, far better defense, getting up and down the court a lot better, and looks fine offensively when he’s playing the 5 with Diaw on the court and Leonard off it. At this point, the only rational way to look at the Spurs’ offensive issues is that Duncan is having a moderate slump, Leonard is experiencing growing pains while adjusting to his vastly increased offensive role, and Pop is playing musical chairs with the rotation. If the issues persist beyond the 35 game mark, then we start panicking.