Since Tim Duncan announced his retirement, I’ve been continuously hearing about how it’s “the end of an era” in San Antonio, like it’s some sort of doomsday proposition for the Spurs.
Let me be clear: Duncan was an outstanding player. Without question, he is at least one of the ten greatest basketball players who has ever lived. His resume includes five championships spread out over sixteen years; multiple MVP’s; fifteen All-NBA selections, ten of which were for the first-team; and fifteen All-Defense selections, eight of which were first-team nods. Need I say more about his accomplishments?
Duncan’s importance to the Spurs, however, goes beyond those achievements. He remained loyal to the franchise that drafted him throughout the entirety of his career, which in today’s NBA we know shouldn’t be taken for granted. He also was arguably the main reason why San Antonio was able to cultivate a culture where consistent excellence and putting the team ahead of yourself became the two main tenants of the organization. While Duncan never cared much for the spotlight, his overall impact on not just the Spurs but on the entire NBA was too big to ignore.
And yet, as great of a player as Duncan was and as important he was to San Antonio, his retirement is not going to alter the positive direction of the franchise. The Spurs simply won’t fall into the same rut after losing a legend like Duncan as the Yankees have since Derek Jeter retired, or the Lakers presumably will in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s departure. Both of those teams no longer have an identity now that their immortals are gone. But lacking an identity won’t be a problem for San Antonio: That’s because Gregg Popovich has already been positioning the Spurs to make this transition for quite some time.
It all started when the Spurs gambled during the 2011 draft by trading for that year’s sixteenth overall pick, Kawhi Leonard. Popovich and the Spurs front office may not have known it then, but it turns out that Leonard was cut from the same cloth as the unflappable and multi-dimensional Duncan; and after five years, it’s clear that the twenty-five year old is one of the game’s biggest stars.
Sure, Leonard burst onto the scene in the 2014 NBA Finals. However, it was this past season when Leonard truly cemented himself as one of the league’s premier players. With not only Duncan’s minutes per game and usage rate declining, but Tony Parker’s and Manu Ginobili’s as well, Popovich entrusted Leonard with more responsibility on the offensive end of the floor. It was a gradual passing of the torch- and Leonard delivered. He posted career highs in points per game (21.2) and three-point percentage (.443, 3rd in the NBA) while also taking home the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. What was really remarkable about Leonard’s season, though, was how highly he ranked in nearly all of the NBA’s most important statistical metrics. Here’s a run down:
- 6th in Player Efficiency Rating
- 3rd in True Shooting Percentage
- 7th in Offensive Win Shares
- 2nd in Defensive Win Shares
- 2nd in Win Shares per 48 minutes
Based on these metrics, there’s no one else in the NBA besides LeBron James that can impact a game in as many ways as Leonard. Sure, Stephen Curry may be the better shooter; Kevin Durant the more prolific scorer; Russell Westbrook the more dynamic offensive player. But none of them, nor anyone else besides James, can combine above average offensive production with elite defense like Leonard. Remember this, as well: Leonard is only twenty-five years old, and in many respects he’s still improving. For that reason, he is clearly one of the NBA’s best players to build around.
Leonard isn’t the only reason why San Antonio has a bright future in the wake of Duncan’s retirement. LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished 14th in PER and 9th in WS/48 min this past season, won’t ever be as great as The Big Fundamental was at his peak, but he’s still a damn good replacement for the future Hall of Famer. To draw an analogy, imagine how seamless a transition the Yankees would have had if after Derek Jeter retired, they had an All-Star infielder like Colorado’s Nolan Arenado on their roster to make up for the loss. (Just for the record, I don’t want to suggest that Duncan was quite as below average as Jeter was in his final season, but, since they were aging stars, the comparison still holds for the most part.)
Moreover, Aldridge’s decision to sign with San Antonio when he was the most sought after free agent last summer indicates that impact players are willing to overlook the fact that San Antonio is a small market in order to play for Gregg Popovich. Even though the Spurs missed out on free agents like Kevin Durant and Mike Conley this offseason, they were able to sign Pau Gasol, who should be as productive as Duncan was last year, and they remain in a favorable position to acquire good players moving forward.
Essentially, San Antonio is now in the same position as the San Francisco 49ers were in the early 1990’s. After winning multiple championships, Joe Montana, the player most responsible for putting the 49ers dynasty in motion, departed following the ’92 season. One would’ve thought that San Francisco couldn’t expect to have another quarterback capable of winning Super Bowl’s like Montana, particularly with their stranglehold on the NFC slipping due to the emergence of the star-studded Dallas Cowboys. Yet waiting in the wings was Steve Young- a quarterback who was developing while Montana was still on the team- who would turn out to be great enough to keep the 49ers in Super Bowl contention for the next seven years.
The Spurs might have just lost their Montana, but they luckily have their Young; and even though the Warriors are poised to win multiple championships, at least as long as they have Durant, the Spurs have little to be concerned about. Mainly because of Leonard, and to a lesser extent Aldridge and the other supporting players they currently have, San Antonio’s days as one of the NBA’s best teams are far from over. Sure, they might not necessarily win a championship in the next few years (although they certainly could). But Golden State probably won’t win every year, right? As long as Popovich is patrolling the sidelines and has Leonard as his go-to player, the Spurs still can win another championship or two within the next six years.
Does it say less about Duncan that the Spurs will do just fine without him? Not at all. I actually think it says more about him as a player. As I said earlier, in addition to his own personal accomplishments. Duncan has helped establish both a legacy of consistent excellence and a culture that preaches teamwork and unselfishness. These principles will allow San Antonio to continue to excel even without the greatest power forward of all-time.
Welcome to the new era of Spurs basketball.
Duncan photo courtesy of Getty Images; Leonard photo courtesy of Roland Cortes/Getty Images