Tim Duncan's Career Resurgence Makes San Antonio Spurs Legit Title Contenders

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Tim Duncan's Career Resurgence Makes San Antonio Spurs Legit Title Contenders

The basketball world spiraled into heated debate when Tim Duncan didn't play for the San Antonio Spurs' 105-100 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat on November 29.

David Stern was up in arms at the news of Timmy and his top teammates being sent home ahead of a marquee NBA on TNT matchup and levied a $250,000 fine in reaction to coach Gregg Popovich's implied bird flip.

Lost in this unfortunate series of events is what Duncan has accomplished when he has played. 

Against the Memphis Grizzlies—you know, the team tied for the best record in the league with the Heat—a well-rested Duncan dominated in a way hasn't been seen in years. 

In 41 minutes of action, Duncan put up a season-high 27 points—including 21 in the first half—15 rebounds and four assists against the All-Star front line of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to lead his Spurs to a 99-95 overtime victory.

Most surprising of all, that performance didn't seem at all out of step with Duncan's 2012-13 season to date.It was his ninth double-double of the season and fifth of the 20-and-10 variety.

In late November, Duncan was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the 21st time in his Hall of Fame career and the first time in nearly three years. 

His field goal percentage (.538) is the highest that it has been since 2006-07, a campaign that concluded with the Larry O'Brien Trophy in his massive mitts.  

It's no wonder, then, that the Spurs have yet to fade from the ranks of title contenders—much to Stern's chagrin.  

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As the story goes, Duncan and the Spurs were supposed to be too old and too slow to compete with the likes of the Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West. The former had ousted San Antonio in a one-versus-eight upset in the first round of the 2011 playoffs while the latter eliminated the Spurs with a stunning comeback in the Western Conference Finals this past spring.

However, the running narrative surrounding the Spurs leaves little room for context clues.

Last time around, San Antonio was undone when unlikely performances from the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka turned a 20-game winning streak into an untimely 0-4 slide. The year prior, it was Richard Jefferson's no-show, Ginobili's elbow and Duncan's weak knee that left the Spurs so susceptible to their shocking defeat.

But Jefferson is gone, Manu is back in action and Duncan is producing at a level that has never been seen from a player his age.

It's an astonishing turn of events, for Duncan at least. A quick gloss over Timmy's numbers since 2009 paints a picture of a player who recently appeared to be on the outs but has since enjoyed a career renaissance.

And not by accident, either.

According to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, Duncan followed up his miserable showing against Memphis in 2011 by limiting his consumption of bread and sugars, shifting his offseason exercise plan to feature more basketball work and treating his sore left knee early and often with the help of the Spurs' team doctors.

The result? A season that may be the most efficient that Duncan has ever had.

If he maintains his current level of play, Timmy will finish the season with the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of his 16-year career and the best defensive rating in the NBA, per Basketball Reference.

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More importantly, Duncan's singular resurgence has put San Antonio back on the map with the Miamis and the OKCs of the basketball world.

Coming into the 2012-13 season, the biggest question dogging the Spurs was one of size. That is, could the Spurs contend for a title with their lack of quality depth up front, even in a league shifting toward small ball?

The perimeter play wasn't likely to be an issue. Parker and Ginobili would carry the load when healthy, with a heady mix of youngsters (Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Patty Mills) and veterans (Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal) to lend a helping hand.

Nor was the coaching ever to be a concern. Controversy or no, Pop remains the best coach in basketball and has only further affirmed that reputation with the way that he has managed his team this season.

His corps of bigs, though, was noticeably thin. Beyond an aging Duncan, the Spurs were due to lean on the slow-developing Tiago Splitter, the undersized DeJuan Blair, the overweight Boris Diaw and the three-point-happy Matt Bonner up front.

In essence, the Spurs needed a season like this from Duncan. They needed him to be a force down low and a passer out of the post. They needed him to suck in opposing defenses, to open up the floor for San Antonio's shooters on one end and protect the rim on the other.

So far, he has done just that. The raw numbers may not pop off the page like those that he posted during his back-to-back MVP seasons or his four previous championship runs.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

But at his age, with his mileage, on this team, Duncan's contributions are more valuable than ever.

The success of the Spurs' season will ultimately depend on Timmy's ability to keep up his torrid pace. And, to a lesser extent, Pop's freedom to manage his minutes as he sees fit.

 

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