Spurs See End to Tim Duncan Era Coming, and Find Kawhi Leonard Quietly Waiting

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Spurs See End to Tim Duncan Era Coming, and Find Kawhi Leonard Quietly Waiting
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

MIAMI — There are many things Kawhi Leonard does well. He defends with passion, shoots with precision, dunks with verve.

There is one thing Leonard does not do well: discuss his basketball exploits.

It's not that Leonard can't. It's just that he'd prefer not to.

"On the one-to-ten Mr. Quotable scale, I'd say he was a one last year," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said of the Spurs' rising star. "This year, I think he's a 1.75. Hey, it's just not who he is."

So when it came time Tuesday night to take a turn at the NBA Finals postgame podium—following a career-best 29-point explosion in the Spurs' Game 3 victory over the Miami HeatLeonard politely declined.

As Leonard would explain later, he had already done several NBA-mandated television appearances, and he did not want to answer the same questions again. But really, Leonard would be perfectly content not to answer the questions at all.

In so many ways, Leonard is the perfect Spur: dedicated, diligent, selfless, occasionally flashy but never self-aggrandizing. He will graciously accept your compliments and then go about his workquietly, of course.

Comparisons to Tim Duncan, the Spurs' rock-solid star forward, seem natural, except as Popovich noted, Leonard "speaks less than Timmy ever did."

We may not hear much from Leonard. But we will soon be seeing plenty from him.

The Duncan era is winding down. Around the Spurs, the belief is that Duncan, 38, will play one more season, then amble off into the sunset. Manu Ginobili, who turns 37 in July, could follow him out the door.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are among a majority of Spurs players due to become free agents after next season.

Leonard, age 22, is the new foundationthe star who will bridge the Duncan-Ginobili-Tony Parker era to the as-yet unnamed era to come (the Parker-Leonard era?).

"As time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs," Popovich said.

Popovich made that declaration in August 2012a full two seasons agobefore Leonard had played in consecutive Finals, before he had blossomed into an elite defender, capable of flustering LeBron James, long before most fans had even heard his name.

That's how impressed Popovich was with Leonard's abilities and his studious dedication. Spurs officials are generally not prone to hyperbole.

Watching Leonard's steady rise brings a measure of comfort as the Spurs brace for Duncan's inevitable farewell, and the daunting challenge of sustaining their success without him.

Even the greatest franchises have not mastered this formula. It's impossible to know when the good times will end, or what comes next, or how to build for the future while maximizing the present.

The Boston Celtics last year took the Acme detonator approach, trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn, initiating a wholesale rebuild. They went 25-57 this season, but trading Garnett and Pierce netted the Celtics a cache of draft picks that, they hope, might fuel a quick resurgence.

Eric Gay/Associated Press
Spurs GM R.C. Buford faces the task of eventually rebuilding a team that has reached the NBA Finals six times since 1999.

Celtics president Danny Ainge made that decision with history in mind. He was there to witness the slow, painful erosion of the Larry Bird-era dynasty in the 1980s, when team officials stubbornly refused to break up the core. The Celtics went nine years without a playoff series victory after Bird's retirement in 1992. It took 15 years before they returned to the Finals.

It took the Los Angeles Lakers a decade to recover after the collapse of the Showtime era. It took the Chicago Bulls a decade after Michael Jordan's retirement to find a new franchise star, Derrick Rose.

With a salary-cap system that constrains roster-building, and a draft structure that punishes the most successful teams, it's nearly impossible to be a contender in the present while planning for the future.

The Spurs started wrestling with this puzzle about four years ago, after a series of postseason flops. There was the first-round loss to Dallas in 2009, then the second-round sweep by Phoenix in 2010, followed by another first-round ouster, against Memphis, in 2011.

It was during that time, said general manager R.C. Buford, that team officials first asked themselves: What's next?

"The way things were lining up, it wasn't such that you felt like we were going to be in two more Finals with this group," Buford told Bleacher Report. "So as you looked at the results that we were receiving, those discussions happened."

