Spurs’ Duncan faces summer of decision

By Jeff McDonald

Gregg Popovich’s first order of business, in those heady days after the 1997 NBA draft, was to go to the beach.

He boarded a flight to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to meet 21-year-old Tim Duncan, the life-altering big man the Spurs had just made the No. 1 pick.

Duncan was already a luminary in his own right, a consensus national player of the year at Wake Forest. Popovich was an anonymous grunt, already under fire as he prepared to open his first full season as an NBA head coach.

Instinctively, Popovich knew the best sales gimmick, when it came to dealing with his new star player, was no gimmick at all.

“Players have a b.s. antenna,” Popovich said. “They know real quick if you’re for real or not.”

Popovich’s no-nonsense personality immediately endeared him to Duncan, setting the foundation for a 15-season, long-term relationship between coach and franchise player.

It is that relationship, in large part, that kept Duncan from fleeing to Orlando via free agency in 2000. It will come into play again in the coming days or weeks, when Popovich and Duncan reconvene, their connection at a crossroads once more.

The question, hanging in the air thick as island humidity: Does Duncan, now 36, want to keep playing or not?


Duncan’s contract is set to expire July 1, making him an unrestricted free agent. He and the team both acknowledge his impending free agency to be but a technicality.

If Duncan, the centerpiece of four NBA championship teams, chooses to continue his Hall of Fame-bound career, it will be in San Antonio.

“I don’t see him not having a future with the franchise,” Popovich said.

In the wake of the Spurs’ Game 6 ouster by Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, Duncan said he had not yet begun the process that will lead to a decision about his future.

“I haven’t even thought about it, and I really don’t care,” Duncan said. “I’ll figure it out when it happens.”

In considering his options, Duncan is sure to draw advice from across the league, some public and some private, some solicited and some not.

Hall of Famer Charles Barkley offered his two cents on national television, during TNT’s coverage of Game 6 from Oklahoma City.

“I hope Tim Duncan retires,” Barkley said. “He is the greatest power forward ever, but he is obviously slowing down. I want to remember him as a great player.”


Those close to him say Duncan is unlikely to take Barkley’s counsel seriously.

Duncan is coming off a season of rejuvenation, in which he averaged 15.4 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 blocks in a carefully monitored, career-low 28.2 minutes per game.

In terms of efficiency, Duncan’s numbers were nearly identical to those from his 2005-06 campaign, when he was 29.

One longtime league executive who saw Duncan play in February said he thought the Spurs’ big man had two or three more productive seasons left in him.

“He’s moving like he did seven years ago,” said Spurs forward Stephen Jackson, who won a title with Duncan in 2003, perhaps with some hyperbole.

Not all aging big men are created equal.

Shaquille O’Neal (17.8 and 8.4) and Hakeem Olajuwon (18.9 and 9.6) made significant point and rebound contributions for Phoenix and Houston, respectively, at 36.

However, David Robinson (12.2 and 8.3) had clearly slowed down in 2001-02 because of back trouble and he retired the following year.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a player whose game — like Duncan’s — was not predicated on dizzying athleticism, averaged 21.5 points as a 36-year-old in 1983-84, and would see his scoring increase for two seasons after that.

“The good thing about Tim, his love for the game doesn’t go anywhere,” Jackson said. “The older he gets, the more he dedicates himself to the game.”


In the weeks to come, Duncan — who was on the salary books for $21.1 million last season — must decide whether an inevitable pay cut will make the wear-and-tear of another 82-game NBA campaign worth his while.

Robinson, for example, made $20 million total in his final two seasons in San Antonio, albeit in a different era.

After playing at least the past three seasons with chronic knee soreness, Duncan must also decide if the rigorous workout program and stringent dietary regimen necessary to keep his body in fighting shape is worth the effort.

As Duncan’s 15th NBA season was winding down, Popovich was often asked to reminisce about their time together.

He often answered by flashing back to a day on the beach in St. Croix, 15 years earlier.

“I wanted to know who he was,” Popovich said. “I wanted to know who I was going to be coaching, what the positive and negatives are going to be. I wanted him to know what I was thinking, and how I wanted to run things, and if we were going to have any discussions about it, let’s start now.

