Tim Duncan doesn’t want a retirement tour. He doesn’t want your rocking chairs, he’s not feeling your plaques and pregame ceremonies, and he doesn’t want to wave goodbye to your home crowd. He might take a motorcycle, but that’s about it.
Only two NBA players have enjoyed an admitted-to retirement tour over the last quarter century, and rightfully so: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan were the best players of their generations. Tim Duncan, in the post-MJ era, is without peer, and he deserves the same sort of 41-road game fete. He won’t give into it, of course, and won’t confirm that he’s going to walk away after the 2014-15; but his choice to opt into the last year of his contract instead of opting out and signing for two or three more seasons is pretty telling.
The move could be purely financial, of course, but we doubt that. Duncan will now stand to make $10.3 million in 2014-15, his 18th NBA season, a rate that will toss him over $235 million in career, pre-tax, earnings. He’ll turn 39 in the first week of the playoffs, and all indications seem to point to him working as an approximation of the player that led San Antonio to back to back Finals appearances and the 2014 NBA championship. He’ll be dominant at times, he’ll pace himself at other times, and he’ll always be the smartest guy on the floor.
Starting on Tuesday evening, when Duncan will appear on David Letterman’s late night television program, Tim will attempt to stave off retirement questions. Spurs brass will help save the subject by pointing out that Tony Parker’s contract runs out in the summer of 2015 as well, same as Manu Ginobili and three other Spurs, and that Kawhi Leonard is due for a contract extension this offseason – one that will reshape the look of the franchise and its financial future moving forward. They’ll point out that he’s just one of many players that will survey the landscape once July of 2015 hits, whether the Spurs are coming off yet another title run, or whether they’re two months removed from being knocked out of the playoffs by some young upstart.
They’re all “young upstarts,” in relation to Duncan. He’s not the NBA’s oldest player, but he is its most decorated, and he’d done more than enough even prior to this recent run for NBA observers to credit him with being the greatest player of his era. Duncan may not be lying when he shoos away retirement questions, whether they’re being asked on Dave Letterman’s show, at training camp this fall, or in the locker room (or, quite possibly, championship podium) next spring or early summer. It’s very possible that he may have absolutely no clue as to how he’s going to feel about his career moving forward, even up to the point when this contract runs silent on July 1, 2015.
This is just fine. This man should be allowed to ease into his eventual decision, and just as we shouldn’t fault him for wanting to walk away after all these long seasons (over 51,000 regular season and playoff minutes, and counting), we shouldn’t fault the man for wanting to hang to play even if he decides to slide into the role of a – shock horror – bit player.
Duncan appears to be a long ways away from that. Even while understanding the caveat that he shouldn’t be asked to play heavy minutes in each game, his per-minute numbers in 2013-14 were ridiculously similar to his per-minute numbers in his rookie season. NBA centers have had a long history of falling off dramatically in ways that didn’t seem in line with their expected career arc, but Duncan isn’t carrying around the same injury past and literal and figurative weight as players like Patrick Ewing and Moses Malone. The dude looks great, even if it’s for only 32.7 playoff minutes at a time.
Still, we have to pay attention. Tim Duncan’s status as a flash-eschewing superstar for NBAniks has long been a tired sportswriter trope, but if this is it, we best be at our best behavior, dangit. This game and these injuries and that Western Conference playoff bracket – it’s all so fickle, and while nobody should be counting out Duncan and those glorious Spurs playing until the second week of June all over again, all it takes is one dodgy matchup for things to end quicker than expected. Witness 2011, when the Spurs were out in the first round, or last April, when Dallas took San Antonio to seven games.
We reveled in those seven, knowing that the Spurs would probably eventually prevail and at the very worst, Duncan would return in 2014-15, never one to leave $10.3 million (or more, had he negotiated a longer deal after opting out) on the table. Next season, though, will feature a sense of urgency. Wondering if this would be his last go-round, his last visit to your city, the last banker to veer expertly off that glass and into the goal.
Enjoy what could be Tim Duncan’s final season in 2014-15. Pay extra attention. We probably should have been doing it all along.
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