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Tim Duncan's versatility gives the Spurs room to figure themselves out

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The greatest power forward of all time isn't carrying the Spurs on his back anymore, but Tim Duncan's knowledge of the Spurs system allows him to fill in the gaps for a team literally making it up as they go.

Tim Duncan controls the opening tip against the Sacramento Kings.
Tim Duncan controls the opening tip against the Sacramento Kings.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the shuffle of another Spurs victory was what used to be the foundation of the entire team.

Kawhi Leonard had a Kawhi-esque line with 24 points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. LaMarcus Aldridge made 7 of 12 shots and was within one rebound of a double-double. Tony Parker scored 13 points in 21 minutes. Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, David West and Patty Mills stabilized the bench unit. Mills, in particular, was his usual self. He touched the ball 63 times, ran 1.81 miles, scored nine points and added eight assists in just 23 minutes.

In a 106-88 victory with 11 different Spurs scoring a point, it's easy to forget about Tim Duncan. He played only 23 minutes, after all.

His performance, albeit in a limited stint, left nothing to be desired. 11 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists and 50 percent shooting. Extrapolated over 36 minutes, that's 17 points, 22 rebounds and 3 assists.

Duncan's role has been tricky to define with the new additions to the team. The other roles, while still a work-in-progress, are easier to project. Kawhi is the alpha dog, the guy who guards the best perimeter defender and runs the show. Aldridge will hoist up mid-range shots, defend, rebound, and assimilate into the Spurs system. Parker will create offense when necessary. Green's task is to defend, shoot 3-pointers and not dribble the ball too much. Manu, Diaw and Mills share the offensive burden when the starters need a break. Boban is there to be freakishly tall and take up space. When Bonner playes, he can shoot 3-pointers and space the floor for his teammates.

So what exactly is Duncan's role? We don't know, which is a credit to Duncan. He can score, though he hasn't needed to this season and likely won't shoulder much of the offensive load. He's fifth on the team in usage rate. He can rebound, pass, knock down the mid-range shot, create a fast break opportunity, operate a pick-and-pop, set a crushing pick to free his teammate, protect the rim, hug Tony Parker, whatever. Even at his advanced age, there isn't anything on a basketball court that Tim Duncan can't and will not do. There are not many better defenders than 39-year-old Duncan. That's not hyperbole, it's basketball fact.

His adjustment may take awhile longer than the rest because his job responsibility may change game-to-game depending on the opponent and the production of his teammates. He literally embodies the sports cliche of a glue guy. Whenever the Spurs need someone to step up in an area, Gregg Popovich's first option will be Tim Duncan to clean up the mess.

Long gone are the days in which Duncan will dominate the ball, with the entire offense and defense revolving around his singular greatness. The scope of his game has diminished with the athleticism in his body. There are other players -- younger and more capable -- in the Spurs system to fulfill the responsibilities that Duncan once had.

Like any other game, after the final buzzer Duncan embraced his teammates and trudged over to the locker room. He didn't have to worry about a postgame interview for television -- Kawhi had the duty last night -- or turning around in two days just to do everything all over again.

No, Duncan's job is less demanding this season, but that doesn't make him any less important. For a team finding itself, and incorporating a perennial All-Star, they will need Duncan's guidance and versatility to make the ends meet. Besides, without Duncan, this entire foundation wouldn't exist to begin with. 

I don't blame anyone who overlooks Duncan, because there are so many other compelling storylines that will play out over the course of this season. How will Aldridge fit in? Will the Spurs have enough 3-point shooting? How will they replace Marco Belinelli, Tiago Splitter and Cory Joseph? What's up with Tony Parker? Will Kawhi make the next leap? How long can Pop keep this beard going? Is Boban Marjanovich from another planet?

All those topics are enticing on their own. But don't sleep on Tim Duncan for too long, his versatility is just as fascinating as his dominance was.

Game ball

Kawhi Leonard: 24 points on 10-13 shooting, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks.

What more can you say about Kawhi that hasn't already been said? He's good at basketball.

Pop quote of the night

"He's become a better leader, a better-decision maker. He's not just a scorer, a shooter. He's getting to play the complete kind of game."

