Tim Duncan has rewired the way we think as fans.
Through his longevity, financial sacrifices and enduring dedication to a city and its fanbase, he didn't just preclude the need for a rebuild in San Antonio; he ripped the word out of the Spurs fan dictionary.
Thanks in large part to him, the franchise isn't hitting the reset button as many do when faced with the end of an era. Its front office is still harvesting the overseas prospects it was able to stash away while Tim and Co. chased rings. Its core is still good enough to push for a top-two seed, even after a total rejig of their frontcourt and the biggest roster turnover of recent memory. The revered culture remains, drawing and facilitating the arrival of new talent.
There are few things more sacred to the city of San Antonio than number 21. Watching him over the past two decades has been about more than reveling in wins, accolades and championships, and more than basketball itself: it's been to bask in the banality of greatness. In the wake of Duncan's impending decision, excellence should continue to be the organization's perennial benchmark.
Those expectations will carry into next season---not only because we Spurs fans are spoiled, but because next year's Spurs should still be really good. Forgetting Golden State for a second (try it, it's nice), there are at least 28 teams in the league that should dread playing San Antonio, and Pau Gasol plays a big role in that.
Gasol won't fully take over Duncan's role in the defense, but he will inherit some lofty analogues to last year's historically-great team. When he's late on rotations or botches a pick and roll, people will notice. If his rebounding is notably lacking, people will scrutinize. And if he's unable to negate those shortcomings with his offense, his $30 million contract will be a target of criticism from every egg with an internet connection.
Timmy was on a very team-friendly deal, one that was always going to skew how the Spurs replaced him (and affect how that value would be appraised). When he re-signed for $10.8 million for two years last year, it was rightfully seen as a hometown discount. But as Jeff McDonald has pointed out, it was also an understanding between the two sides that ensured that, if Duncan decided to retire, he'd have a little extra with him on the way out just by opting in to year two. Either way, $6 million in cap space was never going to replace Duncan, especially in this wild and crazy NBA summer.
That Pau's signing came with the added cost of bidding adieu to Boris Diaw -- and seemed to seal the departures of David West and Boban Marjanovic -- won't go overlooked. But their losses may also be overstated: West proved unreliable against the Thunder's big men; Diaw's exit, one that seemed all the more likely following his benching during the playoffs, could signal more minutes for Kyle Anderson as a Boris Light, and there's still time for the team to shore up the rest of its depth chart.
If Duncan retires, he will leave an indelible void, but the center position should be no phantom limb. Even at 36, Gasol brings a handful of elite talents to the offensive side of the ball, elevating an attack that may have improved anyway with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge jelling in year two. If Dewayne Dedmon can learn to keep his fouling down and the front office finds one more serviceable big (Bourosis?!), the frontcourt rotation should be fine -- and potentially more versatile than last year.
Tim Duncan raised the bar for Spurs basketball in ways that can't be duplicated. In his waning years, his presence became so intangibly venerated that his value seemed to exist in the aether, as a specter of greatness. As such it's understandable for fans to lament the arrival of a familiar face that comes with some well-defined downside. Next season's team may take a step back and it may not, but part of Duncan's legacy is that such a possibility endures, even after he steps away from the game.