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We are not saying goodbye to Tim Duncan

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If a team crumbles to dust without their franchise player, then what did they really build?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I watched Tim Duncan’s retirement ceremony after a very entertaining win against the New Orleans Pelicans, and it did not disappoint. Just about everybody involved was eloquent and entertaining. Tony Parker was funny and introspective. Manu Ginobili shared a wonderful story from the 2006 postseason that seemed to truly move Duncan. Gregg Popovich’s stories were ones he had shared before, but he has perfected his public-speaking skills over the years and he’s a joy to listen to when he’s ready to tell stories.

However, I couldn’t help but notice that for all the people who spoke from the heart, it was Duncan himself —who to no one’s surprise had the briefest speech— who summed up the point of his legacy better than anyone during the voice-over of the brief highlight video his brother made.

“Seasons come and seasons go, but this game, and this team, will go on. There are no goodbyes.”

A jersey being retired and a career being celebrated are supposed to be about finality, but for me the real testament to what Duncan brought the Spurs played out before our very eyes before the ceremony, where Popovich, Ginobili, Parker and several of Duncan’s former teammates, and a few guys he never got to play with, contributed to a rather one-sided victory. The Spurs led by 21 points after three quarters before coasting home with their reserves. No one played more than 26 minutes and ten players made legitimate contributions. It was San Antonio’s fourth win in a row and they’re 22-5, the second-best record in the league. They’re well on their way to their 18th consecutive 50-win season, and the last time they didn’t win that many, it was a lockout-shortened 50-game season that merely concluded with the franchise’s first championship.

Who among us could’ve conceived of such a thing a decade ago? Most of us figured it would be a swift and sudden trip into the Western Conference basement once Duncan hung ‘em up. (Not that that would’ve necessarily been a terrible fate, if you consider the last two times the team had a crummy record, but I digress.) Popovich himself has joked for years that whenever Duncan retired that he’d be ten steps behind him.

We’ve seen legends leave franchises in shambles, from Michael Jordan to Larry Bird to Kobe Bryant (while he was still active!) to LeBron James. Duncan’s presence, his personality and his unselfishness wouldn’t allow that to happen to the Spurs. He had the grace and humility to cede touches and shots to Ginobili and Parker as far back as 2004, giving them the room and opportunity to grow and flourish, without jealousy or resentment, and it made the whole team collectively better while simultaneously lengthening all of their careers because no one got worn down. He allowed them to mature, not just players, but as leaders of the team. And we’re seeing the fruits of that maturity now, as they’re role players mentoring the young stars of the next generation.

The whole notion of Kawhi Leonard thriving as a Spur was possible in large part thanks to Duncan. The team’s brass felt they owed it to him (and by extension Ginobili and Parker) to do whatever was necessary to continue contending for titles as his career was winding down. By almost any measure George Hill, as the 26th pick of the 2008 draft, was proving to be a huge bargain. At that draft slot most any franchise would thank their lucky stars to have a starting-caliber player. But for the Spurs, a team that had scored Hall of Famers with a 28th pick in Parker and a 57th pick in Ginobili, being simply “good enough” was foreign to their culture. They saw what their ceiling was with Hill and gambled on greatness, despite how fond they were of Hill personally.

They were confident in their scouting of Leonard and more so of their veterans’ ability to work with young, unproven players and get them up to speed quickly. Maybe other front offices wouldn’t be secure and accountable enough to admit they made a mistake in free agency with Richard Jefferson, but the Spurs were, even if they didn’t admit as much publicly. The draft day trade of Leonard was a reflection of that, proof that they will commit to the core that committed to them.

Does Kawhi Leonard turn into Kawhi Leonard on any other franchise? Sure, the work ethic and desire would be there, but would he get the tutelage on his jumper and skillset from coaches comparable to Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier? Would other teams be patient enough to bring him along slowly and expand his role incrementally instead of asking him to be their savior right away? Would other teams respect his quiet demeanor or would they be pushing him out there in front of the cameras, telling him to sell himself and their brand? Duncan’s overwhelming success was an example that it could work with a no-nonsense superstar who doesn’t need to be coddled and pampered and marketed and sold. He was the blueprint on how to foster Leonard, and in turn whatever questions or reservations the youngster may have had were answered in the example Duncan and the other members of “The Big Three” set in the way they accepted Popovich’s self-described “merciless” coaching.

Do the Spurs land LaMarcus Aldridge without Duncan? It would’ve been impossible with the salary cap had he not accepted far less than his market value in his latter contracts. Do they get Ginobili and Parker to accept less than the max in their deals if not for him? Do they get Boris Diaw to sign for the veterans’ minimum back in 2012 after securing a buyout to end his sour run with the Charlotte Bobcats? Is Danny Green happy to sign for $10 million a year when guys with comparable skills are making considerably more? They all wanted to be here, in part, to play with Tim.

You heard it in the speeches during the ceremony. Nobody cared about the points or the rebounds. They’re just numbers at the end of the day. Popovich and the players spoke of Duncan as their friend (or “son” in Pop’s case) and teammate. They spoke of the culture he created and a team-wide identity he built, literally the rock upon which Popovich built his church, with Duncan as Peter, his most fervent devotee.

Duncan’s jersey is up in the AT&T rafters, and he physically won’t ever play for the Spurs again, but there was no finality or closure in his retirement ceremony. The standings show no proof that anything has ended. The Spurs are still the Spurs, and they’re still a monster.

There are no goodbyes.