How Much Longer Can Tim Duncan Keep Turning Back the Clock?

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How Much Longer Can Tim Duncan Keep Turning Back the Clock?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Tim Duncan is no friend of Father Time.

How much longer he and the NBA equivalent of the Grim Reaper will remain at odds, though, remains to be seen.

What the San Antonio Spurs star continues to do defies laws of age and natural regression. Players in their late 30s shouldn't be playing as well as Duncan is, dominating games the way he can dominate them. 

But that's what he's doing—dominating on occasion, putting forth the same consistent effort that's defined his 17 years in the NBA. 

And he's not just another 30-something playing on borrowed time. He's 37, going on 38, still scoring and rebounding, defending and winning.

Deal with it. Accept it. Don't try to define it or pinpoint its expiration. 

Enjoy it. 

Embrace it.

Sooner or later, like all good things, Duncan's time-reverting play will fade by way of a planned exit or involuntary circumstances that force his hand or marginalize his impact.

Just not yet.

Not now.

 

Still Fundamentally Incredible

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Now is when Duncan will continue to turn back the clock, as he has for most of this season. He's averaging 15.2 points, 10 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks on the year...in under 30 minutes per game.

Assuming his numbers hold, Duncan will become the first player in NBA history to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in under 30 minutes per game.

Please excuse me for a moment while I go faint, then regain consciousness only to faint again.

There is no downplaying the significance of that feat. Not when he's almost 38. Superstars in their prime don't even post those kinds of numbers, partly because they tend to play more than 30 minutes a game, but mostly because it's insane.

The historical context doesn't stop there, either. 

If Duncan's numbers hold firm, he'll become the first NBA player over 33 to reach benchmarks of 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks in a single season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Duncan himself are currently the oldest players to duplicate such production (33), but the latter two both averaged more than 37 minutes per game when they did it. Duncan has the opportunity to do it in 29.4, nearly eight minutes less than Abdul-Jabbar (37.2)

In fact, of all players to ever maintain those numbers for an entire year, no one has even come close to matching Duncan's present output while averaging under 30 minutes. The closest anyone has ever come is Duncan himself, who did it in 2009-10 while logging 31.3 ticks per game.

Rarely do people talk about Duncan's season in this way. For all he does, he continues to fly under the radar, making history and setting records quietly. Single-game performances, however incredible, never receive the attention they deserve.

Well, almost never.

Hiding what Duncan did most recently against the Denver Nuggets is impossible. It was too absurd.

Death and Taxes went for 29 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals in San Antonio's 108-103 victory over Denver. Not since Karl Malone did so in 2002 has a player over 37 recorded 29, 13, five, two and two, respectively, in the same game.

"(Duncan) played a great all-around game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said afterward, per the Houston Chronicle's Raul Dominguez. "Probably nobody noticed, but it was assists, boards, scoring — he was the guy that kept it together."

Yes, this is real life. And yes, those goosebumps on your arms and legs and that chill running down your spine are completely normal. To feel this way is expected, even encouraged.

Age has not impacted The Big Fundamental the way it has others.

Not yet.

 

Staying Fresh

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Don't you just hate the word, "yet?" It's deceptively powerful, irretrievably annoying—especially now that we know better.

Recently, there have been plenty of players who left us hoping that the tables had turned on Father Time, that his power was no longer as great.

Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were once ageless, playing and producing like they were in their prime, rarely bowing to time or conventional wisdom. Look at them now.

Both players have started to battle injuries, physical limits we hoped didn't exist, but knew deep down that they did. Now there's Duncan, and there will be others after him, and others after them still.

To date, though, we have been given no reason to believe Duncan can keep playing like this for long. Few players get to walk away on top, and unless Duncan secures a championship this season, past case studies—Nash, Kobe, etc.—suggest he'll start ebbing into darkness, approaching retirement as a fraction of his former and current self.

But hopefully not.

Maybe Duncan gets to leave on top by winning his fifth championship this year before walking away. But even with the Spurs winning and winning, and winning some more, it's impossible to count on that happening.

More likely than not, fifth championship or not, this is a straightforward question: How much longer does Duncan have? 

As long as he wants? The NBA faithful can only hope. But he does have plenty going for him.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Trust in Pop.

Popovich is an expert scowler, tactical mastermind and—more importantly—minutes-managing virtuoso. He has no qualms about resting players, specifically his Big Three. Games could be nationally televised or the Spurs could be defending their second-longest winning streak in franchise history, and it won't matter.

While maddening, Coach Pop's devil-may-care approach to the regular season is part of an intricate preservation plan that allows him to keep Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker fresh for the playoffs. It's always been that way in San Antonio, even before Duncan journeyed over to the wrong side of 35. Coach Pop isn't one to overwork his players.

Duncan hasn't averaged 35 or more minutes per game since 2003-04, when he was 27. Since then, he's only logged 35-plus minutes on 326 occasions, which is nothing in the span of nearly 11 years.

By comparison, Bryant has played 35-plus minutes 589 times since 2003, more than double that of Duncan. That's with him missing most of this season too. Not even Steve Nash has been afforded the same amount of rest. He's played over 35 minutes 393 times during that same span. Once again, that's with him missing most of the last two seasons.

Fresh legs and planned rest can mean everything. They have meant everything. 

 

The End Is Close, But How Close?

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Timmy D's reign of dominance isn't going to last forever. Nothing good, nothing great ever does.

But unlike most, he does have the opportunity to leave at or close to the top of his game. San Antonio's system is perfect for him. He's rarely, if ever, expected to do too much, and Popovich knows when to sit him. 

How many more productive seasons does Tim Duncan have left, assuming he wants to keep playing?

Submit Vote vote to see results

"Game by game." That's what Duncan said when asked if he would honor his contract through next season, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears. He's going to take his health, his career "game by game."

That's perfectly fine. Duncan has that option. He can take it game by game, season by season, playoff run by playoff run. It doesn't matter. This ride isn't going to stop until he says it's over, be it this year or next, or later.

Until then, Duncan will stay Duncan, scoring and rebounding, defending and winning, walking away as the same steady, clock-turning, time-flouting talent he is now.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.


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