Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs are inextricable. The history of one is the history of the other, a tale of longevity and culture unlike any other in professional sports. Duncan was quietly the best player of his era and the Spurs have been the best-run organization in sports for that same term. What they’ve done in 19 years is rightly the envy of the league. Teams can only be so lucky as to draft a player as effective or a leader as reliable as Duncan. It was through the arc of his career that the Spurs became the Spurs. A franchise—and a perpetual contender—formed around him.
All of which makes it impossible to fully digest the fact that Duncan may have played his last NBA game. That prospect was present on the night of the Spurs’ postseason elimination. Duncan addressed it. Gregg Popovich was asked about it. Yet Duncan had pushed on for so long that one more season seemed wholly reasonable up until the moment that the reporting finally turned. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Duncan is, at long last, “leaning strongly toward retirement.”
The extended eulogy for Duncan’s career will be saved for the moment it officially ends. Yet it was hard to see San Antonio’s activity, near simultaneous with the reporting of Duncan’s possible retirement, as unrelated. On Monday the Spurs agreed to the terms of a two-year deal with veteran big man Pau Gasol, provided they can clear the requisite cap room to actually sign him. Boris Diaw (owed $7 million this year) is being shopped for that very reason. Once San Antonio finds a taker, it should have all the room it needs to add Gasol and bring back a few contributors from last year’s team.
Gasol would seem to be just the kind of stable influence the Spurs would look to when Duncan does decide to go. His skill set is entirely different—geared toward offense in the way that Duncan’s is toward defense—but the two share a position. It wouldn’t be at all surprising were Gasol San Antonio’s opening night starter at the five, even if the Spurs might be the one franchise that Gasol would willingly come off the bench to play for. Read the tea leaves as you will. At the very least, San Antonio has conveniently added a smart, experienced player at the very position that Duncan might vacate. Rarely are the Spurs caught unaware.
In function, Gasol is a notably better version of Diaw—a playmaking big who can attack mismatches and create offense. San Antonio looked to be short just such a player when it flamed out against Oklahoma City in the playoffs. The Spurs fared well enough defensively, all things considered. They just couldn’t manufacture offense once the lines to shooters were cut off and the lane was clogged by an extra, lingering defender. Kawhi Leonard was stretched to his limits on offense and LaMarcus Aldridge faded into predictable post-up isolations over the course of the series.
Having Gasol on the floor in place of Duncan, Diaw or David West would have energized the offense in that context through more diverse post play, duck-in dunks when Gasol’s defender left to help on the ball, and another creative option if Gasol were stationed as a high-post passer. We can’t pretend as if all the Spurs’ problems were solved on the same day that the Warriors acquired Kevin Durant, but they at least began to address one of the glaring problems leading to their playoff exit.
Incorporating Gasol will require defensive concession. Even if Duncan returns next season, any of Gasol’s minutes will short San Antonio’s usual defensive standards. This was an all-time great defense last season with Duncan on the floor. Without him, San Antonio still held opponents to 98.4 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would have led the league. The 35-year-old Gasol doesn’t move his feet, contest shots, box out or mind his assignments well enough to maintain a defense at that level. Sacrificing a few points defensively is part of the deal; the Spurs have understandably wagered that they can trade D for O and come out as a more balanced team overall.
The hard truth, given Monday’s events, is that it may not matter. San Antonio is positioned to be the second-best team in the West no matter Duncan’s choice, but Golden State is in a distant lead. The Spurs’ specific matchup is no more encouraging; whatever advantage there is to be gained through Gasol posting smaller players is offset by Gasol’s trouble guarding any of the core Warriors and the necessary sacrifice of Diaw, one of San Antonio’s few switchable bigs. Theirs is a frustration shared by most every other team in the league.
All the Spurs can do is weather as best they can—in keeping up with the Warriors and managing the potential end of Duncan’s career. Gasol isn’t perfect, but he’s good help and a great organizational fit. It seemed only a matter of time before one Gasol or the other ended up a Spur, given their incredible admiration for the franchise from afar. Circumstances called for Pau first, though the void he aims to fill may be impossibly large.