As spectators, it's hard to reconcile our passion for a team with a complete lack of control over how things develop. We don't get to take the shots or call the plays. Some of us cope with that through superstition. We convince ourselves that the way we behave, no matter how unrelated to the action, has an effect on what happens on the court.
Another form of coping that's much less derided, but is just as illusory, comes through a belief that, while we might not be able to control things directly, we can at least understand things well enough to accurately predict what will happen. This mindset can be so outlined: there is an order to things, and if we have enough information about the past, we can deduce the future. This erroneous system of though is often more dangerous than any superstition.
But looking into the coming days, months and years to try to see what's likely, what's possible, what next -- who doesn't do that, and how could we ever stop? As much fun as it may be, and as impossible as it is to give it up, what does it give us in the end to look into the foreseeable future?
By now you are probably aware of George Karl's comments about Tim Duncan's impending retirement and Tim's point-blank response to it. If you haven't, here's the gist of it: Karl made a claim that this was likely Tim's last season in the league, citing some anonymous San Antonio source. Timmy promptly denied it.
Duncan surely knows that it's a reasonable thing to speculate about, considering he's 37 years old. What seemed to bother Timmy was that Karl expressed a degree of certainty concerning something Duncan himself wasn't sure about. "I don't know what I'm going to do so I don't know how he knows what I'm going to do," he said.
It's not the first time someone has predicted Tim Duncan is going to retire. After a few seasons in which he seemed to be slowing down, laboring to get up and down the court thanks to his arthritic knee, Tim was eulogized multiple times. I remember clearly believing he was on his way out after the 2010/11 season, even if it meant giving up on over $20 million. During that first round exit at the hands of the Grizzlies, he looked like a guy on his last legs, and I didn't think his pride would allow him to keep going like that.
But Duncan not only finished his contract, but then re-signed. He lost weight, took on different responsibilities on both ends of the court, and he's put together a few more dominant seasons.
After a slow start this year, that unfortunately familiar "Duncan might be done" refrain crept back into the chorus of the media, and it made Karl's solo seem a bit less ridiculous. After all, Timmy has to retire eventually.
In ten February games, Duncan averaged around 19 points, 10 rebounds three assists and two blocks. He hasn't missed extended time due to injury this season and he is playing a shade under 30 minutes a game while producing close to his career averages on a per-minute basis.
While it was hard to pinpoint, it seemed like something was fundamentally wrong with the Spurs at times this season. They were racking up wins against the dredges of the league but couldn't beat the teams that mattered. Going by those results, a real and fatal weakness seemed to be hiding in plain sight. Sure, some sub-par individual performances were easy to spot, but the Spurs had always been something greater than the sum of their parts -- and that didn't seem to be true this season.
Then came the injuries. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Manu Ginobili all missed time. Cory Joseph started at shooting guard. The Othyus Jeffers era. A three game losing streak. The Rodeo Road Trip looming. A fall in the standings was inevitable but the Spurs fought to stay afloat. Then the wheels started to fall off Tony Parker just as Durant went into video game mode. Suddenly the attention shifted from the Spurs gunning for first place to hoping someone else would take down the soaring OKC.
After the All-Star break, the Parker-less Spurs beat the Clippers and Blazers in back-to-back games and started integrating the recuperated players to great success. Danny Green is shooting well again, Tiago Splitter flirted with a triple double, Kawhi Leonard is back going coast-to-coast like it's easy and Manu Ginobili remains magical. Now Tony Parker's return approaches as the Spurs trail the ailing Thunder by just a game and a half.
The post-Duncan future will be tough for the Spurs. It's doubtful Tony Parker is traded away. The team will try to avoid a full rebuild, since the fan base is not used to losing and the owner will likely try to keep the team profitable. The odds are against a Paul George-esque jump for Kawhi Leonard and it doesn't seem any of the players the Spurs have drafted with their low picks in recent years will turn into another Tony or Manu. This next couple of years is probably it for the Spurs championship aspirations for a while.
With so many expiring contracts next season, the Spurs face tough decisions. Matt Bonner and Aron Baynes will be gone, in all likelihood. Boris Diaw could be persuaded to re-sign, maybe even for a reasonable prize. Patty Mills might be harder to lock down, since he hasn't had a big pay day yet and this is his best shot at one. The Spurs need scoring punch off the bench, especially with Manu Ginobili's continued decline. But at some point the Spurs need to see if Cory Joseph will sink or swim, so Patty probably leaves. Then they can target an athletic big man with the mid-level exception, hopefully one with a jump shot.
Next year should see them stay the course without big changes in the hopes that the Big Three can perform at a high level as Kawhi improves, and give it a final go.
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There was something especially poignant about Coach Popovich using the phrase "the foreseeable future" to describe how long Parker would rest to recover from his "variety of maladies". Sure, the simplest explanation for such vague language is that he didn't want to set a time line he would then have to adhere to or answer questions about. But if you like reading into what people say as much as I do, the message such words deliver is acknowledgment that not even the person with the most control over a situation can be certain of anything.
Pop, more than Parker, can determine how long his starting point guard will be out. But there are variables neither can control. The foreseeable future not only refers to time but to circumstance. Pop can't really be sure when Parker will feel like he's 100%. The architect of the Spurs system can't predict when he will actually believe that the hyper-competitive Parker really is 100%. There's no telling whether he'll feel it necessary to re-insert Parker into the lineup before such a time. Had the Spurs dropped games against the Celtics, Clippers, Blazers and Suns, it wouldn't have been strange to see Parker starting against Charlotte. With the Spurs playing well, it's easy to see him sitting out the upcoming game against the Mavs.
If the protagonists can't be certain of anything, where does that leave us? We can make all sorts of informed guesses as to how good the team is or could be, how the next few games might go, or what can happen in the future. But in the end they will be just that: guesses. As far as Sisyphean tasks go, that one is harmless as long as we realize its futility.
The other option is to simply let go. Giving up the illusion of control isn't easy when it comes to sports fandom, but if those who actually exert influence can recognize the limits of their own efforts, letting go might be the only reasonable and healthy thing to do. Unfortunately, we fans are anything but reasonable.
What can we foresee? Quite a lot.
What do we really know? Hardly anything.