Against the Washington Wizards, Duncan crumbled to the floor and was forced out of the game due to what Fran Blinebury of NBA.com reported as a right ankle sprain. Normally, a sprained ankle (and knee) wouldn't be anything to write home about about, but the 36-year-old Duncan isn't your average player.
And the Spurs aren't your average team.
Prior to facing the Wizards, Duncan had missed the previous four games with a sore left knee. Not so surprisingly, San Antonio went 4-0 during that stretch and even pulled out the victory in Washington after his departure.
As one of the deepest teams in the Association, "panic" is not a word that is in Gregg Popovich and company's vocabulary. Per hoopstats.com, the Spurs' bench ranks fourth in points scored (40) per game, so urgency isn't exactly at an all-time high.
But should it be?
These may be injuries that are considered nothing more than minor setbacks, but as became clear after San Antonio's victory over Washington (via Jeff McDonald of Spurs Nation), they could be something more:
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Timmy like that before,” Green said. “I’ve seen him hurt before — banged and bumped and bruised — but usually he gets right back up.”
This time, Duncan had to be escorted off the floor with teammate DeJuan Blair under one arm and Stephen Jackson under the other. Television cameras later caught Duncan walking to the locker room on his own.
The initial diagnosis was a sprained left knee and sprained right ankle, but the full extent of the injuries likely will not be known until the 36-year-old is re-examined at some point later this week.
Even at 36 (going on 37), Duncan is having what you wouldn't hesitate to consider a career year. He's averaging 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in under 30 minutes per game. His 24.9 PER ranks fifth in the league, and his 2.7 blocks per contest rank third.
Just as important as his individual stats is what they have meant for a currently thriving Spurs team. San Antonio both scores more and allows fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and he has helped the Spurs lay claim to a 38-11 record, the best in the league.
Duncan's is a type of impact a team can't function without extensively, and though he's what you would consider irreplaceable, San Antonio needs to acquire some added insurance.
Knowing that Duncan has become more susceptible to injury and missing games for reasons other than because he's old only reinforces the limited shelf life of this Spurs faction. Plenty often ridicule them for their core's age, a pastime that usually culminates in San Antonio rendering everyone and their mother wrong. Yet this isn't about age. Not entirely.
It's about doing what the Spurs have done for three-plus years—preserve the state of this convocation.
From limiting minutes to the number of games played overall, Coach Pop and the Spurs have done everything to mummify this assembly. Courtesy of Duncan's latest misfortune, that must now include being an active buyer as we near the NBA trade deadline.
Though Tiago Splitter and his ever-improving two-way game has proven to be a goldmine for the Spurs, they need more.
No available (or affordable) player will replace Duncan's intelligence. His anticipation and rotations on the defensive end remain top-notch, and the angles at which he both scores and passes on the offensive end are among the most complex, and effective, in the game.
But again, this comes down to insurance, to the ability to have someone other than Splitter to help carry the low-post burden in Duncan's absence, or just to alleviate some of the responsibilities he's expected to shoulder.
I'm not talking about breaking up the classic Big Three. Tony Parker is one of the most dependable playmakers in the game, and Manu Ginobili's impact, while much more limited, remains understated on both ends of the floor.
And I'm not even urging the Spurs to pull off a blockbuster, one that would require them to relinquish any of its young guns in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. They do, however, have an expiring contract in Stephen Jackson, an expendable deep-ball assassin in Matt Bonner and a versatile, albeit undersized, interior presence in DeJuan Blair that they're willing to move. They're also not short on first-round picks
Simply put, there are assets for San Antonio to work with, ones that will allow them to pull the trigger on a deal for a backup big like a Derrick Williams, or, depending on the asking price, a flight risk like Paul Millsap.
Don't mistake the Spurs for a lottery-bound team without Timmy—they're still a playoff-caliber outfit. Not only have they given themselves quite the head start, but again, that depth of theirs is matched by hardly anyone.
Without Duncan, though, San Antonio isn't a contender. Without his two-way zest and underrated star power, the Spurs aren't a legitimate threat to win a championship.
At the same time, however, they've also reached a point where "without him" could become a way of life. Sore knees and sprained ankles may seem like nothing, but at his age, with more than 15 years of mileage on those suddenly fragile knees and ankles, San Antonio has to plan for the future.
Leonard, Green, Splitter and perhaps even Patty Mills and Gary Neal have given San Antonio a younger set of talent to build around. None of them are enough, though. Not if Duncan isn't going to be around consistently or even at full capacity.
Could his latest injuries be nothing? Could they be just a run-of-the-mill bump in the road for a 36-year-old big man?
Absolutely, but it could also be a sign of what's to come. It could be an indication that Duncan's minutes need to be cut or he's officially on the very downswing he has managed to avoid.
Either way, San Antonio has put themselves in a position win. The Spurs are that deep.
But acquiring some added depth and planning for the future further, they stand to uphold the very dominance they have come to symbolize and win even more.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com, unless otherwise noted.