“I didn’t want to waste any time.”

As an unheralded coach of a 20-win team, Popovich knew the future of a franchise — and perhaps his own career — was riding on that meeting.

“You just have to be yourself,” Popovich said he told himself then. “If he doesn’t like you, screw it, he doesn’t like you. But you can’t fake it and do something to make somebody like you.”

Even now, Popovich remains grateful for the outcome of that first introduction with Duncan, and the professional lifetime the two have shared because of it.

“Every time I walk around the house, once a month, I tell my wife, ‘Say thank you, Tim,’?” Popovich said.

In the weeks to come, after proper pause for reflection, the Spurs’ coach and franchise player will meet for another no-nonsense conversation.

Once again, the future of a franchise will be riding on it.

No matter what Duncan decides, Popovich’s reaction is likely to be the same:

Thank you, Tim.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

From the sky, Diaw falls to the Spurs

Column by Buck Harvey

We were talking the other day in Salt Lake City, passing time as this 26-0 winning streak to the championship was just beginning, and Gregg Popovich hesitated.

When was the last time a healthy, in-his-prime talent such as Boris Diaw had ever fallen from the sky?

The best Popovich could do was the 2005 trade for Nazr Mohammed. Which isn’t close. Mohammed cost the Spurs something and, besides, Diaw isn’t Mohammed.

Diaw is clever, skilled and golden. He’s helped make Tim Duncan younger, and he’s made Tony Parker happier.

He’s also made the Spurs exactly what Al “I don’t see nobody beating ’em” Jefferson said they were.

Diaw won’t be the story of Game 2. Chris Paul’s career high in turnovers ranks larger, as does the curious case of Timothy Button. Duncan seemingly gets younger as each week of the season passes, and now he’s back around 1999 heading toward his rookie year.

His 14 points at halftime allowed the Spurs to keep the lead. And everyone who wonders exactly how much Blake Griffin is bothered by his left knee should take a look at Duncan’s. Think that huge brace is strapped on for fun?

“For whatever reason,” Duncan said afterward, he feels better than he has in years.

Here’s a reason: Diaw. Duncan has played with a lot of big men over the years. And while David Robinson was more dominant than Diaw, and while Duncan won with others such as Mohammed and Fab Oberto, he’s never had anyone with the versatility of Diaw.

In Game 1, he set a personal postseason best for rebounds, and Thursday outlined the rest. Diaw ended the third quarter with a smooth scoop layup, then started the fourth with a slick pass to Tiago Splitter.

Just to show the full package: He threw in his second three of the game.

In doing so, he scored more points than he has since January. Then, Diaw was with a franchise (Charlotte) that couldn’t win. Now he’s with one that can’t lose.

Popovich said afterward Diaw hadn’t exceeded expectations, because Diaw “is pretty well known for what he does. He’s done it for other teams, and now he’s doing it for us. He’s fit in pretty seamlessly. It’s basketball, it’s not that complicated.”

Truth is, it’s not complicated for him. Diaw knows how to play, and it’s a gift. That’s why, in the days before the postseason began, Popovich didn’t hesitate to start someone who had started only seven games in his Spurs career.

With him in with the mix, a smart team that shares the basketball got better at what it does. Diaw might have better passing instincts than his best friend, Parker, which is a remarkable thought. A guy who bangs with Blake Griffin sees the court as well as a point guard?

Parker nodded Thursday. “Boris,” he said, “made a lot of good decisions, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”

Parker’s never had this kind of friend as a teammate, either. Diaw was asked after the game what he got Parker for his birthday, and most thought Diaw would say something trite like a win.

Instead, Diaw actually bought him a present. Wireless speakers.

He and the Spurs will lose eventually, and consecutive games in Los Angeles this weekend are a likely place to start.

But there is a reason the Spurs are 26-2 since Diaw arrived. And it’s because the kind of player who is never available in March for free was.

