Tim Duncan looks startled. Or angry. Or happy. Or tired. We're not really sure. (Getty Images)
Sometimes players gradually decline as they get older, and then sometimes players just fall off like a forkball hurled by Bruce Sutter. As the NBA has advanced its weight training programs and health regimens, the modern NBA player rarely falls off like, say, former All-Star George McGinnis weirdly did when he hit 29 years of age. Unless a major injury is involved, something like what Steve Nash is dealing with right now, it’s usually a slow walk to the retirement home, and not a shove.
This is why it’s strange to see Tim Duncan struggling so much at age 37. He hasn’t been awful, Duncan’s Player Efficiency Rating is up around the realm of the average, but he’s also been afforded nights off and plenty of rest while playing just 27.4 minutes per game. On top of that Duncan takes care of himself, crediting an offseason workout program with his 2012-13 resurgence, most notably working out during the last offseason with stacked Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert.
Last season’s resurgence saw Tim average 21.3 points and 11.9 rebounds per 36 minutes, along with 3.2 blocks during that term. This season’s per 36 numbers have dropped to 15.4 points, nine rebounds and 2.1 blocks. Fine numbers for anyone, much less a 37 year old that had to play deep into June last season, but still worrying. And the 38 percent shooting mark doesn’t cheer things up much.
Dan McCarney at the San Antonio Express-News pointed out on Thursday that Duncan got a little chippy and frustrated both during and after his team’s 92-79 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday:
He tried everything — mid-range jumpers, short hooks off glass, even the trusty old Four Down post-up that was his offensive staple for so many years. Yet aside for an eight-foot bank shot late in the first quarter, nothing worked. Duncan’s frustration was evident as he barked at Tony Parker to hurry up on the aforementioned Four Down play. Little wonder he bolted from the locker room immediately after the game. (To be fair, he does this after great games, too.)
Duncan missed 11 of 12 looks from the field in the win, registering a career low with two points. He didn’t look injured or out of shape, just a step behind and out of rhythm.
The silver (and black) lining here is that Tim’s Spurs are on fire right now, rolling along with an 8-1 record, and as McCarney pointed out the team didn’t really need Duncan at his best to topple the Wizards, and they certainly didn’t need him on Monday in a win over Philadelphia – a game that Duncan sat out. Weirdly, San Antonio’s lone loss this season came after Duncan gave his best performance of the year, a 24-point, seven-rebound outing in only 31 minutes against Portland, making 12-23 from the floor.
This nine game sample size (seven, really, if we just count Duncan’s games) is in no way telling, and we’re certainly not suggesting that the Spurs play better when Duncan is out, or lousy from the field. And really, though his rebounding has dipped, the shooting is the only real problem here. To these eyes, his defense seems as solid as it’s been over the last four or five seasons, and his passing has shot way up: Tim Duncan registers an assist on 20 percent of the possessions he used up so far this season, a mark that rivals the work of hybrid guard Manu Ginobili’s 2013-14 campaign.
This is part of the reason why Wizards center Marcin Gortat likened the Spurs play to “listening to Mozart” following Wednesday’s San Antonio win. The team is second in defensive efficiency and in the top ten offensively, a mark that figures to go up as Duncan rounds back into form. It’s true that this team was built for the long haul, mindful of the fact that they need to be at their best in June, but they’ll take the early wins. This is still a staggeringly-good championship contender, with players like Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter improving game by game (both are shooting well over 50 percent from the floor) and Tony Parker still in his prime.
If you want to watch some Mozart, I guess, here are the highlights from Wednesday's win:
Duncan’s shot will return. He’ll become more involved in the offense and the timing on his face up and post moves will redevelop. He just needs a little time. Because, again, the Spurs will have plenty of it between now, and when things really start to count.
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