There has always been a timelessness around Tim Duncan. Everyone knew, after 19 seasons, that Duncan's retirement was coming soon, but even after he officially announced it on Monday there's still a part of it that doesn't feel real. It's because we thought Duncan would play forever. It's because it's still feels like he could.
With Duncan's arrival as the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft came the Spurs dynasty that would dominate the next two decades. San Antonio's lottery win that year will always be one of the most fortunate and important moments in the NBA's history, but Duncan still had to join David Robinson and turn titleless San Antonio into a team that would win five championships without a losing season between them. For that, Duncan will always be precious to Spurs fans, with an undisputed legacy as a top-10 all-time player.
But now, Duncan's second legacy begins, one that's even bigger than him.
Few markets are less attractive than San Antonio, with sweaty summers and a non-glamorous downtown rooted in the past. It's a city that holds traditional values and embraces a hard-working ethos. Duncan's arrival coincided with the Spurs embracing that culture as a franchise, using it to fuel their success. It started with him, of course. The Spurs wouldn't be anywhere without Duncan, something people with the Spurs say constantly. The question is where that ethos lies now.
Duncan always personified that culture. He worked tirelessly on the court, playing both ends of the floor without ever complaining. He wore baggy shirts and owns a car detail shop where he'll work during the offseason. "Substance over style," declared a 1999 Sports Illustrated cover that Duncan graced. But Duncan has never desired to be on magazine covers, preferring to slip out of the locker room before the media even see him after games. When he does, he's soft spoken, leading by example more than words. That's not to say he lacks passion, but Duncan always had his own subtle ways to exhibit it.
As a leader, the Spurs fell in line with Duncan's work ethic, the same one that made him the greatest power forward of all time (never mind he mostly played center). That culture nurtured in San Antonio is legendary now. It was always about the team, not the player. Any basketball possession where a the ball hums for an open shot or a player passes up a good shot so his teammate can takes a better one is called "Spursian."
Duncan has always been the perfect player for this. He's an all-time great, of course: a five-time champion, a two-time MVP, a 15-time All-Star, plus 15 more appearances on the All-Defensive team. Even when he demanded the ball, it was efficient, not clock-killing isolations. He adapted to a hundred different teammates throughout his career, playing next to shooters and defensive big men and Europeans with quirky games, finding a way to excel no matter who it was.
We thought this day might come sooner. In 2011, Duncan had the worst season of his career, at least until the most recent one. He averaged 13 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes, but as a 34-year-old, it looked like he might have finally hit his athletic peak.
Instead, Duncan rebounded brilliantly the next year. Duncan banked shots in his entire career, just like he hung on the rim after his signature one-handed dunks. Most superstars look completely different in their first few years than they do by their final few seasons, but just about the only way you can tell with Duncan is that high-def television allows you to see how much his salt-and-pepper hair has grayed over the years. His per-36 minute stats are unlike anything you've probably ever seen.
Tim's annual per-36 stats are one of the most amazing sports things I have ever seen. pic.twitter.com/cXFBrXWXLx— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) July 11, 2016
The Spurs' famous tenets emerged with Duncan's arrival, along with the stone-faced-but-secretly-lovable Gregg Popovich who began coaching the team in 1996. Those two were the guiding forces behind San Antonio's transition, changing from a respected franchise who won games to an organization that was revered throughout all sports.
The question is how the Spurs will react as those two leave. Duncan is gone now, and Popovich will turn 68 during next season.
Early indications are positive. A sweltering city in the middle of Texas turned into a franchise that could sign marquee free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge, who cited San Antonio's core tenet of team-wide selflessness as the biggest reason why he chose to sign with them last summer. Aldridge transformed his formerly isolation-heavy style into a more team-friendly game during his first season with the Spurs. That's a rousing success.
But whether that continues will depend on how San Antonio speaks to the culture that Duncan and Popovich have instilled. Certainly, Kawhi Leonard seems like a natural candidate to continue that culture as a no-nonsense star. But he's still not Duncan. The Spurs knows they would be nowhere without Duncan. They know how important he has been to not just their success, but their metamorphosis into a franchise that everyone strives to replicate. As much as San Antonio can try to emulate Duncan, there's nothing like actually having him as a living, breathing example in the locker room every day. And now, as timeless as he seemed, that consistent example isn't one anymore.
No one on the planet can fill a hole the size of Tim Duncan, but he doesn't have to leave yet, or ever. Maybe Duncan himself isn't timeless, but the way he helped transform San Antonio is a legacy that can last for decades more.
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