San Antonio Spurs News

The Seismic Impact of Tim Duncan

By Ryan McCallum
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There is a volcano in Iceland called Bárðarbunga that for months has been releasing magma at a rate that would fill every pro football stadium in America within a month.

The thing with volcanoes, at least in modern times, is that you can anticipate their eruption.  For months, if not years, prior to the eruption scientists are able to track seismic activity to better predict a timeline for the violent explosion, or the rapid expulsion of magma through fissures in the Earth’s crust.

In the case of Bárðarbunga, it is not the physical damage of the magma that has people worried, it is the fact that the volcanic area is surrounded by the largest ice-cap in Europe.  If the eventual great-eruption occurs under this cap the results will be devastating.  Mass flooding will occur and steam and ash will shut down European air travel and stymie the progress of a continent.  Let that settle in.

The San Antonio Spurs’ great Tim Duncan is 38 years old and analysts have been anticipating his professional demise for years.  Perhaps the greatest annual surprise in basketball, if not professional sports, is that Duncan just keeps plugging away year-after-year without a catastrophic drop in productivity.

Per 36 minutes:

Season

PointsReboundsBlocks2009-2010

20.6

11.6

1.7

2010-2011

17.1

11.3

2.4

2011-2012

19.7

11.5

1.9

2012-2013

21.3

11.9

3.2

2013-2014

18.7

12.0

2.3

The fear for Spurs fans is that when the day comes that Tim Duncan’s statistics begin to fall, they will fall fast.  And much like Bárðarbunga it will take out everything around it.

Tim Duncan is still so central to what the Spurs do on both ends of the floor that his abrupt fall in production has the very real potential to melt away the Spurs’ continuity of play, and flood the Southwest Division with mediocrity from its greatest franchise.

Mar 31, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) grabs a rebound during the second quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

To protect against this slide, coach Gregg Popovich has restricted Tim Duncan’s minutes to under 30 per game, and has been on that track since 2010-2011,a just attempt to lengthen the forward’s career.

This is the classic case of delaying the inevitable, and it is working. Tim  Duncan has been “too old” to compete on a high level for the past five years, and all he has done is win a fifth NBA title, move into 11th place in career rebounds, score his 25,000th point, and inexplicably continue on his nightly double-double pace.

The Spurs have not, however, done anything to prepare for the disruptive and dangerous end to Tim Duncan.  If it comes via poor play or injury this season the Spurs have no one to fill that void.  The most likely on-roster replacement is Kyle Anderson and that very statement should make Spurs fans shudder.

If Tim Duncan goes out on top and retires at the end of the season the Spurs can venture out into the free agent market in search of the replacement.  This is a position that the Spurs are wholly unfamiliar with.

Sure, San Antonio has pursued free agents before, but those were additions to a solid core.  We haven’t seen the replacement of a member of the inner circle.

Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol are soon to be free agents, and the latter is a rumored target of San Antonio.

Nov 14, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph (5) dribbles the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. The Spurs defeated the Lakers 93-80. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

However, the Spurs should do something now instead of waiting for a post-implosion recovery effort.

If Tim Duncan goes down, San Antonio loses 14.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

The average margin of victory for the Spurs this season is only 1.3 points, so without an adequate replacement it isn’t hard for one to realize the issue this creates.  No other player on the roster is as consistent as Duncan, yet even those players have understudies to share the load.

Tony Parker has Patty Mills (when he returns from injury) and the emerging Cory Joseph; Manu Ginobili has the shared minutes of Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard gets to make use of both Green and Marco Belinelli.

The Spurs need to put the heir-apparent in place before the trade deadline.  The problem is two-fold.  If Tim Duncan goes down this year and there is no defined plan, San Antonio won’t repeat as NBA Champion.  Compound that concern with the notion that whenever Duncan and Ginobili leave, under any condition, San Antonio will be less desirable a destination for a true impact free agent.

The best lure the Spurs have now is that they are a 2015 NBA Champion contender, and the clear favorite in the Western Conference.  They are the top seed with, and only with, Tim Duncan encamped in the starting lineup.

Furthermore, without a move forward strategy San Antonio will waste the final years of Tony Parker, and the prime years of Kawhi Leonard as they search for that missing cog.  The vacuum of Tim Duncan’s fall will affect all aspects of San Antonio’s present and immediate future.

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It is not inconceivable that without Tim Duncan the Spurs could be a lottery team that very next season.  The NCAA does not adequately prepare front court players the way it did in the 1990s, so drafting a realistic replacement for Duncan is not likely.

The Spurs should trade a package of players to one of the fringe teams with solid power-forward play.  I’ve already mentioned Al Jefferson in Charlotte, who would be more than a serviceable replacement for Tim Duncan.

An even more intriguing potential is LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland.  The Trailblazers are not a realistic contender in the West with San Antonio, the emergence of the Dallas Mavericks, and the pesky Golden State Warriors all jockeying for post season positioning.

Aldridge’s contract is up in the summer of 2015.  Portland and Aldridge failed to reach an extension over the last year, although he says it has no bearing on his desire to stay in Portland. If the Trailblazers don’t realistically believe they have a chance to resign him, they should trade him this year (à la Kevin Love).  With a potentially retiring group of Spurs this summer, San Antonio could likely supply Aldridge with whatever terms he requires to resign.

Now that is the kind of player that could put a cork in the rumbling volcano that is Tim Duncan’s final years.

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