What to Watch for in Tim Duncan's 19th and (Perhaps?) Final Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 7, 2015

Feb 23, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) dribbles the ball as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends during the first quarter at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This thing Tim Duncan is doing, this stealth assault on aging norms and career expectations—it's going to end someday. Decline or injury will lay the San Antonio Spurs' unfathomably steady mainstay low.

Maybe it'll happen this season, his 19th NBA season.

But if you've been predicting that this year will be the year for the past decade or so, if you've been banking on the fact that everybody eventually falls off, you've been wrong every time. And even if you're right this time, would you really want to be?

Isn't it better if Duncan just keeps defying everything we know about NBA survival?

Duncan enters 2015-16 just like he's gone into every season of his all-time-great career: a legitimately dominant force and a key reason his team is a title contender.

Here's what we should expect from the 39-year-old monument of consistency.

Expect the Same Old Timmy

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Apr 15, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Spurs 108-103 and earned the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. M
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Though Duncan has remained productive into his late 30s, he hasn't stayed exactly the same. Playing-time reductions have cut into his counting stats, and the Spurs rarely dump the ball into a posted-up Duncan and expect an easy score.

And even if the Spurs were to suddenly go back to the clunky post-up sets they featured early in Duncan's career, LaMarcus Aldridge will be the one taking up those possessions now.

Expect Duncan to function as a screener on offense who'll score primarily on rolls to the rim, the occasional offensive rebound and the rare post-up finish. The bank shot that was his signature won't show up often, either, much to the chagrin of fundamental-loving coaches everywhere.

For all the changes in his role, Duncan's production rates haven't dipped lately.

Tim Duncan Holding Steady
Last 3 Years Avg.Career Avg.
Points per 3619.020.4
Rebound Pct.18.618.5
Assist Pct.16.116.5
Block Pct.5.44.6
Field-Goal Pct.50.150.6

Over this latter phase of his career, Duncan has proved he doesn't need to score 20 points per game to be an impactful player. As the scoring demands placed on him by the Spurs have declined, he's found other ways to make his presence an important one.

And two of them will be more critical than ever during the 2015-16 season.

Expect Very Quiet Defensive Genius

Duncan's brilliance as an interior defender will be tested this season. Getting Aldridge meant cutting out some of the cash devoted to other frontcourt players, and both Aron Baynes and Tiago Splitter are now gone.

That leaves Duncan as the Spurs' only intimidating rim-protector...insofar as players who rarely jump still qualify as intimidating.

Incredibly, Duncan's effectiveness as a shot-blocker was somehow better in his 18th season than it was in his 17th. That's not the kind of year-to-year change you'd expect from a player his age. And you certainly wouldn't anticipate his 5.1 percent block rate last year to actually be higher than his career average of 4.6 percent.

But there was Duncan, all year (and particularly when it mattered most) quietly dominating on defense with subtle intelligence, positioning and Swiss-watch timing.

"His timing is just impeccable," head coach Gregg Popovich told USA Today's Sam Amick of the play. "He has a hard time jumping over the proverbial piece of paper, and he gets in position. He knows where to be. He's played long enough. He's got a great basketball IQ, and he has excellent timing, so he reads things well."

Look again at what Duncan does there: He deters Chris Paul's drive with a small step into the middle, ties up DeAndre Jordan, sees Blake Griffin in a mismatch with Danny Green, slides up to help while staying locked up with Jordan so as to prevent the lob and stuffs Griffin with (maybe) a six-inch leap.

That play is why analysts like ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton expect Duncan to sustain his effectiveness on D indefinitely:

It's unclear when the time might come that Duncan is no longer a good defender. Perhaps age 50? While he's hardly mobile, Duncan can anticipate plays so well that he's almost always in place to offer help. His block rate has scarcely budged in his 30s, and Duncan remains a premier defensive rebounder because of his ability to secure missed shots in a crowd.

Duncan's brains, experience and instincts aren't going anywhere.

Expect Duncan the Playmaker

The Spurs may also have to stretch Duncan as an offensive facilitator this year.

With Tony Parker looking a step (or three) slower than he was in his prime, San Antonio could look elsewhere for ways to initiate its tic-tac-toe passing attack.

In the past, Parker could reliably beat his man off the dribble, whether alone or with the help of a screen, and slice into the teeth of the defense. The resulting chaos pulled help defenders into the paint, which allowed the Spurs to whip the ball around against a scrambling defense, almost invariably creating a quality look.

If Parker's hamstring troubles from last year magically disappear and the lack of burst he showed this summer in FIBA Eurobasket were merely a conditioning issue, the Spurs don't have a problem. But if Parker is truly on the downswing, Duncan could be asked to do more.

Aldridge will help, and Kawhi Leonard could expand his game to take up for Parker, too. But nobody understands the Spurs' read-and-react sets better than Duncan. And there aren't many more willing passers in the league than him.

Duncan ranked fourth on the Spurs in total assists last season, and his assist percentage has actually increased in each of the past four seasons. 

He can help keep the offense humming, but at what cost?

Expect A Minutes Question

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Do the Spurs lean harder on Duncan to fill their new needs on both ends, perhaps increasing his minutes from the 28.9 he averaged last year? His performance suggests he'd be up to the task, but much of the reason Duncan has lasted this long is the Spurs' early adoption of minutes restrictions.

Maybe San Antonio can live with a few rough patches this year if it means Duncan stays healthy for yet another playoff run.

But the Spurs got a reminder of the regular season's significance last year when they slipped to the No. 7 seed and had to face the potent Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. The West has only gotten tougher this year—too tough to believe that simply getting into the playoffs is the goal.

The Spurs need every edge they can get, including the one that comes with higher seeding and home-court advantage.

Does San Antonio think it's worth it to risk Duncan's health and increase his role if the payoff is better postseason positioning?

We'll find out.

Expect Comedic Perfection

Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili, Leonard and Patty Mills have already shot a handful of new H-E-B commercials for the upcoming season. Expect them to be just as good as the old ones:

Expect Exciting Monotony

The truth is, there's little to think or write or say about Duncan that hasn't already been thought, written or said. Every year, we go through the same "He's got to be done this season, right? Oh wait, he's clearly not" routine. It's tradition.

So maybe the best way to think about Duncan is to consider how he's made monotony exciting.

Seeing the same thing over and over is supposed to get boring. It's supposed to numb you, and in Duncan's case, that's how it's been; we gloss over what he does every year because, well...he does it every year.

But when you reach a certain point (and I'd argue 19 seasons qualifies as such a point), monotony becomes remarkable. Sustaining production and impact isn't supposed to be easy in the NBA. Players are supposed to change, to get worse over time.

So maybe the main thing to watch for this year is the way Duncan just won't get worse. The way he'll somehow, inexplicably, stay the same.

Tim Duncan: Making the mundane extraordinary since 1997.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.