Save Yourself, Mr. Duncan

I am a longtime San Antonio Spurs fan. I have been a fan since Tim Duncan was on the swim team in St. Croix. I have ridden the roller coaster of disappointments and domination, crapouts and championships. The 2014 run to the NBA championship title was epic, following the heartbreak of the 2013 loss to the Miami Heat. Fans, pundits, and even head coach Gregg Popovich anticipated that the defense of the title this year would be a challenge. However, no one foresaw the drama that has unfolded with the Spurs thus far in the 2014–15 season.

Ennui. Injuries. Injury-influenced ennui. Complacency. I can throw a thesaurus full of synonyms at the multitude of issues that have plagued the Spurs this season, but I only need one word to describe Duncan this season: savior.

Duncan is the Morpheus of the Spurs and, as The Oracle so aptly put it in The Matrix: “Without him, we are lost.” Real talk: without Duncan, the Spurs would be chilling in the basement of the cage match that is the Western Conference, planning their off-season vacations come April. He’s almost 39 years old (his birthday is two days after mine) and his personal efficiency rating (PER) is practically identical with that of his rookie year — eighteen seasons ago. He’s still putting up double-doubles most nights, in addition to breaking some records (15th on all-time NBA scoring list; fifth on all-time double-doubles list; 19th NBA player to reach at least 25,000 career points; tied for third-highest number of All-Star Team selections [15]).

Now that most of the team has physically healed from its myriad injuries, the speculation is that the Spurs’ struggles are more mental than anything. i I agree with this, and I’m going to add my log to the armchair coaching fire that is stoked by various sports reporters and other fans: Tim Duncan is the root of the Spurs’ mental collapse.

Now, hear me out, Spurs faithful, before you come after me with pitchforks and torches.

Duncan has carried this team on his wiry shoulders for eighteen seasons, and none more so than this current one. He is the team captain, the leader, the go-to guy; it’s a role he’s used to, and has embraced for good or ill. When roughly a third of the team went down with injuries, Duncan continued to strap on his knee brace and kept the team afloat enough to stay at the seventh seed in the conference. When the wounded warriors had a hard time bouncing back, Duncan provided momentum in the form of extended playing time, insane (for him) scoring bursts (he just dropped 30 the other night against the Los Angeles Clippers, plus 11 rebounds), and just getting out there and doing what needed to be done—with a couple of slam dunks here and there to let folks know The Geezer ain’t gone yet. Unfortunately for the rest of the team, they have become overly dependent upon the magnificence that is Tim Duncan. Add to this the undeniable fact that there is no one on that roster who has the otherworldly, unreplaceable, innate talent that The Big Fundamental possesses, and things do not bode well for playoff contention.

Therein lies the rub: Duncan’s so good, that no one else on his team is even trying to get on his level. Their current record reflects this. And it’s hurting the team.

If you’ve watched even a few of the Spurs game this season, you’ve probably noticed that there are Duncan and perhaps two or three other players out there hustling for balls and baskets…and then there’s the rest of the team. Every time the Spurs get in a jam (injuries, mental lapses), Duncan does what he does and swoops in to save the day, silver and black cape flying in the wind, the spur on his uniformed chest twinkling beneath the AT&T Center lights. Like Merlin, the fantasy wizard of which he is enamored, Duncan waves his wand and manages to staunch the bleeding most of the time, and even squeezes some wins out of the mess—even if the mess is one of his own creation (hello, turnovers? Missed free throws? Mid-range jumper on the back of a milk carton?). And his teammates know it: even with minutes restrictions, and despite the fact that he can barely walk on his left knee without his brace, they know that Duncan is going to wipe their noses and kiss their boo-boos, and basically will them to the playoffs, if not the Finals—so hey, why put forth any real effort? Forget Better Call Saul; it’s more like Better Call Tim. He’s a dad, and that’s what a good dad does. But there comes a time when you have to let your kids mess up and hit rock bottom so that they can learn. This may be what needs to happen with the Spurs.

As Duncan plays in the final year of his contract with the Spurs, and we get closer to the end of the season, speculation on his retirement is ramping up at an exponential rate. Duncan, in his typical unflappable manner, has repeatedly said that he will wait until June to make a decision on whether to hang up his spurs for good, or hop on the horse for another ride in the rodeo. He stated during an All-Star Weekend interview that he will leave when he wants to leave, so as to not let anyone else dictate the terms of his departure. I feel him on that. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the un-Spurs-like play of this season will have Duncan looking at the front door sooner rather than later, despite his love of the game, the Spurs, and Coach Pop. He already has two children; he should not have to add another eleven or twelve who just can’t (or won’t) get it together because they expect Duncan to hold them down, as usual. It makes no sense for him to continue to grind his body (especially his knee) to a nub, and put up dazzling feats of play (especially at his age), only to have his efforts wasted in losses that probably could have been avoided with a bit more effort from the other people in silver and black uniforms, who are also drawing large paychecks from the Spurs organization. Duncan is not just a player; he’s also a businessman, and every good businessman understands that when a return on investment (ROI) dips to critical levels, it’s time to either go all-in or let it go.

My plea will probably go unheard, but I’ll make it anyway: Save yourself, Big Homie. You were a competitive swimmer once upon a time; surely you remember that if you try to save a drowning person, that person will end up drowning you too if you’re not careful. You’ve done all you can do for the Spurs, and done it admirably (hello, five championships!), but you can’t will people to step up and want to compete on your level, and you can’t give them the prodigious talent with which you were born. They will have to learn how to deal with your absence in the near future; there’s no time like the present for them to start making the adjustment. Perhaps you should emulate others in the league and just concentrate on breaking some more records this season. Channel your energy into people and activities that appreciate what you bring to the table, and react accordingly. Sadly, the Spurs ain’t it this season. You can’t save folks who really don’t want to be saved. Sometimes you have to let the victim drown, so that you can live.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tiffany M. Davis, who also writes under the pen name Tee Emdee, is the author of the Bastille Family Chronicles and the Sebastian Scott novels. When she is not spinning tales from the creative yet dystopian landscape that is her mind, you can find her cheering the San Antonio Spurs; reading, cooking; or playing Words With Friends or mahjong. She lives in the Atlanta, GA area and is a fan of aikido and the Oxford Comma. She has a tendency to wild out, Blerd style, on Twitter.

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