It’s got to be a strange thing to be Matt Herring today.
On the one hand, you’ve just landed a plum job as the strength and conditioning coach of the Spurs. On the other, there are no players around to strengthen or condition, and won’t be until the NBA’s labor morass mercifully ends.
At this point, we can only imagine what Herring’s typical day at work might entail. We half envision him spending his afternoons leading Gregg Popovich in suicide sprints up The Hill behind the Spurs’ vacant practice facility.
Herring might not arrive in San Antonio with players to coach, but he does arrive with goals. One of them: He hopes to help Tim Duncan add years to the tail end of his career.
“You can have a positive impact on a guy like Tim Duncan and helping him get three, four, five more years out of his career and end on his terms,’’ Herring, formerly of the University of Florida, .
If Herring can really help Duncan discover the Fountain of Youth, it would make him the Spurs’ most important addition since perhaps Duncan himself. At age 35, Duncan is clearly slowing down.
His decline has been gradual, and he remains one of the league’s most productive big men, but the decline has been sure. No longer the Spurs’ offensive centerpiece, Duncan last season saw career lows in minutes (28.4), points (13.4) and rebounds (8.9) per game.
Duncan was surprisingly durable last season, the likely result of the dip in minutes, missing only one game until the day he landed on Ekpe Udoh’s foot in a March 21 game against Golden State.
Duncan never fully recovered from that ankle sprain, and was still obviously limited in the Spurs’ first-round playoff ouster against Memphis. That injury was mostly bad luck, but Duncan still those chronically sore knees that support his 6-foot-11 frame aren’t getting any better as he bears down on 40.
It remains to be seen what the Spurs’ new Director of Athletic Performance can do to slow Duncan’s aging process. Herring comes with impeccable credentials, having participated in back-to-back national championships at Florida and a Final Four run at Oklahoma State. But he’s no miracle worker.
Under the tutelage of Mike Brungardt, a 17-year Spurs strength and conditioning veteran, Duncan already kept himself in top shape. He tossed the truck tires in the summers and did the cardio and engaged in the sparring sessions with boxer Jesse James Leija, all in attempts to prolong his career.
Even with team-sanctioned activities outlawed this offseason, Duncan has been at it again this summer, recently spotted on a San Antonio high school track running wind sprints in the sweltering South Texas heat.
Nothing Duncan does, however, can stop the next birthday from coming. Herring’s aim will be to try to mitigate the effects of those birthdays piling up.
When it comes to big men aging (somewhat) gracefully, the gold standard is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who at 38 was still devastating opponents with his sky hook to the tune of 23.4 points per game. The days of averaging 20 points are over for Duncan, if for no other reason that Popovich is determined to keep his minutes in check.
History says Duncan is still a few years from the retirement home.
Jabbar played until he was 41, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing until they were 39, Shaquille O’Neal until he was 38, David Robinson until he was 37 — albeit each with varying levels of success.
Duncan will never be the MVP Duncan again. But, with Herring’s help, there’s no reason he can’t at least join the League of Late 30s Big Men. That’s the goal, anyway. With little else to do these days, Herring will have plenty of time to dream it.
After that, he can get started on adding years to Manu Ginobili.