There comes a time in every man's NBA career when playing 30-plus minutes on an everyday basis is no longer an option.
That time came in 2010 for Tim Duncan. His playing time decreased by 2.3 minutes prior to the 2009-10 season and by another 2.9 the season after that. A resurgent 2012-13 campaign actually witnessed an uptick to 30.1 minutes per game thanks to an increasingly legendary offseason workout routine.
But it's Tony Parker's offseason routine that has to have the San Antonio Spurs a bit more wary these days. According to Spurs Nation's Dan McCarney, the 31-year-old franchise point guard is set to play in the 2013 EuroBasket championships, saying he's "not worried" after an MRI confirmed that a knee injury suffered in exhibition play was nothing serious.
Spurs fans will be pleased to hear about his peace of mind, but it comes at the expense of their own.
Parker only played in 66 games last season and began showing serious signs of wear and tear in the playoffs. Entering Game 5 of the NBA Finals, he said his sore hamstring could tear "anytime" and suggested he wouldn't be playing were it the regular season, per The Associated Press (via USA Today).
Even if you're not completely thrilled about him playing in Slovenia this September—just ahead of training camp—the only question that matters is what the Spurs can actually do about it.
That's where Duncan comes in.
The Big Fundamental played big minutes during his prime, as many as 40.6 a game in 2001-02. In fact, he averaged at least 38 minutes in each of his first six seasons, continuing to carry the Spurs' scoring load in the process.
Never has Parker logged those kind of minutes. He's never averaged more than 34.4, and the 32.9 he turned in last season were on par with his career mark.
But once Parker really started finding his touch in 2004 and 2005, Duncan's minutes began marginally declining. The Spurs became a more fast-paced team, evolving to make the most of Parker and Manu Ginobili even at the expense of the tried-and-true post-game that was so instrumental to titles in 1999 and 2003.
For him to remain an effective option throughout the grinding postseason, it may be time for Parker's role to begin evolving in much the way Duncan's has. He should remain the team's leading scorer for another two or three years, but he shouldn't be counted on to carry that burden every single night—even if he can.
The Next Generation
Transforming the Spurs into a post-Parker (and Duncan) identity won't happen overnight. Nor does it obviate the need for All-Star contributions from both Parker and Duncan in the short term. That's where you really have to ignore the box scores and appreciate how head coach Gregg Popovich does business.
Parker's minutes won't be arbitrarily capped—just as Duncan's haven't been. The 37-year-old Duncan played 35 or more minutes in 10 of San Antonio's 21 playoff games, surpassing 40 on four occasions. He played under 30 minutes just three times, all in blowouts. But the thing that's kept Duncan's motor so fresh is Popovich's willingness to use him on more of an as-needed basis.
Though it's hard to imagine San Antonio needing less of Parker, there are at least two ways in which emergent youngsters can change all that.
First, expect Kawhi Leonard to steadily reduce Parker's scoring burden. He raised his scoring an even four points to 11.9 a game last season, demonstrating an increased level of trust from Popovich and teammates alike.
Leonard has shown flashes of excellence on the offensive end, which is scary when you consider how successful he's been just standing in the corners, cutting and looking for offensive rebounds. Equipped with an improved mid-range game and dribble-drive, Leonard could easily score 16-20 points a game.
Second, don't forget about Cory Joseph—assuming you remember him in the first place. The second-year guard has frequented the D-League, but he also saw consistent spot minutes in the playoffs last season. When talking guys Joseph's age, that's either a sign Popovich has immense faith or has simply run out of ideas.
Starting this season, however, Joseph's minutes may become more necessity than luxury. He'll continue to earn those minutes thanks in large part to his tenacious on-ball defense, but the Spurs need something more from him this time around—more even than a consistent jumper.
Joseph has to start making plays, doing the things with which a slowed-down Manu Ginobili struggled in the finals—to the tune of a combined 12 turnovers in Games 6 and 7. That's a lot to ask of a third-year point guard, but it's also the kind of thing that determines whether third-year point guards make it in this league.
With Nando de Colo and sharpshooting Patty Mills looking for minutes of their own, it's now or never for Joseph to carve out consistent minutes. Parker will need those minutes now more than ever, at least for the first 82 games.
Another NBA Finals MVP Award
Tony Parker is at his best when he can throw himself at the basket with abandon. The emergence of his mid-range game is essential to San Antonio's philosophy, but so much of that philosophy also depends on Parker breaking down the defense. Whether it results in a layup, floater, free throws or a pass to the perimeter, it's the Spurs' mojo.
This is a deep enough team that it can live without Parker at his best on some nights, but it can't afford anything less on the nights that matter.
Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals were nights that mattered.
Parker scored a combined 29 points in those games, making just nine of 35 field-goal attempts in 80 minutes of playing time. It's hard to imagine a former NBA Finals MVP coming up so empty at the 11th hour, but Parker was just bad enough to cost Duncan a fifth ring. He'd promised Duncan a chance at that ring, and he came through—but not far enough.
Blaming the hamstring doesn't change the fact that San Antonio will need a much fresher Parker next time. Concretely, that means more random, unscheduled nights off for Parker. You could look at those as lost games, but they're also opportunities for the bench to get some seasoning.
And most importantly, they're opportunities for Parker to avoid a bump or bruise that might throw him off. Most guys who live in the paint weigh more than 185 pounds, and that's been a double-edged sword for Parker. He slips into the paint as easily as anyone, but he takes a pounding when he gets there.
When you think of finals MVPs, you don't think Parker. But he remains one of the game's absolute best scorers when playing at 100 percent. Winning one more title will just be a matter of keeping him that way.