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

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