How I learned to stop worrying and love the Spurs
I find him sitting in his car outside the Kansas City apartment complex where I used to live, head down, a glower marring his face. Though there are some differences, looking at his face is almost like looking in a mirror. But his face is not mine.
So Tim Duncan is going to be on Letterman next Tuesday. Yes, the date does coincide with the deadline to opt in on the final year of his contract. And, yes, this will be just his second appearance on a talk show in his 17 year career. Also, this is Letterman's last season doing his show after 18 years on the air.
If the news didn't scare you just a little bit, you have reached a level of inner peace that escapes me and I'm assuming that goes for most Spurs fans as well. It only seems logical that the reason Timmy would agree to appear on that particular talk show on that particular day would be to announce his retirement.
Duncan has given the franchise so much that if he does decide to call it quits, everyone would respect that decision. If he announces his retirement on a Tuesday, a statue should be erected that Wednesday outside the AT&T Center. If there is one guy in the league that doesn't owe anyone anything it's Timothy Theodore Duncan. The guy has played past his expected expiration date simply because he had the will power to adapt. If he wants to go out on top, hey, we'll always have those five championships and those glorious 17 seasons to remember him by.
Spurs get their fifth LOB
There's no need to change anything with how the 2013 season ended. It takes the lowest of lows to truly appreciate moments like this.
But - and you can call it denial if you want - I don't think he will retire.
Duncan has mentioned time and time again, even during the Heat series, that he wants to continue to play for as long as he is effective. And boy, is he still effective. There are only a handful of big men playing today in the league that deserve to be named in the same sentence as Timmy. Duncan was 12th in rebounds per game, 5th in blocks per game, 17th in PER and 8th in real plus minus this past season. He played the most minutes since 2009/10 and was injury free, for the most part (Tony Allen, keep your elbows to yourself!). He scored 16.3 points on 52.3% shooting in the playoffs. Those are not the numbers of someone on his last legs.
It is entirely possible that Tim doesn't think the effort necessary to stay at such a high level is worth it anymore after his fifth title. But with Tiago Splitter finding his ideal level and the team having the cap flexibility to add another big, Duncan could take back-to-backs off and/or play fewer minutes. Duncan is still clearly effective on a per-minute basis and Pop could make sure he isn't overburdened. Tim knows this. There is no real reason in terms of on court performance to suggest he is at a point in which retirement is the clear option.
There's also the fact that his teammates seem to think he will continue to play. Manu said he doesn't think Tim will need convincing to come back. Peter Holt said something similar. So did Tony Parker and R.C. Buford. No one in the Spurs organization, no one close to Tim hinted that this might be the end. Timmy is famously reserved, but the fact that the other often similarly secretive Spurs are expressing confidence has to mean something.
And here's where Duncan's reverence to David Robinson becomes important. During the ceremony at the Alamodome, Timmy went out of his way to say that he learned how to be a teammate from The Admiral.
David Robinson announced his future retirement a year before it happened. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were all around at that point. Again, Timmy is such a private guy that it's more than understandable for him to want to avoid the media circus involved with his farewell tour. But he had an opportunity to let the city of San Antonio know that he was leaving after the celebrations. He had the opportunity to tell his teammates before that. Why do it on national TV instead? That doesn't feel like something Tim would do.
Finally, it would be understandable to see Duncan leave if it was clear the Spurs needed to move on. But this really doesn't seem like the end of an era. Parker and Ginobili will be back. So will Pop. The starting lineup will be the same next season if Duncan returns. Two of the key bench players will be free agents but the Spurs are positioned to retain them. Kawhi Leonard is emerging as a star and should continue to develop. The Spurs crushed the two teams that were supposed to be better than them, and unless something tragic happens health wise or there is a seismic shift at the top due to a trade, they would be either a bona fide contender or the favorite.
There is virtually no chance that the 2014/15 Spurs, with returning key players, evolving youngsters, cap flexibility to make moves and the same system and philosophy, will be a disappointment. The worst case scenario is an honorable exit in the second round of the stacked West. That's not the same as going out a champion but it's not anything to be ashamed off. And, as mentioned, Duncan was so good last season than even a dip in the stats and in play would still make him a relevant player. The legacy is safe. And the possibility of a sixth ring has to be appealing.
Even more so that it would be a repeat championship, the one thing the Spurs haven't accomplished.
So Duncan is still good enough that his on-court performance should not be a factor in his decision to retire. The guy can still play. The Spurs, led by Pop, are good enough to keep contending, which means getting that sixth ring is possible. And the people that Duncan has spent years around think he will return. Those are all legitimate sources for optimism.
Obviously, we don't know the whole story, and considering this is Timmy we are talking about, you never know. It's possible that there are personal reasons to retire we don't know about right now. He just went through a divorce. He might want to spend more time with the Teacup Duncans. Maybe after years of being so ridiculously self-motivated, he feels there really is nothing more to play for. Any of those reasons and a dozen others could be enough for him to make the decision to stop playing.
So we'll have to wait, but I'm choosing to wait hopefully, expecting that the announcement he will make on the 24th will be that he will come back for at least one more season. That's what I believe will happen. If he doesn't, nothing will be the same. But even without the hammer they've swung for 17 glorious years -- the Spurs will, as always, keep pounding the rock.