During his news conference with the world’s media just a few minutes before Sunday night’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, Kobe Bryant said he hadn’t given any real thought to when he might finally retire.
“I don’t really want the rocking chair before the game,” he said.
Neither would Tim Duncan.
For 17 NBA seasons now, he’s been about the game and not the showmanship. In winning four championships and two MVP awards, Duncan has been as inscrutable as the Sphinx, keeping his personality walled up within the Spurs locker room, rarely even smiling in public. Except, of course, for that time he supposedly laughed at referee Joey Crawford.
One could more readily imagine Duncan slipping into a shirt of thorns rather than a comfortable public embrace from all corners of the NBA.
That’s why it would be unwise immediately to dismiss the comment made by former NBA coach George Karl, now an ESPN analyst, on SportsCenter:
“You know over the weekend, that was the whispers that I got. I got a couple of phone calls, one from San Antonio that said that Tim Duncan’s thinking this is going to be his last year. The best, most fundamental big guy ever to play in the NBA, and he leaving would make me very, very sad. The San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan would be very difficult for me to watch.”
Even as he approaches his 38th birthday in April, it is not at all difficult to watch Duncan play near the incredibly high standard that he has always set for himself. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 10 rebounds per game and has a true shooting percentage of 53.6. His PER of 22.09 ranks 18th in the league, even though he is playing an average of just 29.6 minutes.
In the last game before the All-Star break, Duncan scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, leading a Spurs lineup that was without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter to a win at Boston. He has been as sturdy as an oak, starting more games (49) than any other member of the lineup to push San Antonio to the No. 2 seed in the West. In other words, Duncan is still an elite player and likely could have appeared in his 15th All-Star Game if Gregg Popovich hadn’t likely spread the word to his coaching peers that his big man needed a weekend off.
There was a time after the 2011 playoffs, when the No. 1 seeded Spurs were upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies in the first round, that it seemed unfathomable that Duncan would still be playing now. He was slow, worn out, injured and overwhelmed by the inside Memphis tandem of bruising Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
But Duncan used that humbling experience as a reason to spend the summer changing his diet, changing his workout regimen and ultimately changing his body so that he’s returned to the court lighter, healthier and able to have fun and dominate again. The result was the Spurs going to the Western Conference finals in 2012 and pushing the Heat to the Game 7 limit before losing in the NBA Finals last June.
Duncan signed a three-year, $30-million contract in 2012, the final season a player option and there was talk at the time that he might very well take a pass on that. But since then the Spurs signed Parker and Ginobili to new deals, all of them set to expire at the end of 2014-15, the assumption that the Big Three would take two more cracks at winning the the fifth title in franchise history.
So would Tim walk out the door prematurely on Tony and Manu and Pop?
Only if he feels like the spark and the joy are no longer out there on the court every night. Only if he decides the physical and mental sacrifices to keep himself pushing forward at his high and exacting standards are too much. Which, creeping up on 38, that could happen any day.
So much will depend on how the Spurs and Duncan handle another playoff grind. You can certainly see the championship that slipped through their fingers as a motivational force this time around. But what if the injury-plagued Spurs don’t get back to The Finals for another try at the ring? Or even out of the first or second round?
Even if he’s thinking it, Duncan won’t crack and let us know or share his feelings or an itinerary. He’ll just keep shooting and rebounding and setting screens and doing all those things that make him the Big Fundamental until he doesn’t.
He won’t hit the rocking chair, just the exit door.