Consider the torch passed. Well, did you think it would happen in the middle of a game? Maybe some tilt with the T-Wolves in the middle of January, where Timmy calls a timeout in the first half and a makeshift stage is erected at center court for the passing of a literal torch to an awkwardly gracious Kawhi Leonard? Whatever your conception of effective end of the Big 3 Era, the signing of LaMarcus Aldridge on July 4th made it official.
Yes, the Big 3 are all still technically Spurs. Even Tony Parker, Kawhi's actual predecessor in the baton pass. (You remember Tony, who at various points in his career Spurs fans - including yours truly - might have gladly traded for Corey Maggette and a case of Dom Perignon.) Yes, Manu is back too, most likely to function in a capacity ranging from bench mascot to situational nutmeg-er. It's actually Ginobili who best encapsulates the current identity of the Big 3: the face looks familiar, but the Spurs' fortunes will no longer flourish based primarily on how their erstwhile star trio performs on the court.
And then there's Duncan, who has now sat at the epicenter of three separate Spurs dynasties. He is the colored space in the center of the venn diagram. The greatest and longest of those dynasties was the Big 3 Era, producing either 3 or 4 of the Spurs titles, depending on how you look at it. Campeonato primo, all the way back in 1999, had nothing to do with the Big 3. That was the work of a Big 4: Duncan, David Robinson, Avery Johnson, and Sean Elliott. Bathed as it was in Fiesta colors, accusations of asterisks, and the cement echoes of the Alamodome, the first 'chip has always seemed a bit of an outlier, a rousing opening act that both obliterated the national perception of the Robinson-led Spurs and paved the way for what would follow.
If Kawhi and LaMarcus deliver Duncan another ring, however, that '99 banner will simply be the first in a succession that spans two centuries, three decades, four Presidential terms, five Summer Olympics, and at least six championships. Sure, that's "only" as many as Jordan and still well-short of Russell. But Jordan never won without Scottie, and Russell's success never strayed outside the 1960s. If Duncan gets his sixth, he will have won championships as a starter in three different cores, the figurehead and fulcrum of a basketball empire stretching all the way from to the drafting of Robinson in 1987 until (at worst) the expiration of Leonard's contract in 2020.
But just as Robinson gave way fully to Duncan following that first title, Duncan has fully embraced his role as mentor and overseer of the transition. He took about 1/3rd of Wes Matthews' yearly salary to return, paving the way financially to the acquisition of Aldridge. LeBron received some attaboys last year for refusing to take a pay cut, but who knows how infectious Duncan's sacrifice ultimately proved during this dream offseason. I mean, David West might have still signed with the Spurs for the veteran minimum anyway, but it couldn't have hurt to know that the longest-tenured Spur ever was willing to take a pay cut first. And without the West signing at least being a possibility, without a veteran big to catch his passes in traffic and run backdoor cuts, does Manu push the button on one more season? It was always a possibility, but the selflessness of Duncan made it happen.
Then there's PATFO, for whom this is truly the finest hour. Pop's favorite form of self-deprecation is to remind fans and the media that he'd be nowhere without the fortuitous lottery picks of Duncan and Robinson. In pulling off the Aldridge signing, Pop and R.C. Buford appealed to an even older truism: you've got to make your own luck. And if you define luck as the Roman philosopher Seneca did, where preparation meets opportunity, you'll find that years of carefully crafted contracts and meticulous planning still came down a TMZ-ified lunch in Beverly Hills and the almost casual ineptitude of the Lakers and, to a lesser extent, Portland. As he so often does on the court, Pop was ready to capitalize on his peers' mistakes in the wooing of the guy who will be the greatest native Texan ever to wear the Silver and Black.
Which reminds me. Kawhi is from California. Danny Green is from New York. West is from North Carolina. Tim is from the Virgin Islands, but you'd be forgiven for thinking he could be from any of those other places. Combine the rapid Americanization of the Spurs with the disbandment of the Foreign Legion, and you have perhaps the greatest sign yet of this New Spurs Order: It speaks softly, and without an accent. Those '99-Era Spurs conducted themselves in a similar fashion - Johnson and Mario Elie notwithstanding. The current edition won't come stamped with the "soft" label like those Spurs had, partly thanks to Kawhi's heroics last June, but there's the danger that fickle historians could provide worse labels if this generation fails to deliver any rings of it's own.
Such is the going rate for immortality in San Antonio, and the legacy that Duncan and The Big 3 leave behind for Leonard, Aldridge, and all of us lucky enough to have witnessed their reign.