For the first time in 20 years the Spurs are going to training camp without Tim Duncan.
The future Hall of Fame power forward – by Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame edict, Duncan won’t be eligible for enshrinement until 2021 – retired in July after 19 seasons that produced 1,072 regular season victories and five NBA championships.
An All-NBA selection just two seasons ago, Duncan likely would have played a 20th season in silver and black had not his right knee begun to ache last season as badly as his surgically repaired left knee had ached for the past dozen years. Only the most optimistic Spurs fans didn’t believe the presence of a bulky brace on both knees, beginning in January – he had braced the left knee since 2003 – was a signal the 2015-16 season would be his last.
How the Spurs respond to the absence of the greatest player in franchise history is Question No. 1 when camp begins on Monday morning with a media day session certain to be dominated by that very query.
There are other burning questions seeking answers in a season of transition unlike any the club has seen since 1997-98. Some spin off Burning Question No. 1.
Here are a few of the other pressing questions:
Who fills Duncan’s leadership void?
Duncan may have been the least demonstrative great leader in NBA history. Make no mistake, though. Duncan’s influence, while subtle, was paramount to the most successful NBA team of the past two decades. Most importantly, he was a leader by example, through his work ethic, competitive nature, and selfless play.
In all likelihood, Duncan’s leadership role will be shared this season by the remaining legs of the vaunted Big Three tripod, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, with deference to the new face of the franchise, Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard has been the team’s best player since winning the NBA Finals MVP Award in 2014 and that automatically makes him Candidate No. 1 to fill the leadership gap. It’s easy to say his personality is too laid-back to support a major leadership role but that also makes him a natural successor to Duncan, especially when it comes to leading by example.
Even at age 39, Ginobili remains as competitive a player as the NBA has seen, which also makes him a player his teammates will follow, naturally and immediately. Already, he has taken aside some of the team’s new players during open gym sessions at the team’s practice complex this month, schooling them on the Spurs way and preparing them for Gregg Popovich’s style of coaching.
The Argentine dynamo also is one of the NBA’s most intelligent players, certainly smart enough to help Leonard assume a more dynamic leadership role befitting of his status as one of the league’s true superstars.
As the team’s starting point guard since 2002, Parker, by definition, is a leader of the offense. Selflessly, he has morphed from the team’s scoring leader to a facilitator for Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and other high-scoring teammates. The very fact of his longevity with the Spurs demands that he be the floor general.
What’s the next step for Kawhi?
Leonard was No. 6 in Sports Illustrated magazine’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the NBA, behind only LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. The reigning, two-time Defensive Player of the Year has expanded his offensive game out to the 3-point line and has become the team’s go-to scorer in crunch time. There wouldn’t seem to be much left for him to add to his offensive repertoire except there is always something to add and Leonard is relentless in his pursuit of basketball excellence.
It will be fun to see what he worked on during the summer.
How does Pau Gasol fit in the offense?
Gasol’s consistency as a scorer has been a hallmark of his career. He enters his 16th NBA season with a career scoring average of 18.2 points per game, just 791 points shy of 20,000. He never has averaged fewer than the 16.5 points he averaged last season. He has done this without ever being a true volume shooter, never averaging more than 14.9 shots per game.
Playing in a starting lineup with Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, he again will be asked to be a complementary scorer. He has plenty of experience with such a role after six-plus seasons with a Lakers team that featured Kobe Bryant and two seasons with a Bulls team built around Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Expect this to be a seamless transition.
It is important to note that Gasol, a 7-footer with long arms, is a natural center and a perfect fit with Aldridge, one of the NBA’s best face-up shooters of mid-range jumpers, and with Leonard, an offensive slasher with a burgeoning perimeter game that has extended to the 3-point arc.
There will be some growing pains, but this is one question that seems to have a simple solution.
Can They Maintain Defensive Excellence?
The best regular season in franchise history, 67-15, was forged by the most efficient defensive play in franchise history. The Spurs allowed a league-low 92.9 points per game, three fewer than second-place Utah. They allowed their opponents only 43.6% shooting, the third-lowest percentage allowed in the league. They did all this while also allowing fewer free throws than any team in the league, an average of only 19.6 per game.
It is at the defensive end where Duncan’s absence will be most felt, for he was one of the greatest interior defenders in NBA history. His defensive genius was in his positioning and timing, rather than freaky athleticism.
His spot in the defense now is taken over by Gasol, whose length makes him an able shot blocker but whose learning curve in Popovich’s structured defensive scheme will take the better part of his first season to absorb.
Simply stated, the Spurs can’t be as efficient on defense without Duncan. Minimizing the drop will determine the extent of an expected dip from the historic 67 wins.
What’s Left in Parker’s Tank?
Since 2012-13, when Parker averaged 20.3 points per game in his first season as a 30-something, the drop in his offensive production has been steady, to the point he no longer ranks among the Top 100 players in the NBA, according to Sports Illustrated. Fourth in the magazine’s per-season player rankings before the 2013-14 season, Parker now ranks behind at least 17 point guards who made the list.
Parker is 34 and entering his 15th season with the Spurs. He has been playing professionally since he was 15 and is coming off a summer of international play that included a qualifying tournament in which he helped France make the field for the Olympic tournament in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the Olympic tournament itself.
All that basketball has taken a toll on his quickness, which once gave him an edge over every other point guard in the league.
Popovich asked Parker to amend his approach last season to become more of a facilitator than a scorer and that accounts for a dip in his scoring average to 11.9 point per game, lower than any season but his first with the Spurs.
With Leonard, Aldridge, and Gasol on board, facilitating will have to remain his primary focus.
Parker is still plenty fast but no longer a blur.
Can Anyone Replace Boban?
The Spurs had hoped to retain Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3, 290-pound Serbian center whose joyous demeanor, long arms, giant hands, and monster dunks made him an instant fan favorite last season. Circumstances prevented their matching the restricted free agent offer sheet he received from the Detroit Pistons. More than a few Spurs fans likely shed a few tears.
There may well be a new big man positioned to capture their hearts. Dewayne Dedmon is a 27-year-old 7-footer with length, but rare athleticism is what figures to excite Spurs fandom. His ability to run the floor, catch, and dunk is certain to be a wow factor. Penciled in as the primary backup big behind Gasol, Dedmon has a chance to make a Boban-like impact.
Top image: Spurs’ Tony Parker (left) and Manu Ginobili (right) will have to step up in their leadership positions in their first season without Tim Duncan. Photo by Scott Ball.