FLANNERY: I started working in newspapers full-time in the fall of 1997. That was also Tim Duncan's rookie year. (I also skipped my grad school graduation ceremony to watch the lottery, but that's another story). The dude has been playing for literally my entire working life. Now, he's gone and I'm feeling old.
I never believed Duncan would actually retire. I'm sure he's beat up, but he never had crippling injuries like Kobe. He aged better than KG and was still dominant in his way right up until the very end, even as his box score numbers cratered. This isn't just the end of an era, it's an epoch.
We'll get into how the Spurs move forward in due time, but first we owe the Big Fundamental a proper farewell. You've argued that Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time and the second-greatest big man ever, after Kareem. Anything else to add to that, sir?
ZILLER: [sobs uncontrollably]
Let's move on.
FLANNERY: You and Pop can share a nice Chianti and sob together.
A lot of people are writing this team off. Not as a good team, or even as a top-two seed in the West, but as a team that can actually, seriously beat the Golden State Warriors. Let's re-establish that the Spurs will be fine. They have one of the best two-way forwards in the world in Kawhi Leonard. They have a reliable All-Star big man scorer in LaMarcus Aldridge. They still have Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli. They have Pop. I'm not worried about the Spurs.
People are taking them too lightly, aren't they?
ZILLER: Okay, I'm a little worried about the Spurs, mostly because of their trouble with the Thunder, one of whose stars is now on the West’s juggernaut with even more help. Some of the Spurs' trouble was specific to the unfavorable Parker-Westbrook match-up. But half of that equation is Parker, who has noticeably slid over about three years. He's not mentioned among the elite point guards anymore, and for good reason. He's going to have to guard either Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson if the Spurs meet the Warriors in the playoffs.
Now Kyrie Irving managed to survive that test, so it's possible Parker gets out relatively unscathed. But can Parker still wear down dudes when he's on offense? The Spurs offense doesn't really work like that these days.
FLANNERY: All that is valid and explains why the Spurs aren't thought of as a true foil to Golden State the way, say, the Cavaliers are. And yet, these are still the Spurs and they will still be solid defensively and a machine offensively. Maybe even more so on the offensive end given they replaced Duncan's declining production with a still-vital Pau Gasol.
They won 67 games last year and were up 2-1 on OKC before the wheels came off. Even without Timmy, they won't fall that much. I have the Spurs second in the West and I think we'll all be writing the same old love letter to their ingenuity around midseason. I don't know if it will be enough, but the Spurs aren't going away.
ZILLER: I'm fully on board with the Spurs as a top team -- a tippy-top team -- and I think they'll win somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 games again. Kawhi Leonard is an MVP favorite for me, LaMarcus Aldridge is really good and Parker is still an A-minus point guard at worst. Plus Danny Green, Patty Mills, Pau, Manu and Tim -- err, uh, sorry. David Lee? Yeah. Plenty of complements to the main pieces.
I'm only worried about the Spurs in opposition to the Warriors and Cavaliers because those teams combine an unstoppable small forward with an unstoppable point guard. The Clippers can give them trouble too, as we remember from two years ago.
Back to Kawhi. I still think he's underrated by much of the basketball world. We make note when he gets burned these days because it's so rare. I can't remember the last time we had this good a defender in the MVP race. Probably Dwight Howard circa 2011. LeBron was always a great defender but was far more well-known for his offense. Before Dwight, you probably have to go back to KG and Tim Duncan for a legitimate defense-first MVP. The Spurs have some offensive issues, but Kawhi's shutdown abilities erase a lot of that.
FLANNERY: They sure do, and considering the way we value defense these days -- still not enough, IMO -- I see no reason why Kawhi shouldn't be a top-five MVP candidate all season. His D is both subtle and awe-inspiring. You don't have to know anything about pick-and-roll coverages or NBA defenses to get that he's a force. Leonard's a guy you can build a franchise around. Maybe not up to the Duncan level, but the Spurs are in good hands with his giant claws around to protect the perimeter.
I'm with you that the particular matchups against the top teams do not automatically lend themselves to the Spurs favor. But as we've learned over the years, you just never know what the season will bring. This is a perfect spot for Pop, Kawhi and LaMarcus. Let everyone else gobble up the attention. At some point, you're going to have to deal with these guys and it won't be fun.
ZILLER: Amen. It seems like even without Tim, the Spurs are content to lurk outside of the spotlight and knock someone over when they least expect it.