Just as was the case all the way back in 1997, when telephones hung on walls and cars didn’t even fly yet, Tim Duncan played for the San Antonio Spurs in 2015-16.
A whole lot of other wonderful things happened, but as the weeks and months and years pull away, Spurs fans will no doubt reflect back on this campaign as something special and, perhaps, something potentially lost.
Not only did Duncan play, but he was paired with the brilliant LaMarcus Aldridge, who did not shirk in his first go-round as San Antonio big man. Gregg Popovich remained as able as ever, thinking on his feet and pushing all the right buttons (even if it meant pushing Duncan onto the bench) as the regular season chugged along. Kawhi Leonard turned in an MVP-styled all-around performance, and for a while there (especially if point differential is to be believed, and quite often it is above all) the Spurs looked to be at minimum Golden State’s equal.
(If not the superior team. No mention of Cleveland, at the time.)
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
Duncan was marvelous in his final campaign, averaging 8.6 points and 7.3 rebounds with 1.3 blocks and nearly three dimes in 25 minutes per game, leading what was a league-leading (by far) defense. Leonard came out of nowhere to hit over 44 percent of his three-pointers while scoring over 21 points per game in only 33 minutes a contest, while Aldridge notched 18 points and 8.5 rebounds with a block while being introduced to San Antonio’s Electric Blanket Co. at just 30 minutes a night.
A self-imposed 8-5 end to the regular season helped put the kibosh on any 70-win hopes for the Spurs, but the team did win a franchise-record 67 games before dismissing the Memphis Grizzlies by an average of 22 points per game in a sweep. The one-sided nature of things appeared to be ready to sustain in the second round against Oklahoma City, as the Spurs took Game 1 by 32 points in a triumph that was far more blatantly silver and black than the final score suggested.
The Thunder went on to win four of five to both end the series and the team’s hopes for one last title with Duncan on board. As the final buzzer sounded, the legendary big men’s other bum knee was now shooting flares off into the sky (or, at Duncan’s likely suggestion, furrowing its figurative brow), and the center helped break in the 2016 NBA offseason by calling it a career in July.
In an postseason that saw the Thunder establish themselves as championship-worthy alongside the 73-win Warriors, prior to the Cavaliers actually topping Golden State after the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, the 67-win Spurs seemed like unlikely afterthoughts. Done already by May 12, when its output from October onward seemed to suggest they’d have as good a chance as any to play deep into June.
In the space of 10 days, from the hours leading up to the team’s Game 2 loss until its eventual Game 6 defeat, a season’s worth of appropriate hopes were dashed, and over a year’s worth of planning was rendered meaningless. By this point, after a summer spent chasing those that could compete right away, the Spurs didn’t need anything to build on.
And, in a too-quick finale, it cost the team Tim Duncan. Even after nearly two decades, nobody was ready for as much.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
No. How could it possibly have helped?
Tim Duncan averaged career lows in points, rebounds and blocks last season, and he acted as a liability on both ends against certain teams. It is quite possible that the Golden State Warriors may have made mincemeat out of the Spurs in the Western Conference finals had Duncan stayed on the court for extended stretches. He more than deserved his retirement, and we’re not about to tell you that the man’s very essence is the reason why his teams competed for championships damn-near every year.
What they will miss, in his absence, is the coach on the floor that could also dominate games. And, at times, Tim Duncan still dominated games in 2015-16. Over 1500 minutes’ worth of work on a 67-win team shan’t be forgotten, dammit.
In his absence strides in another top rim protector in Pau Gasol, one who contributed monster numbers in Spurs-styled limited minutes in Chicago for the previous two seasons. Though Pau did change or block a litany of shots for the Bulls for two campaigns, and though defensive rebounds are still of paramount importance in finishing a defensive possession, he is nowhere near the all-around defender that Duncan acted as in 2015-16, and the drop-off will be noticeable from the outset of the season. It’s going to be rather interesting watching Gregg Popovich handle Gasol’s limitations, especially with all those cameras around.
David West, forever in search of a ring that befits his stature as a giant of a player and person, moved on to Golden State, replaced in part by David Lee – another great athlete and rebounder who, when paired with Pau, represent a steep decline on the defensive end in comparison to the players they’ll supplant.
In the team’s move to secure Gasol the Spurs were forced into dealing Boris Diaw to Utah in a cap-clearing move. And, as a result of some machinations by the 76ers and good intentions from Coach Pop, center Boban Marjanovic will be a Detroit Piston this year.
Options were limited, as these sorts of things go with a top-heavy team, but interior addition Dewayne Dedmon could turn into the latest to alternate roles as Popovich’s least and most-loved San Antonio Spur by March.
Potential breakout stud:
Not only is the potential there, but the role is in place. Kyle Anderson, half-scoffed at as the next Boris Diaw upon his 2014 drafting, really, truly, badly needs to actually become the next Boris Diaw.
Quickly. Though we submit that moving with alacrity is not something either Diaw or Anderson is used to.
The third-year forward cannot shoot at this moment, and his per-game and even per-minute stats aren’t all that pleasing to the eye at this point. His best work during his long stretches of playing time during last year’s postseason only came during blowout chunks.
Still, at the same age Diaw got his act together as a point forward – point center, really – and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. There won’t be enough room nor minutes for Anderson to pull off the same feat, but his ability to pass, crash the defensive boards, while use his length to carve things out defensively will be exactly what the Spurs need in 2016-17.
Provided he gets playing time, of course. The onus is on Popovich to let him loose, and for Anderson to find that healthy balance in his attack as he straddles the line between bit player and relied-upon cog.
The Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge pairing does intrigue, and though both have their holes there is significant room for Gasol to act the part of (let’s duck some lightning ‘ere, Spurs fans) the all-around center working alongside LMA that Duncan (at his advanced NBA age) just could not play as. No, the total defensive package won’t be nearly the same, but Gasol’s tangible attributes (the obvious blocks, the obvious defensive rebounds) sometimes help to mitigate his lapses in other areas.
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Toss in the improved offense from that position, and we could have something. Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard failed to click as a smallish duo up front last season, but that could change in 2016-17 with another year of Popovich watching international stylings for inspiration. More warming is the idea that there is no need, at age 25, for Leonard to limit his playing time this season. After all, Tim Duncan’s career seemed to move along pretty swimmingly after his age 25 season, when he averaged 40.6 minutes per game.
It’s a well-heeled and well-read experiment that just fell into Gregg Popovich’s lap, with the man still smarting after summer started too early. That’s always going to stand as a sound buttress to begin with.
If everything falls apart:
Again, the loss of Tim Duncan won’t be felt in the box score realm (final score listing, excluded), and we’re not going to bore you with some sportswriter-y treatise about the way his mere presence shaped things even in his declining years.
He literally moved his teammates into the right spots, though, on both ends of the court. He streamlined the sensation from huddle to court, and despite the collective contributions of all that either worked with him or grew up (even in the case of the 36-year old Gasol) watching him, his absence will be felt.
Toss in the fact that Manu Ginobili will be asked to replicate his pell-mell style at age 39, and that a Tony Parker and Pau Gasol-defended screen and roll could be murderous for the Spurs’ bottom line, and you will have even more to make up for.
Worse, with the nearly $30 million sent at Gasol and Ginobili, the Spurs are left revealed as a rather thin outfit this time around.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
55-27, tied for second in the West.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
– – – – – – –