For the first time in 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs are entering a season without Tim Duncan as part of the team. It was going to happen at some point, but this puts a lot of pressure on Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and some newer (not necessarily younger) kids on the central Texas block to take the franchise into its new era.
The Spurs missed Duncan in 21 games last season, and played him only 25.2 minutes a night. His usage ratio dropped to 17.6%. His main presence was on defense, but regardless of what his main use was, the Spurs were fantastic with him playing. They had a +14.1 net rating during his minutes, and were 4.2 points per 100 possessions better on their net rating then when he was missing or on the bench. His defensive box plus-minus was the best in the league last season.
Duncan was just as efficient in the postseason in terms of net rating, maybe even more, but the Spurs had different problems, and at some point, their inability to get him involved offensively, or the cost of having him play big minutes made Gregg Popovich go in different directions. Maybe he made a mistake, and Popovich, despite the label as the NBA’s best coach, makes mistakes in the playoffs. He did when the Spurs lost a 3-2 lead in the finals to the Heat back in 2013; he did when the Spurs lost in the first round to the Clippers in 2015; and he did against a “rookie” Billy Donovan and the Thunder a few months ago.
Unlike what many believed for a very long time, Popovich and Duncan didn’t go out together. Neither did Manu Ginobili. He’s staying for one more year, although out of the Spurs former big three, Ginobili is probably the one closest to retirement in his year-long ability. Tony Parker is on a steep decline, and this season will show if it was an injury he’s been finally able to shake off, or it’s really time for the Spurs to go in a different direction at point guard as well. They added Dejounte Murray to what looks like a suspect backcourt, along with undrafted Bryn Forbes and Ryan Arcidiacono. It might not be enough to provide cover for Parker, and the Spurs might have needed to make a bigger effort in upgrading the point guard position.
One thing they didn’t neglect is the frontcourt. Aldridge was never happy about playing ‘5’ for the Spurs, so Pau Gasol was brought in, and so was David Lee. The Spurs expect Kyle Anderson to play a much bigger part this season, and they have the same expectations of Jonathan Simmons. DeWayne Dedmon was also signed, and if he remains on the roster, the Spurs might make use of his size and rebounding for a few minutes each night, easing up the load.
But more than ever, this is Leonard’s team. The Spurs quiet killer started the postseason in a storm, like Aldridge, but slightly withered away as the series against the Thunder progressed. The scary thing about Leonard is that he’s still growing as a player, only we sometimes miss it because he’s so damn quiet. Aldridge got better as the season moved on, and he’s going to pick it up right where he left off. The Spurs have a dangerous duo in these two, and probably a better offense than last season.
But Duncan has always been about more than just the stats and ability. It’s about leadership and presence. The Spurs were successful before him, but never champions. He embodied everything great about the franchise; everything that made it so successful in the last 20 years. Maybe there’s nothing more than symbolism in Duncan’s departure, and the machine crafted around him and later with him will run just fine. But it won’t be surprising if the Spurs don’t hit the ground running, and need some time to fill the void.