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Even at age 39, Tim Duncan is still the Spurs' backbone

Duncan's physical skills have diminished, but his intelligence is as good as ever. Even now, the Spurs need him badly.

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At this point, Tim Duncan gets by on muscle memory alone. He's no longer a dynamic low-post scorer, his scoring efficiency is down, he's snaring fewer rebounds and he's a liability when defending in space. These things happen to big men 10 years Duncan's junior, much less those pushing 40. The Spurs are Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge's team now.

Muscle memory alone, though, still goes a long way. With Duncan, the Spurs are a historic team. Without him, they're very good, yet vulnerable in the wrong matchup. It says a lot about Duncan's disposition that he's still this essential to the Spurs long after his athleticism and production have waned.

The last several weeks prove Duncan's importance. With Duncan healthy and playing his supplementary role, the Spurs started 36-6 and were on pace for the best point differential of all time, a full two points more per 100 possessions than the Warriors'. Life was even better in the minutes Duncan played: San Antonio outscored opponents by 17 points per 100 possessions, and no other key rotation player impacted the Spurs' historically great defense as much.

But in the 10 games since Duncan suffered a knee injury (he returned Wednesday against Orlando), the Spurs have only been very good. They were soundly defeated in both tests against elite opposition (Warriors, Cavaliers) and their point differential is nearly seven points worse than the Warriors' over that same time frame.

Let's not cry poor here, but Duncan still matters. Even now, he may be the difference between a champion and a very good team.

Duncan doesn't really create his own offense anymore, which frees him to focus on his two strengths: screening and defending the rim. His expertise in freeing cutters and ball-handlers is so deep that officials can't tell he's bending the rules every time. He'll stand directly behind the man he's screening, then pick his side before the help defender notices. Notice the little dance on this screen to free Tony Parker:

Sometimes, he doesn't pick a side at all and creeps up the defender's back.

Duncan is still an excellent passer, and his screen-setting abilities aid him here, too. Duncan loves to catch the ball in the high post, pivot as a teammate cuts off his shoulder, nail that man's defender as he passes by and deliver the backdoor pass. He's been doing it for years, but now, it occupies more of his attention.

On the other end, Duncan is still a top interior defender. He doesn't just alter shots at the basket, though obviously he can if needed. Just ask Andrew Wiggins.

The difference between Duncan and other springier centers is twofold. For one, Duncan actually snares the shots he alters. Opponents don't just miss around him at the basket. They also surrender the rebound and transition opportunity the other way. No big man in the league gets the ball out quicker once he secures it.

For another, Duncan stops countless scoring opportunities before they happen with his positioning. Against anyone else, Kyle Korver gets a layup here. Duncan, however, was able to spot the danger out of the corner of his eye and left his man to stop it before the pass was even thrown. His anticipation ruined the Hawks' well-executed set play.

Duncan's intelligence and selflessness made him an all-time great. They're now keeping him relevant way past his logical expiration date.