Twitter: @Buck_SA

(Spurs lead best-of-seven series 2-0)

Game 1:

Game 2:

Game 3: Saturday, @Clippers, 2:30 p.m., ABC

Game 4: Sunday, @Clippers, 9:30 p.m., TNT

* Game 5: Tuesday, @Spurs, TBA, TNT

* Game 6: May 25, @Clippers, TBA, ESPN

* Game 7: May 27, @Spurs, TBA, TNT

* If necessary

Spurs finally find out just what they’re up against

By Jeff McDonald

The Spurs arrived at their practice facility Sunday afternoon — for their third workout in six days with no game — to find they had drawn the opponent they had most desired in the Western Conference semifinals.

Somebody. Anybody.

“You can’t prepare for nobody,” guard Manu Ginobili said.

As far as the Spurs were concerned, the Los Angeles Clippers became their next somebody with a gritty Game 7 victory in Memphis, which finally cemented a second-round opponent beginning Tuesday at the ATT Center.

When the top-seeded Spurs hit the floor for the first time since finishing off Utah last Monday, Chris Paul and the Clippers — and not Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies — will be the team awaiting them.

For the Spurs, who had been going stir crazy scrimmaging each other in their own practice gym, the “who” is less important than the “finally.”

“It drives you a little crazy preparing for two teams at once,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “One day, you think somebody’s going to win, then it changes. It went back and forth. At least now we know who we’re playing.”

In a well-coined phrase, made for T-Shirts: It’s Lob City.

In Paul and Blake Griffin, the KIA-hopping dunk-machine, the fifth-seeded Clippers come with more star power — and, perhaps, more firepower — than did the Jazz.

Widely considered the NBA’s premier point guard, the 27-year-old Paul averaged 20.4 points and 7.1 assists in the Memphis series. By force of will, he lifted the Clippers past a team that at times seemed vastly superior.

The Spurs are familiar with this playoff version of Paul. Then with New Orleans, he pushed the Spurs to seven games in the 2008 conference finals.

“He’s one of those players, you know he’s not going to give up,” Ginobili said.

Popovich described Paul in terms even more glowing: “He’s a future Hall of Famer.”

The presence of an almost-certain lock for Springfield is one thing that separates the Spurs’ next opponent from its last.

Another difference between the Clippers and Jazz: The Clippers have a few players who can shoot from outside 8 feet.

Case in point is Mo Williams, the reserve guard who torched the Spurs for 33 points — and made 7 of 9 3-pointers — in a 120-108 Clippers victory at the ATT Center in March.

“They’re very different,” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who averaged a team-best 21 points in the first round. “They’re more transition, fast breaks, lobs.

“Utah, everything was in the paint. They didn’t have a lot of shooters. The Clippers have some good shooters, so it’s a lot different.”

The Spurs’ strategy in the Utah series was to leave the Jazz shooters alone to clank all but 20 percent of their 3-point tries and use extra defenders to double-team the post.

The Clippers’ abundance of 3-point threats — which includes guard Randy Foye and recently acquired wing Nick Young — might make it more difficult for the Spurs to get away with that approach.

“You can’t help as much as we did against the Jazz,” Ginobili said.

The Spurs, meanwhile, will have to hope an eight-day layoff between series doesn’t rust over the well-oiled machine that has produced 14 consecutive victories.

They will approach the Clippers with a steady diet of Parker pick-and-rolls, lockstep team defense and slick offensive execution that got them this far this fast.

Or, as former Spurs great David Robinson framed the matchup on his Twitter feed Sunday afternoon: “Lob City vs. Fundamental City.”

After an extended, nerve-rattling break, the citizens of Fundamental City are just happy to have another game to play and another opponent to scout.

“The uncertainty is not always good,” Ginobili said. “At this point of the season, you want to know what you’re going to face.”

At long last, at least, the Spurs know.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

(Best-of-seven series)

Game 1: Tuesday, @Spurs, 8:30 p.m., TNT

Game 2: Thursday, @Spurs, 8:30 p.m., ESPN

Game 3: Saturday, @Clippers, 2:30 p.m., ABC

Game 4: Sunday, @Clippers, 9:30 p.m., TNT

* Game 5: May 22, @Spurs, TBA, TNT

* Game 6: May 25, @Clippers, TBA, ESPN

* Game 7: May 27, @Spurs, TBA, TNT

* If necessary