If that Ray Allen three from the corner in Game 6 of last year's Finals rims out, what are the chances San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan is still playing right now? Does he walk away from the game on top, having conquered the best player in the league after winning a fifth ring?
It's fun to speculate, but ultimately, that shot did fall, San Antonio did miss out on another title and now Duncan is back in the postseason. And he's looking dominant, again. And San Antonio looks geared up for a title run, again. And maybe, after all the wondering about when he would finally lose it and fall off, Duncan will leave the basketball world in much the same way he entered it.
That's not to say that he has remained completely unchanged over 17 seasons, even if his Game 1 performance against the Dallas Mavericks could have fooled a few people.
Tim Duncan’s shot chart from Game 1 makes one thing very clear: He owned the paint. pic.twitter.com/puDgpJHm0x— ESPN (@espn) April 21, 2014
There are differences between rookie Duncan and 37-year-old Duncan, but they aren't as pronounced as the changes in contemporaries like Kevin Garnett, for example. That's because, rather fittingly, Duncan has had a simple counter for every opponent he's come across, and that includes Father Time.
Duncan's body has slowed, but his mind has quickened. He's less explosive, but he has a softer shooting touch. Every tool that could be sharpened has been sharpened, essentially.
That's required as much work from an ego and mental perspective as anything physical. Instead of becoming stubborn, Duncan has embraced change, particularly regarding where the majority of his touches come from and how quickly the offense runs.
After all, you would think San Antonio would walk the ball up to cater to their big man with bad knees, but instead they do the opposite. The Spurs play faster now than they did in Duncan's prime, which works because his defensive rebounding (a career-high 12 a game per 36 minutes) and outlet passing spur the attack.
You don't survive and thrive for this long without some adaptation. As Gregg Popovich told the Associated Press (via USA Today) after Game 1, the expectations for Duncan have changed over the years as well:
"Timmy, he's not going to score 24 a game or anything like that," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's the base from which everything else occurs, whether he's scoring or not. It just gives us a comfort level and a point from which to operate. He plays (defense), rebounds, scores here and there. He just does his job."
There's a natural evaluation process that takes place when considering the credentials of a championship team, and usually it starts with measuring up the star players of each team. Who scores more? Who is more clutch? That sort of thing.
While that's not necessarily a bad way to view it, it's a fool's errand to do that with Duncan. Much of his greatness lies in his consistency and decision-making, a strength that often isn't evident in such a short time frame. Making the right defensive rotation isn't as sexy or noteworthy as a nasty crossover or tough turnaround jumper, but as Popovich says, Duncan just does his job, regardless of the circumstances.
It's why having faith in the Spurs to win a title has never been misplaced with Duncan around, even as the pieces around him have changed. Results will naturally vary, but the process in San Antonio is always solid because it is predicated so much on Duncan's reliability.
Perhaps the biggest concern with Duncan is that the desire would dissipate after so many seasons and minutes and accomplishments, but as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher detailed in his recent profile, that hasn't happened yet:
Whether it's on or off the court, it's as if Duncan sneaked in a quick jab on Father Time. The question, of course, is why? The flip answer is to win another championship, but that doesn't take into account the grind of playing against the Anthony Davises and Kevin Loves and Serge Ibakas with a left knee encased in a metal brace. Or the challenge of being a devoted single dad to two kids under 10. Or the Sisyphean anguish after coming so close to hoisting the fifth trophy he still covets.
"He's a different one because it's this internal fire," says Spurs assistant coach Sean Marks, whose 11 playing seasons included two with Duncan. "He'd never say it, but I think he wants to be remembered as one of the best ever—best power forward, top five all time. You'll never hear that come from his mouth, but somewhere it's deep down in there."
Duncan is already one of the greatest to ever play. There are no noisy, herculean efforts that need to be seen to cement his status as a basketball legend.
For the Spurs to win the title this season, they don't need anything like that, either. Duncan just has to come to work, clock in and let a time-tested process run its course, same as he always has.