Tim Duncan appears finished, although he’s appeared finished before. It was 2011 when the 61-win Spurs lost in the first round of the playoffs, dispatched in six games by the Memphis Grizzlies. Duncan averaged 13 and 10, but looked every bit of his 34 years. Then Kawhi Leonard came. The Spurs made two Finals trips, winning the second, and won a franchise record 67 games this year. The Grizzlies? They won 42 games and were swept in the first round. By the Spurs.
The Spurs lost last night, perhaps for the final time in the Duncan era, which has lasted a glorious 19 seasons, resulting in 19 playoff appearances and five NBA championships. The Spurs were defeated by the Oklahoma City Thunder—a team that didn’t exist when Duncan first entered the league—led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, forces of nature who are both just 27. The game was as anti-climatic as a playoff game gets. The Thunder led by 24 at the half, won by 13. They led by 26 at the end of the third. Duncan’s final shot, of the game at least, was a dunk attempt off a screen and roll with 3:12 remaining. It was blocked by Serge Ibaka. Duncan remained in the game until the end.
Duncan is 40 now, with sprinkles of grey and white throughout his close-cropped black hair and beard. Spurs colors. He averaged just 25 minutes per game this season, his lowest ever, attempted just seven shots a night, again his lowest, and for the first time did not average double digits in either points or rebounds. For the first time since that short 2011 playoff run, his postseason numbers were lower than his regular-season ones. For the first time since then, he simply looked finished.
We will not know whether Duncan is truly finished until he wants us to know. He has a player option next season for $5.5 million, free money, and no one would fault him for taking it. He didn’t officially retire last night, and likely won’t for a while. Gregg Popovich, Duncan’s only NBA coach, certainly won’t be telling us. Still, it seems unlikely Duncan will return for one final season, one final payday. If he does, it will be apparent to everyone that next season is indeed the end, and he will get the farewells he never wanted. Ending on 20 seasons doesn’t seem like a Tim Duncan thing to do. Ending on 19, not announcing it until after it’s over, that seems more like it.
At some point Duncan will announce he’s done. Or maybe he won’t. Calling a press conference just to announce his retirement doesn’t seem like a very Tim Duncan thing to do, either. He’s not the self-aggrandizing sort. Maybe he’ll just quietly file the paperwork. Maybe he won’t even do that. A date will be set for his number to be retired in San Antonio, his Hall of Fame clock will start ticking. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins or someone very much like him will write a story about a brilliant career with new anecdotes related by opponents and teammates. The playoffs will continue without him.
We know that he went to San Antonio and stayed there. He doesn’t have Instagram or Twitter. He shared the ball, not himself.
In an era where we seem to know everything about superstars, Duncan’s life has remained remarkably private. We know he likes The Punisher, and video games, we know he owns a car customization business, that he grew up a swimmer in the Virgin Islands, that he wound up at Wake Forest more or less by chance, that he stayed in school all four years despite the fact that he would have likely been the No. 1 pick as a sophomore and again as a junior. We know that he went to San Antonio and stayed there. He doesn’t have Instagram or Twitter. He shared the ball, not himself.
Tim Duncan won’t be a meme, he doesn’t have a singular (or perhaps even a single) Vine with millions and millions of loops. His Spurs jersey did not appear in the top 15 NBA jerseys sold this past season. One would not expect there to be clamor for a Mitchell & Ness version right away, either. After all, it never changed. Not enough to notice anyway. His sneakers won’t get hyped-up retro re-issues (although maybe these should). Duncan was perhaps the NBA’s best player during the most marketed era in the sport’s history and he will leave—whenever that is—without having barely left a mark. He came to work, he did his job, he went home.
We often wrote about Duncan as if he were a robot, both for his flawless execution of the fundamentals (that footwork, that bank shot, that defense) and his stoic personality. It’s possible that Joey Crawford ejected Duncan for laughing on the bench just because he was shocked by it. But anyone who covered Duncan and the Spurs for even one game knew there was more to Duncan than the expressionless way he went about his business. His interactions with his teammates on the bench and the locker room showed plenty of personality and a wicked—if tinder-dry—sense of humor. As for us in the media, he gave us what we needed, but not much more. Again, he did his job.
If there is any one single image of Duncan that recurs, it will be that of him hugging the ball, something he did before the start of nearly every game. He hugged it tightly to his chest with both arms, peering expressionlessly over the top before surrendering it and allowing the game to begin. It could be the cover of an autobiography that he almost certainly will never write: Tim Duncan and the Ball: A Love Story. The feeling was mutual.