When the Spurs showed up Wednesday morning for the second day of training camp at their practice complex the eight holdovers from the 2015-16 team were happy to see a familiar sight: Tim Duncan, in practice gear, seemingly ready to go up and down the court.
Alas, Duncan has not decided to come out of retirement to return to the court at age 40.
Rather, he was engaged in his quasi-official role as the team’s “coach of whatever he feels like,” which is how Gregg Popovich describes the duties he assigned to the future Hall of Fame power forward, clearly the greatest player in franchise history, when they entered into what the Spurs head coach called a verbal contract that will keep Duncan involved with this year’s squad.
Duncan’s presence on the sidelines, standing and observing alongside assistant coach Becky Hammon and vice president of basketball operations Monty Williams, seemed to make for a happy buzz during a brief scrimmage session reporters were allowed to watch.
Afterwards, general manager R.C. Buford summarized the feeling: “The gym feels better with him in it,” he said.
Duncan’s presence can help this season’s Spurs make the transition to their first season without him on the court after 19 seasons in which he was the team’s best player. Through his first couple of seasons Duncan shared status as the “face of the franchise” with center David Robinson, but once Robinson retired, with a second NBA championship ring after the 2002-03 season, Duncan was the unquestioned face of the franchise.
Now that role falls easily to Kawhi Leonard, arguably the team’s best player since winning his first NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award for his dominant play in the 2014 Finals triumph over the Miami Heat. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year also led the Spurs in scoring, with an average of 21.2 points per game, and was named to the All-NBA first team after the 2015-16 season.
What is less clear is whether or not Leonard is ready to assume the leadership role that Duncan assumed throughout most of his career. It won’t be entirely up to Leonard to fill the void. Clearly, Duncan’s longest tenured teammates, Tony Parker (15 seasons with Duncan) and Manu Ginobili (14 seasons with Duncan) will assume more of the leadership, naturally and easily.
Nevertheless, it is Leonard, one of the NBA’s most taciturn players, who will take on most of Duncan’s leadership role.
The Big Fundamental may have been one of the least demonstrative great leaders in NBA history, but his subtle command of the team was undisputed and impactful.
“The leadership thing, make sure that the Spurs mentality and the way we play – unselfish, sharing the ball, only caring about winning and winning championships – that was the best thing about Timmy when I first came in, showing all of us how to do it,” said point guard Tony Parker, now the longest tenured Spur at 15 seasons.
Leonard shares many characteristics with Duncan, not the least of which is a stoic demeanor. But he is acutely aware that the torch of leadership has been passed to him.
A player who works diligently on his skills each off-season, Leonard was asked what he worked on most assiduously during the summer.
“Just becoming a leader,” he said. “Just making sure I know what’s going on (out) on the floor in every position. Just being ready to really get my mentality at leading this group this year, that’s pretty much it. Obviously all of the other aspects of my game. I worked on everything this summer, I didn’t really focus on one thing.”
Leonard acknowledged studying Duncan’s approach to leadership.
“I learned a lot, just by him making me better. Just really listening to him. I knew that he knew the game, and just seeing how he talked to players, or just guys like myself, and just being able to push for a title.”
Leonard fretted a bit on Tuesday about missing Duncan’s caustic humor and his ability to lighten the mood at practice.
That mood changed on Wednesday when Duncan appeared.
Top image: San Antonio Spurs Forward Kawhi Leonard responds to reporters question during the first day of practice on Tuesday Sept. 27, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.