It's impossible to think of the San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan manning the middle and Gregg Popovich stalking the sidelines. But in order for the Spurs to remain elite during the twilight of their incredible run, Tony Parker has to take full control of the team.
Fortunately, the Frenchman is ready.
In the Works for Years
A full transition into the "Parker Era" won't be abrupt or particularly difficult. That's because San Antonio has been gradually placing more and more responsibility on Parker's slender shoulders over the past few seasons.
The point guard's role has become increasingly important because the Spurs have changed their identity in recent years. After earning a label as a defensively focused, slow-it-down team during the early and mid-2000s, Popovich's Spurs have picked up the pace.
The transformation was great news for those who preferred not to fall asleep while watching basketball, but it was also necessary.
Plodding offenses and walk-it-up basketball used to be signs of a disciplined approach, which is what the Spurs most certainly had when Duncan was the team's undisputed focal point. But things have changed lately, and even the stuffiest, most deliberate teams have recognized that dynamic offense has to be a huge part of any real contender's repertoire.
Today's Spurs feature more cuts, more unpredictable screens, more penetration and a much faster tempo. You could spend hours breaking down the tape, but a quick scan of the Spurs' gradually increasing pace over the past few years tells the tale pretty clearly.
It's hard to know whether Popovich engineered the change in order to keep up with trends or because he knew Parker would eventually have to lead the team during Duncan's final years. Either way, it was a shrewd move, and it shows that the Spurs have been building toward a symbolic torch passing for some time.
The Natural Order
At 37, Duncan is still the Spurs' best two-way player. But limited minutes and the increasing need for days off (particularly on the second night of back-to-back sets) mean that San Antonio can't count on its iconic star to be the team's on-court leader every night.
There will never be any doubt about who controls the locker room or sets the team's emotional tone, but we're probably past the age of Duncan serving as the Spurs' offensive and defensive heartbeat.
Manu Ginobili is aging as well, and his style of play has always been too unpredictable for him to serve as a traditional leader.
Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are both terrific young players, but they're a long way down the totem pole of San Antonio's leadership hierarchy. Also, I'm not sure anyone has ever heard Leonard speak. A vocal leader he isn't.
Almost by default, the responsibility to captain the Spurs has fallen to Parker, which is where it belongs.
With the way smarter NBA teams defend these days, it's absolutely vital for offensive teams to find a way to get into the lane. There are lots of ways to do that, but one of the most effective is through creative use of the pick-and-roll.
And there might not be a more dangerous, clever, polished ball-handler than Parker in those sets.
Backing up a bit, the need to get the ball into the lane is paramount nowadays because teams are hellbent on denying chances at the rim. To varying degrees, every squad packs its defense into the paint on every possession. That's where the high-efficiency shots are, so that's where defenses keep their focus.
When a guard penetrates, particularly after turning the corner on a pick-and-roll, it sets off a chain reaction that creates scoring chances all over the place. And if we focus specifically on Parker in this example, he has shown the ability to take advantage of all of those opportunities.
The slippery guard can finish at the rim with absurd efficiency for a player of his size. He routinely ranks among the league leaders in points in the paint, despite his stature.
He can also kill hesitant big men with one of the NBA's deadliest floaters.
But it's Parker's passing that really makes the Spurs go. When he draws attention in the lane, he expertly whips the ball to open shooters whose defenders have taken a step into the middle. Often, those shooters are in the corners, where threes come easiest.
San Antonio's offense has sped up, but it is still unerringly precise. So Parker knows where every one of his options will be, and when he finds one, the ball continues to hum around the perimeter in typical Spurs fashion until it finds someone with a wide-open look.
The Spurs have always lived by their shared pledge to pass up good looks in order to create great ones, but that process doesn't even start unless Parker gets into the paint.
Look, Parker appreciates what he has in Duncan and Popovich. Both have molded his career, and there's no way he would have become the player he is without them.
But for the upcoming era of Spurs basketball, which will likely be the final charge before the dynasty collapses, he has to assume control.
Because this is San Antonio we're talking about, a lot of internal planning has helped gradually build to what should be a seamless transition. Everyone within the organization has long known that in order for the Spurs to remain championship contenders, Parker has to take over.
He's ideally suited to exploit the NBA's defensive tendencies, he's in the perfect system to do so and he has been working up to this moment for nearly a decade.
It's Tony Parker's time.