The bond between Duncan and Popovich is so strong that it's almost inconceivable the Spurs would ever consider trading their franchise star. Nor would they ever willingly part with Parker or Ginobili. The philosophy here has been consistent: This core will be together until it can no longer function.

Buford framed it this way: "If not this, then what's better?"

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
With four titles in his time with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan is likely to end his NBA career with the Spurs.

"Our belief was that this group deserved the opportunity to make that determination for themselves," Buford said.

Writing off the Spurs as "too old" had become a national pastime by the time San Antonio made its stunning run to the 2013 Finals. In truth, Spurs officials were just as surprised as everyone else by the resurgence, which began in 2012, with a return to the conference finals.

"Our expectations have been exceeded," Buford said. "That was not our anticipation."

All the Spurs knew for sure was that holding onto Duncan, Ginobili and Parker felt right.

There is virtue in this approach, a mix of loyalty and sentiment and practicality. But there is a cost, too, for any aging dynasty. Hold on for too long, and you risk having the dynasty crumble. Tie up the payroll with aging stars, and you leave no room for a youth movement.

The next thing you know, you're a fixture on the lottery dais, staring at a 10-year playoff drought.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard are likely to be the players that serve as a bridge between San Antonio's current era and whatever is to come post-Tim Duncan.

"You don't want to be that," Buford said. "But to say that you have the answers, how to keep that from happening? Short of what Danny did and having all these great assets, I don't know how you keep it from happening or not. I think our plan is to be as flexible as we can, to be able to react to the circumstances in the market, and to try to have some young talent that we hope can help become whatever's next. To define what that is, I don't know."

The Spurs do have an idea, though. They know that Parker, at age 32, is still in his prime and should have many more All-Star seasons ahead. They know that Leonard is just starting to unlock his potential as a two-way star. They know they will have a wealth of cap room in 2015, when only Tiago Splitter is under contract.

And, in typical Spurs fashion, they have a few assets quietly stashed overseas. Two in particular hold great promise: Livio Jean-Charles, a dynamic 6'9" forward from French Guiana, drafted 28th in 2013; and Davis Bertans, a 6'10" forward from Latvia, a 2011 second-round pick who was acquired from Indiana, in the same trade that brought Leonard to the Spurs.

Both prospects, coincidentally, are recovering from torn anterior cruciate ligaments, but both are considered potential impact players. Jean-Charles dominated at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2013, taking MVP honors after a 27-point 13-rebound performance, while playing on an international team that included Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum. The opposing team included Julius Randle and Jabari Parker.

"We're probably higher on him than most, but his one chance to play in that group, he was the MVP of the game," Buford said. "And that's one of the best Hoop Summit fields that you'll have in a game."

Jean-Charles, 20, is more of a slasher than a shooter, but the Spurs are confident that their shooting guru Chip Engelland can polish his shooting stroke.

Bertans, 21, is already elite in that regard"as good a shooter as has been through our group," Buford saidbut needs to develop physically.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Spurs draft pick Livio Jean-Charles impressed many NBA observers at the Nike Hoop Summit, where he played alongside star prospects Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum.

There are no guarantees, of course, but the Spurs are better than any team in the league at drafting and developing international players.

Sometime soon, we may see whether Jean-Charles and Bertans can follow the paths carved by Parker (the 28th pick in 2001) and Ginobili (57th in 1999). Until then, the Spurs will cherish every minute remaining in the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili era and celebrate the arrival of their reticent young star.

"He's the future of the Spurs," Popovich said of Leonard again this week, "partially because everyone else is older than dirt."

In his low baritone, Leonard dutifully accepts the mantle, his expression and his tempo never changing.

"I take it as a compliment," he said, "but you never know what's going to happen. I still [have] to come in next year a better player. I just [have] to come in a better player, with more skills and see if I will be able to take on that role."

Spoken like a true Spurs star.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck.

 

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