Tim Duncan’s closing act
In putting pen to paper, San Antonio Spurs franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan will have also signed off on the countdown to the rest of his career.
By signing a multi-year deal with the only NBA team he has ever known, in all probability his last, Duncan also puts a tangible number on what’s left of his career.
Three years left for the basketball world to enjoy the understated brilliance of one of the ten greatest players to have ever picked up a basketball before he rides off into the sunset for this third and final act.
It’s perhaps too early to get caught up in looking back on Duncan’s career, but when that time comes I imagine it can be broken down into five acts—two transitional periods that bridge three distinct teams in Duncan’s career:
- (1997-2001) The remnants of the David Robinson era, a team bolstered by veterans like Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott to help protect and shape Duncan through his early formative years.
- (2003-2007) The Big Three era that marked Duncan’s prime and the teams he will be most associated with.
- (2011-xxxx) Duncan’s closing act, surrounded by old friends (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) and new faces (Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard) to give a fading but still prominent Duncan a dignified sendoff.
For all intents and purposes the San Antonio Spurs have been in a transitory phase over the past 4-5 years, distributing Duncan’s power and responsibilities more evenly between him, Parker, and Ginobili, while shifting to a system that would enable an aging Duncan a final run.
Last year’s team represents the first fully-formed iteration of that process.
By re-signing Boris Diaw and Danny Green to two and three-year deals respectively, trading for Kawhi Leonard, and extending Parker and Ginobili to contracts with expirations that coincide with the rest of the roster’s, the Spurs have set Duncan up with the team he will make his final run with.
The Spurs front office will continue to work around the fringes, keeping or moving the likes of Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, or Gary Neal as needs or opportunities arise. And Stephen Jackson’s expiring contract remains a wild card to everything.
But the roster we see today will likely make up the majority of the roster during Duncan’s farewell tour, with enough youth and upside to help offset whatever age will whittle away over the next three years.
It stands today as one of the four or five elite teams capable of competing for a championship, perhaps just a notch below the two teams (Miami and Oklahoma City) that actually competed for last year’s championship.
Stability throughout the roster ensures that the team will be growing together and building upon each of the next two seasons as opposed to frantically reloading and propping itself up on a pile of desperation moves.
It’s a testament to the Spurs front office’s long-term vision that Duncan will avoid the roster upheaval and turmoil that befell the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkely, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, and Patrick Ewing at the end of their careers.
R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have crafted a roster and system that both heavily relies on Duncan and accounts for any reasonable drops in production.
The flexibility the Spurs have left themselves for an immediate post-Duncan rebuild also prevents the Spurs from necessitating a complete organizational teardown, ensuring that the culture and foundations set by Duncan will grow the franchise through his example in ways that the Knicks, Bulls, and Rockets never managed to do with their own Hall of Fame players.
If this is the final Duncan contract, he will leave the game in a way so few players are afforded—Not staying past his relevance while affording himself the opportunity to expend every bit of basketball greatness he has left on a team he is comfortable with.
After years of writers predicting the Spurs fall, we can finally set a date. Three years. Enjoy every bit of it while it lasts.