The day that no Spurs fan is looking forward to is finally upon us, the task of facing life after Tim Duncan.
No matter how different every Spurs team has been from 1997 to 2016, Duncan, no matter his role, has been the backbone of the team. With each passing season, Tim’s retirement grew closer and closer, but his incredible battle with Father Time was cause for hesitation. Could Timmy be the first player to play until 50?
The only thing that was for sure was that Spurs fans did not want to see him hang it up. However, once again Father Time boasted his undefeated record this season, reducing the once back-to-back MVP to a bench-warming afterthought in the 2016 playoffs. His knees are simply too old and slow to keep up with anyone under 35. Even wearing thick knee braces on both knees was not enough to battle the daily wear and tear that is the NBA lifestyle, which eventually consumed Duncan as the season ended and playoffs began.
San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan (21) shouts out instructions to his team in a game against the Indiana Pacers. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Gone are the days where the Spurs can throw the rock into the Big Fundamental in an overtime game on the road and say “Score” (see 2014 Western Conference Finals Game 6). Technically, Duncan has not spoken on his plans for next year, but even if he were to come back, he would be playing very limited minutes or perhaps even a bench role. In all honestly, he probably could still help an NBA team by giving them 15 minutes of good defense and leadership, but at this point he cannot compete with younger, stronger bigs anymore. During the OKC series, time and time again Adams or Kanter would completely overpower Duncan, making it hard to keep him on the court. If the Spurs stayed big with Aldridge and Duncan, it enabled the Thunder to keep Adams and/or Kanter on to bully Duncan down low. Duncan’s lack of impact forced Pop to play smaller, which played against the Spurs inside-out playing style for the 2015/16 season.
It’s not all bad though. After winning the 2015 free agent sweepstakes by nabbing LaMarcus Aldridge last year, who played terrific down the stretch for the Silver and Black (disregarding the back half of the Oklahoma City series as partly due to his finger injury and partly due to great Thunder defense), the Spurs are still in great shape. Having a bright immediate future directly after losing the best power forward ever is a luxury practically every team in this league would die for. Now it is time for Pop to officially move this team into the Kawhi Leonard Era. The MVP runner-up has shown he can get it done on a nightly basis and be a number one option on a really good team… 67-15 good.
The Thunder series showed that the Spurs still need a little more to get back to the mountaintop. The lack of athleticism and mobility of Duncan and West allowed the Thunder to attack the paint and forced the Spurs adjust to them. Aldridge had to play the 5 spot a lot to compensate for Duncan’s age, West’s height, and Diaw’s girth, but it was not a good match-up when the Thunder went big or small. OKC’s athleticism forced the Spurs’ hand, mainly because they did not have enough athletic ability (or youth) to throw back at them, somewhat reminiscent of a certain 2012 playoff series.
“The answer to the Spurs lack of athleticism and potential loss of the once dominant Tim Duncan could be be wrapped up in one single draft pick: the selection of the somewhat ambiguous Thon Maker”
The answer to the Spurs’ lack of athleticism and potential loss of the once dominant Tim Duncan could be be wrapped up in one single draft pick: the selection of the somewhat ambiguous Thon Maker. At 7’1″ and 215 pounds, the 19 year old is a physical specimen of near Kawhi Leonard proportions. His 7’2″ wingspan and 9’3″ standing reach paired with a 36 inch vertical gives him loads of defensive potential. In a league of small ball, one of the biggest keys is having agile big men.
Slow bigs getting caught at the top the key trying to keep up with quick guards is what makes small ball flourish. However, mobile bigs such as Tristan Thompson and Paul Millsap are finding their niche as some of the most valuable commodities in all of basketball. Much like Thompson, Maker has very little post scoring ability, yet he makes up for that with his acute handling and shooting skills for a big of his stature. The biggest cause for concern when drafting Maker is his weight and strength. At only 215 pounds, he is a stick of a center, and even though other skinny big men have been successful (Manute Bol, Dikembe Mutombo), Maker will need to add strength early in his NBA career to make it as a center, or a even power forward for that matter (except with the current small ball trend, I don’t even know what a 4 looks like anymore).
The last time the Spurs moved up in the draft, they traded George Hill to the Pacers for 15th overall pick in 2011, which turned into the superstar that is Kawhi Leonard. If Popovich and the Spurs’ front office see something special in Thon Maker, they will not hesitate to pull the trigger. Maker is projected to be a late first-round, early second-round pick. The Spurs have the 29th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.