Tim Duncan retired on a Monday, via a press statement.
Of course he did.
It hasn't hit me yet. It probably won't, until the season starts, or at least until we hear from him in person later in the week. I'm having a bit of trouble processing it, even though we've all seen the signs that this was coming for a while now. We didn't need a choreographed farewell tour to figure it out.
There were all the unfortunate "milestones" he rung up during the season, the first game he went without a field goal, or a rebound or a point or whatever it happened to be. There was Gregg Popovich, playing him to death in a lost cause at Oklahoma City. There was his reported absence from the recruitment pitch to Kevin Durant in the Hamptons when he was a prominent part of the effort to land LaMarcus Aldridge a year ago. Finally, there were reports that Manu Ginobili would be coming back for another season, with a substantial raise, money that wouldn't theoretically be available to him had Duncan signed on for another year.
It's hard to believe that this is really going to be it, and simply mind-boggling that he and Ginobili aren't going out together, when that seemed to be the plan forever. It's hard to believe that we're not going to see those tippy-toe blocks and full-court, knuckleball outlets and line-drive free-throws and turn-around bankers ever again. We're not going to see Timmy bug-eyed and incredulous with some poor ref, his trademark facial tic where he scrunches up one of his nostrils, his pigeon-toed jogs up and down the floor, over and over and over again.
Duncan's been a Spur forever. To many fans he is the Spurs. And the hell of it is as long as he's been here, nearly full two decades worth, it's completely ridiculous on so many levels that any of it happened at all. It took so many unbelievable, almost supernatural things to click in a perfect sequence.
A competitive swimmer with Olympic ambitions, Duncan only took up basketball as a teenager after his hometown pool was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo. He stayed at Wake Forest all four years even though he would've been the unquestioned top pick had he come out after his sophomore or junior seasons, years in which the Spurs were nowhere near the lottery. Then, after he graduated, it just happened to be the one year David Robinson was limited to six games and the Spurs finished 20-62.
Even with that abysmal record, the Spurs had the third-best odds to win the lottery. They would've been happy to land someone like Keith Van Horn or Chauncey Billups, a complimentary piece for "The Admiral." Yet, Duncan was so meant to be a Spur that not only did they win the lottery for him, but they won it twice. The ping-pong ball combination for the second pick wound up being one of theirs too, so they had to do it over again for the Sixers to win the rights to Van Horn.
Duncan had three terrific, successful seasons in San Antonio, including the franchise's first championship in 1999, and no one would've blamed him if he moved on to Orlando in free agency. The Magic were poised to snatch him away, along with a pair of young stars in Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Leaving seemed like the smart play, if the main goal was to win as much as possible. Robinson's career was winding down by then, the Spurs didn't have anyone else of note. The Shaq/Kobe dynasty was just starting with the Lakers, and the West also had powerhouse teams like the Kings with Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, the Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Blazers with Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal and Damon Stoudamire, and the T-Wolves with Kevin Garnett.
Duncan, improbably, stayed with the Spurs and outlasted them all. The Magic got 200 games out of Grant Hill in six years. McGrady was 21-years-old his first season with the Magic and blossomed into a superstar. But Duncan outlasted him too, to the point where McGrady was ring-chasing from the end of the San Antoniko bench 13 years later, cheering Tim on as he scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in Game 6 at Miami.
There were so many times the Duncan Era was supposed to end. He's basically been playing on one leg for the last 15 years. We thought he was done after 2010. We were certain he was after 2011. And then he got skinnier and had three more kick-ass seasons, culminating in his fifth title in 2014, at 38, outplaying people like Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh to get it, with the Spurs overcoming the Durant/Russell Westbrook Thunder and the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade Heat, not to mention Aldridge's Blazers.
Come to think of it, Duncan outlasted all of them too.
I won't bore you with his stats. His dominance wasn't about numbers, but rather longevity and all-around, metronomic, two-way excellence. You can stare at his basketball-reference page, mouth agape, if you want. He had more career wins than several NBA franchises and more playoff wins than all but six. I do like a couple of these nuggets from ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh though.
Career plus-minus including playoffs since 1996:— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) July 11, 2016
Tim Duncan +10,000
Dirk Nowitzki +6,725
LeBron James +6,658
Yes, exactly 10,000.
Maybe, the big dork that he is, Duncan just wanted to go out on a round number.
Ultimately, I think the decision to retire came from a place of pride, of good enough not being good enough for Duncan. I've written about his fierce competitiveness before, and we've heard Pop tell people for years that he thought Tim would hang 'em up when he longer thought he could be a difference maker. I'm guessing it ate at him having to watch from the bench last year whenever the Spurs played the small-ball Warriors and now that they've got Durant, those match-up issues would've likely persisted.
Father Time finally got the better of Duncan, at 40, after enduring repeated humiliation. Like most souls going head-to-head against The Golden God, he's suffered a lot more defeats than victories.
The idea of Duncan not physically playing anymore, I think I'll be able to accept relatively soon. He was never the reason you watched the Spurs. He didn't have Robinson's freakish athleticism or Ginobili's charisma and flair or Tony Parker's blinding speed or even Kawhi Leonard's highlight-friendly game.
It's the other stuff I'm going to miss. The antics on the bench. The deadpan humor and sarcastic quips when the mood struck him. The reverential tributes from teammates and opponents. The way his influence kept that locker room so unified and harmonious when the status quo in the sports world is anything but. I mean, think how odd Leonard's personality would seem to us if we didn't have Duncan as a forbearer. We wouldn't know what to make of him. Instead, we're happy to leave him be and to just enjoy watching him play.
But I'll never, ever get over the ludicrous idea of the Spurs having Robinson, one of the handful of best big-men to ever play, and somehow, someway finding someone better than him less than a decade later. That will never not sound totally stupid.
The Spurs were always good with Robinson, a nice story, but it took Duncan for the rest of the NBA to take them seriously. He made them instant contenders the second he arrived and they've stayed that way for two decades, always in the conversation, without fail. It seems almost inevitable they'll slide back into the "good-not-great" category without him. We're already wondering how they'll be able to protect the rim, now that they've lost their best interior defender, a 40-year-old.
As it should be. You just don't replace a Tim Duncan. The Spurs will never be the same.