When Tim Duncan was drafted first overall in 1997, these were some of the non-David Robinson players he joined on the Spurs: Sean Elliott, Vinny del Negro and Chuck Person. Duncan is the only active member of that team remaining, Malik Rose having played his final game in 2009. But Gregg Popovich is still the coach. RC Buford made the steady climb from director of scouting to GM, Tony Parker played his first season in 2001, Manu Ginobili came over in 2002. And, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, so it goes.
Part of the reason “immortal” is such a poignant term in sports is because we know even the best athletes and teams aren’t. Even Hall of Famers aren’t exempt from the aging process, which sometimes happens all-of-a-sudden like. Willis Reed retired at 31, James Worthy and Isiah Thomas played their last games at 32. So did Tracy McGrady, with these same Spurs. “Father Time is a bitch, plain and simple,” 37-year-old Vince Carter noted earlier this year while speaking on Kevin Garnett—who coincidentally was held to his first-ever scoreless playoff game last night. Time catches up with everyone. Except, it seems, these Spurs.
Phil Jackson may not consider them a dynasty because they’ve never won consecutive titles, but they haven’t had to rebuild in nearly two decades either. Neither the Lakers or the Bulls can say that.
The Spurs have been the sole constant in an up-and-down millennial NBA. Their lowest winning percentage since drafting Duncan has been .610 in 2009-’10—a 50-win season—and they have not had to send anyone to the annual draft lottery since. Pop and Buford have built themselves some sort of Peter Holt-financed perpetual basketball machine where you swap in a few new role players every couple years and just keep winning. Kevin Willis? Stephen Jackson? Aron Baynes? Sure, why not. Phil Jackson may not consider them a dynasty because they’ve never won consecutive titles, but they haven’t had to rebuild in nearly two decades either. Neither the Lakers or the Bulls can say that.
So why aren’t the Spurs celebrated even more than they are? Maybe it’s because at least some of the allure of sports is based on its transience. Championships can be so thrilling because fans can watch the evolution, can feel like a part of it, even—and because the thrill is often so fleeting. The Showtime Lakers sank into post-Magic sludge, the Larry Bird Celtics aged straight into embarrassing irrelevance, the Bulls went from a repeat-threepeat juggernaut to cast-offs and high schoolers coached by a hilariously ill-suited Tim Floyd. The Spurs? Like the Dude, they abide. And what do they get for it? They get called boring. Yeah, being over .500 for 17 straight seasons can be SUCH a drag. Then again, any miracle can get mundane if it happens enough. Just ask a sunrise.
The first playoff team Tim Duncan played on—his first year, of course—the Spurs knocked out a Phoenix Suns team that featured a 24-year-old All-Star point guard named Jason Kidd, before losing to the Stockton/Malone Jazz in the second round. In 2003, the first year of the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili trinity, the Spurs knocked out a Phoenix Suns team that featured a 25-year-old All-Star point guard named Stephon Marbury, and went on to win the title. Last night the Spurs crushed the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that features a 23-year-old All-Star point guard named Damian Lillard. Duncan gets older, his opponents stay the same age. More or less.
The Spurs abide. Tony Parker blurs into the paint, Manu Ginobili buries huge shots (although not last night), Tim Duncan goes glass. They’ve done these things steadily for a decade-plus, indoctrinating new teammates along the way whether veterans—Speedy Claxton, Brent Barry—or rookies—Fabricio Oberto, Kawhi Leonard. Their demise has been often reported, always erroneously.
Of course one day there will actually be an end. It’s inevitable. Father Time, bitch though he may be, is still undefeated, and one day the Spurs will have to face the harsh reality of a Duncan-less future. Pop has stated he will be the next out the door, and one would expect that Parker and Ginobili would not be far behind. A total rebuild—of both philosophy and roster—would be in order for the first time since 1997. Without a Duncan (or Robinson) type as the alpha dog and without Pop at the helm, the Spurs would cease to be, well, the Spurs, for the first time in 20-plus years.
That said, let’s not be rushing anyone out the door quite yet. Pop masterfully managed minutes this season, playing no one more than 30 per while winning a league-best 62 games. And the tough seven-game first-round series with the Mavericks only seems to have steeled their resolve. Duncan may be 38 now, but his decline has been almost imperceptible, his fundamentals-based game seemingly impervious to age. Why can’t he still be doing this at 40? Then again, he might choose to walk away a winner, with his game still intact—it’s hard to imagine Duncan going on a farewell tour, accepting accolades and rocking chairs. So please, appreciate these Spurs while they’re still here. Because you’ll miss them when they’re gone.
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