- Pop on Patty Mills (via Tom Osborn)

By the numbers

  • 5. How many rebounds Tim Duncan needs to pass Robert Parrish (14,715 rebounds) for 7th all-time.
  • 39. How old Tim Duncan is. Keep that in mind because it shouldn't be possible to tally double-doubles in 23 minutes when you're closer to 50 years old than 20.
  • +31. Kawhi Leonard's team-high plus-minus rating in his 32 minutes on the floor against the Kings. The Spurs are a +65 in his 232 minutes this season and +9 in the other 104 minutes when he's off the court.
  • 34. Assists for the Spurs on 46 field goals. Through five games, San Antonio was averaging 21.8 assists per game. That number has crept up in the last two games, with 34 last night and 35 assists against the Hornets.
  • 23. Assists from the Spurs bench. That's more than four NBA teams had Monday night. (Hat-tip to Paul Garcia of Project Spurs.)
  • 3-19. The combined 3-point performance of the Spurs not named Kawhi Leonard, who made three of four. Tony Parker was perfect on his only 3-pointer -- take that Steph Curry! -- but the rest of the team couldn't buy a make, especially Danny Green and Patty Mills who missed seven of nine 3-point attempts.
  • 5-15. Rudy Gay's shooting performance against Kawhi Leonard. Add him to the list of occupants of Kawhi's house of horrors.
  • 15. Free throw attempts for DeMarcus Cousins, which almost made up for a miserable shooting night. Duncan didn't leave him much room to breathe and Cousins boogied his way to the free throw line consistently. Also helped that the referees
  • 11. Different Spurs scored against the Kings. Kyle Anderson and Ray McCallum were the only active Spurs who didn't tally a point.
  • 4-0. The Spurs have never lost a game when Boban Marjanovic plays. Boban, this year's human victory cigar, has a higher NBA winning percentage than Magic Johnson (74 percent), Larry Bird (74 percent) and Michael Jordan (65 percent). Stay woke, everyone.
  • 1. One Boban dunk. It was beautiful.
  • 1. One Kawhi smile (see below). Ties his previous career-high.

#analysis

  • Place any random two humans on the planet and they'll score with Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw on the floor. The Spurs' most productive three-man lineup is outscoring opponents by 26.9 points per 100 possessions when they are on the floor. The only problem is defense and rebounding, but it's not like those things matter anyway right?
  • Marco Belinelli's final line in the #MarcoBelinelliRevengeGame: 32 minutes, 17 points, 5 assists, 3 3-pointers. The Spurs will miss his shot creation, perimeter shooting and ability to run off millions of screens to get his defense. His decision making and defense left something to be desired but with Kyle Anderson and Rasual Butler vying for playing time behind Leonard, the Spurs could've used Belinelli. He will be missed.
  • Spurs starters found a groove in the second half, namely in the third quarter. A 11-2 run broke down like this:

  • Aldridge had a nice drop-off pass to Duncan for a layup, Parker executed a clean pick-and-pop to set up Aldridge at one of his preferred spots (left elbow), Kawhi and Danny nailed a two-on-one fastbreak opportunity. This was the Spurs starting lineup at its best. There will be more of this to come.
  • Good luck stopping Kawhi Leonard's off the dribble game. He's so fluid.
  • Another reminder to stop dribbling the basketball when Kawhi is within 10 feet of the play. Belinelli tried to get cute with a fake and Kawhi plucked the ball with his gigantic mitts and started a quick fastbreak opportunity. Everything happens so fast. Then you're toast.
  • The Spurs' energy increases 10 fold when Patty Mills enters the game. He's a human firecracker that can create points in a hurry. He scored seven straight points on his own to extend the Spurs lead in the fourth quarter.
  • Play Boban Marjanovic more, if only because he's an incredible sight to see. (He isn't terrible at basketball either. He tried a fadeway on the right block in the fourth quarter. I laughed with glee.)
  • SPURS BEAUTIFUL GAME ALERT

Twitter Highlights

And it's not even close. Sorry DeJuan Blair.

Must be a program malfunction or something. There's no other reasonable explanation.

This was in the first quarter and even though DeMarcus Cousins finished with a double-double (21 points, 12 rebounds), it wasn't easy. Cousins needed 20 shots and 15 free throw attempts to reach that threshold. What's more: Duncan defended eight shots at the rim and the Kings only converted two.

The future is here.

The only answer to this question is yes.

I see what you did there, Nick.

It'll be an adjustment for everyone involved.

Beware, rest of the NBA. The Spurs are coming.

Taco Bell menu item of the game

The crunchwrap supreme is a quality staple of any Taco Bell menu. Like the Spurs, it gets incrementally better with each bite.

And that's a wrap folks. Until next time ...