The last the public saw of Tim Duncan, he was standing in a doorway just outside the locker room shower at Chesapeake Energy Arena, trying hard to avoid talking about his basketball future.
The Spurs had just been bounced from the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City, leaving Duncan in no mood to discuss his impending free agency.
“I haven’t even thought about it, and I really don’t care,” Duncan said June 6. “I’ll figure it out when it happens, just like everything else.”
That time has come.
Duncan’s contract expired at 11 p.m. Saturday, making the 36-year-old franchise icon a free agent for just the third time in his 15-year NBA career.
Much like the last time, in 2003 when Duncan opted out of his deal with the intention of signing a new one with the Spurs, he doesn’t plan to shop around.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports during the playoffs, Duncan memorably declared himself “a Spur for life.”
“I don’t see him not having a future with the franchise,” coach Gregg Popovich said of the two-time league MVP.
So the question now at the dawn of Duncan’s latest foray into free agency is not whether he’ll re-sign with the Spurs, who drafted him first overall in 1997. It’s at what price tag.
The market for a 36-year-old power forward with Hall of Fame credentials and a championship ring might have been set Saturday, as multiple reports indicated Kevin Garnett was planning to sign a three-year, $34 million deal to remain with the Boston Celtics.
Statistically, the two big men were remarkably similar last season.
Garnett averaged 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in a little more than 30 minutes per game. Duncan posted 15.4 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes.
Both players earned around $21.2 million last season, pro-rated for the lockout-shortened schedule. Both were left off the All-Star team for the first time in their decorated careers.
Spurs general manager R.C. Buford declined to publicly discuss negotiations with his star power forward.
“That’s not something we would comment on,” Buford said.
By NBA rule, Duncan is the only free agent with whom Spurs management had been allowed to negotiate before Saturday night.
Given that head start, it is not difficult to imagine an agreement with Duncan in place by July 11, the first day players are permitted to sign new contracts.
Re-inking Duncan to a Garnett-like deal, with the 2012-13 season starting somewhere in the $10 million range, would not get the Spurs under the salary cap.
But it would help accomplish the more feasible goal of moving them below the luxury tax threshold, set at $70 million last season and expected to increase marginally for next season.
That is significant for reasons that go beyond owner Peter Holt’s pocketbook.
Only teams below the luxury tax have access to the full mid-level exception — expected to be worth a shade more than $5 million — with which to lure other free agents.
That won’t be enough for the Spurs to conjure a radical summertime makeover, but it might be enough to keep together the bulk of a team that finished 50-16 last season and made the conference finals.
Other in-house free agents for the Spurs include forward Boris Diaw, who at age 30 could be chasing his last significant NBA payday, as well as restricted free agents Danny Green and Patrick Mills.
The Spurs have already extended qualifying offers to both guards — $2.7 million for Green, $885,120 for Mills — giving the team the right to match other offers.
“This is my first time to be pursued,” Green, a 25-year-old set to enter his fourth NBA season, said Saturday. “It’s an exciting time, and hopefully a fun time. I’m hoping there’s a good amount of teams who like what I can do.”
The Spurs could also choose to fortify their roster with players from overseas, including Slovenian big man Erazem Lorbek and French guard Nando de Colo.
Though the Spurs own draft rights for both players, money to sign either would come from their free-agent budget.
Buford said the team would continue to monitor all its European projects — de Colo is set to play for the French team in the London Olympics later this month — but added “we’re not going to try to rush the timeline.”
“When it’s right for them, hopefully we’ll be able to work out an arrangement that fits for them and fits for us,” Buford said.
Those discussions, of course, are secondary on the Spurs’ offseason to-do list. This has always been the summer of Duncan, and it officially began Saturday night.