Ripple effects are bittersweet.
Tim Duncan is currently chasing his fifth NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, the fourth of the Big Three era. Beating the Miami Heat would be gravy for his legacy, something that doesn't radically alter his reputation but overtly shifts conversations.
Five titles, along with everything else he's done, makes pondering his standing among past and present power forwards nonsensical. There would be nothing to discuss. His historical influence would need a greater challenge.
Is Tim Duncan a top-10 player of all time?
That debate would gain more traction. That's what more and more people would be asking.
And soon after that, before there's been enough time to process everything else, we might also be left wondering whether Duncan's fifth championship marks the beginning of the end for these dynastic Spurs as the world knows them.
Everything starts with Duncan.
If the Spurs win their first title since 2007, he will be the first domino to fall.
Or continue standing tall.
We don't really know.
Five championships is a lot. Only 25 other NBA players can lay claim to that many rings. If Duncan has anything left to prove (he doesn't), he would extinguish any lingering doubt or confusion pertaining to his legacy by joining that uber-exclusive list of all-time greats, Hall of Famers, renowned role players and Jim Loscutoff.
Fifth title in hand, Duncan could walk away for good, retiring the way his former running mate David Robinson did: on top.
To his credit, Duncan hasn't hinted at what he'll do. That's not Timmy's style. He's a stone-faced assassin, a slayer of defenses and a tacit, speak-from-the-crazy-eyes protester of whistles.
Any talk of his retirement after this season has been met with deflection or outright indifference. On those rare occasions he's entertained the topic, he's offered utterly ambiguous, open-ended responses that suggest that not even he knows what the immediate future holds.
Here's a sampling of Duncan's take on when he'll call it quits, per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
I’ve not come to that point yet. I don’t know when I’m going to retire, I don’t know what the factors are going to be. I don’t know any of that and I don’t care about any of that stuff right in now. I’m not thinking about that in that respect. It will happen when it happens. I’ll feel it and I’ll know it and I’ll call it a day.
Standard stuff. Duncan isn't one to provide insight, if he has any at all. He doesn't seem like the type to harp on what hasn't happened yet.
Nor is he someone who will fetter himself to one possible outcome. Anyone who has watched him on offense for the last 17 years knows he prefers to keep his options open.
Insight has been provided by those close to him, though.
When (Duncan and Ginobili) retire, it will be weird. It will create a big hole in the locker room. I hope it will be as late as possible. I know they both have another year of contract. I know they will play next year, and we’ll see after that. They are healthy. Popovich takes care of players’ bodies and maybe they will want to continue after that.
Those hoping Duncan continues playing no matter what will find satisfaction in Parker's intuition. But here's the thing: No one—not Parker, not Duncan, not Gregg Popovich—can be sure what Timmy will do next. They don't know the circumstances under which he'll be living months from now, weeks from now or even days from now.
Unseating Miami would put things in perspective, giving Duncan a better idea of whether he'll chase title No. 6 or quit while he's perched atop the rest of the NBA.
Coach Pop: The Second Domino
For argument's sake, let's say Duncan retires after winning his fifth championship, which isn't an unreasonable assumption considering he's 38 and on the precipice of immortalizing himself within NBA circles.
What must the Spurs do next?
Find a replacement...for him and Popovich.
Coach Pop has been helming the Spurs since 1996. He and Duncan have been together since 1997. When Duncan goes, he goes too.
This isn't a matter of opinion.
This, if you place stock in Pop's own words, is a fact.
"One of these days, it will be like the middle of the third quarter or something like that, and I’ll see him walking toward the exit," Popovich said of Duncan retiring, per The San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. "It will be like it just hit him, like, ‘I’m done.’ As soon as he does that, I’ll be 10 steps behind. Because I’m not stupid."
True to Pop's form, "10 steps behind" is an arcane retort that does nothing to promote definitiveness and everything to cultivate ungoverned speculation.
Ten steps could mean one season. It could mean two. It may even mean he plans on sticking around until the last of the Big Three (Parker) laces up his kicks for the last time.
Or it could actually mean 10 steps. Duncan and Popovich could have a standing, post-retirement, early bird dinner planned at The Granary 'Cue & Brew in San Antonio.
There's no reason to believe it couldn't happen that soon, that one of the NBA's most powerful coach-player duos ever could use Duncan's fifth championship as a means to say an immediate, simultaneous goodbye.
The alternative has Popovich enduring a conventional rebuild without his greatest pupil. Eighteen years into the coaching game and impatient as ever, his bidding a permanent farewell feels more likely than his ushering in a new era of basketball.
Living in Darkness
The collateral damage doesn't have to stop there.
Parker isn't going anywhere at 32. As indicated above, he's already thinking about life after Duncan. And maybe Pop.
And perhaps even Manu Ginobili.
Like Duncan, Ginobili has one year left on his current contract. He could elect to finish it out and play through 2014-15 no matter what. He could decide to play on from there, too.
But Ginobili is pushing 37. After 12 years and four championships, and knowing that Duncan and Coach Pop are bailing out, he might be done as well—less than 10 steps behind the aforementioned two, if you will.
Just like that, on the heels of Duncan's fifth championship, the Spurs would go from sustained powerhouse to a reputable franchise in transition. They would have to supplant three of their most irreplaceable components. They would have to soldier on without three of their most devout, battle-tested warriors.
Dismiss this concept as you like, but it's possible. Some version of it—seeing one or more of Duncan, Ginobili and Pop walk away—is arguably likely.
Look at all the Spurs' Big Three have accomplished so far and will have if they win yet again. Four championships. Five for Duncan. More than a decade of steady, incorruptible dominance.
CBS Sports' Matt Moore is already prepared to call San Antonio's group the greatest ever:
I'm willing to go ahead and say it. I think this team, this Spurs core that has been together since 2002, when you factor its entire 12 year-and-counting run, is the greatest NBA team of all time. The Chicago Bulls had better players, and much better individual seasons in the 90's. The Lakers and Celtics captured our imaginations the way that this team never has. But going back to when Duncan was drafted, that this team has been so dominant for so long? That this core for 12 years has been this good?
It's fine if you believe it's Russell's Celtics, or Jordan's Bulls, or Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics or, if you want to get really inventive, Kobe's Lakers. But that's where I'm at. I've never seen anything like what this Spurs team has done over such a long time.
That's before factoring in another title. Moore actually penned that before the Spurs even reached the NBA Finals, which is a testament to San Antonio's staying power and longstanding prestige more than it is premature.
Armed with countless aggregate and individual distinctions, and fresh off another ring, things in San Antonio could change, pinning the Spurs to the major shakeup they have avoided since Duncan was drafted.
This isn't to say their way of life will come crashing down. Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich could all plow on, championship or no championship.
Losing this season guarantees their return. No one is retiring amid the stench of consecutive Finals defeats, when the Spurs are clearly still a powerhouse and within reach of another championship.
Take down the Heat, and everything changes. All bets are off.
It could be the end.
“[But] at some point that will stop," Popovich said of Duncan's career, via Washburn.
At some point, everything and everyone will stop. The Spurs as we know them will cease to exist. That point may be Duncan's fifth championship. Neither the Spurs nor the rest of us know for sure, which is just the point.
Winning this year would solidify the Spurs' legacy, boost their already immaculate body of work and, fittingly yet tragically, threaten to dismantle their unprecedented way of life one departure at a time.
*Contract information via ShamSports.
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