With Tim Duncan Gone, Spurs Trying to Move Ahead Without Looking Back

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 25, 2016

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 14: Pau Gasol #16 and Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs talk during a preseason game against the Miami Heat on October 14, 2016 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO — The car customization and performance shop Tim Duncan owns and operates stands a mere half-mile from the San Antonio Spurs' practice facility.

Via his souped-up Camaro or taking a stroll in one of his typical oversized shirts to offload the humidity, it's an easy jaunt for Duncan. He lives nearby, too.

Much was made of the newly retired Duncan's initial visit to see and even advise his old team at the start of training camp…with an open invitation for more.

Yet head coach Gregg Popovich said Duncan showed up only three or four times overall in the team's month of preparation.

Maybe it's for the best.

Less might well be more right now for a franchise that needs its players to avoid looking over their shoulders at that mountain of success Duncan built in the past.

For one, Pau Gasol said he goes into his first regular-season game for the Spurs on Tuesday night in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors without Duncan's shadow hovering over that silver-and-black uniform any longer.

"I don't have that pressure," Gasol told Bleacher Report last week. "Things change. People are different. And you have to be true to yourself and always give your best, and that's what I'm going to try to do."

Even though just about every other fan wearing a Spurs jersey in town seems to be holding on to No. 21, and no matter that yellowed, employee-posted newspaper photos of Duncan still hang proudly in storage rooms deep in the AT&T Center, no one has been bringing up to Gasol how Duncan used to do this or how Duncan was great at that.

Talk to Gasol, however, and he mentions how he could really use some of that information.

"I wish I could've played with Timmy to some degree—and have him around in practice, because I'm sure even at this point in my career I could learn a lot from him," Gasol said. "And it'd be fun."

The 36-year-old Spanish big man already has been dealing with the adjustment of how little he is told under Popovich's rule, not knowing how much he'll play in exhibition games and being surprised that he played only 22 minutes in the exhibition finale Friday—the same as he played in his exhibition opener three weeks ago.

Oct 3, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich looks on against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

De-emphasizing the regular season to prep for the playoffs is just one way Popovich has proved to be a forward thinker. He is one of the league's true independent minds, and sometimes absorbing that unique approach takes time.

"It's been different," Gasol said. "I always come into situations with an open mind, ready to enjoy them and do my best. But it's been different. Kind of like always unexpected changes. Kind of go with the flow."

And this season, that means filling Duncan's role in the paint and presence in the locker room. Heading into his 16th NBA season, Gasol brings a veteran influence Popovich values at a time when Duncan's (and Boris Diaw's) wisdom is gone.

To that end, Gasol wasn't assigned Duncan's old locker, but the one next to Kawhi Leonard's locker—with Manu Ginobili on Leonard's other side, an arrangement seemingly tilted toward helping Leonard assume the leadership role Popovich wants him to take as soon as possible.

Asked if the handful of cameos Duncan made in camp were enough to make an imprint on this new team, Popovich shrugged—an indication of the total lack of expectations there.

"He came around and said hi a couple of times," Popovich said. "We're not hiring him as an assistant coach or anything. We just like his presence. His presence is always welcome."

Jeff McDonald @JMcDonald_SAEN

Another Tim Duncan appearance today at Spurs practice. https://t.co/iWJXvsnA05

If Popovich sounds ready to move on, it's because this is an awkward process for him also. He and Duncan won five titles over 19 years together. Popovich will always be the only NBA coach Duncan ever knows.

So Popovich put a happy face on for most of camp, almost as if he felt the need to allay any concerns—internal or external—that Duncan's departure creates a crisis point.

Popovich was so sunny that the local San Antonio writers made it a game to guess which date he would rudely reject a media question the way he is infamous for when he deems it negligently formed. He lasted until the last exhibition game Friday night, when Popovich, perhaps irritated at having learned Danny Green (quad) would miss the first few weeks of the season, finally leaned toward irascible again.

The 67 victories of last season reinforced the mentality that no one should question the Spurs again, especially because Duncan's numbers fell off to 8.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

And the changes do carry the hope of extending San Antonio's run of greatness.

Gasol is a massive upgrade statistically after posting 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds for the Chicago Bulls last season, including a sixth All-Star appearance. His demeanor has also been winning thus far. Late Friday night after the preseason finale, when he realized he might not again see the guys about to get cut, Gasol turned around to huddle individually with them, offering his thanks and ongoing friendship either way.

Even though the championship-hopeful roster that remains to go against Golden State can mostly avoid heavy dependence on inexperienced guys besides Kyle Anderson, 23, there is a feeling of evolution here. That's why Patty Mills described the team as "so new and so young."

But in this evolution, are the Spurs fit to win another title or merely survive?

Perimeter play was reason for concern before Green was hurt. Indeed, Mills is going to have to be better than ever if 15-year vet Tony Parker can't get in the paint much anymore.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 12: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs pauses as he watches game action against the Oklahoma City Thunder  during the second half of Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Ches
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

And as Parker and Ginobili play fewer minutes, their voices become less and less relevant in that locker room—even if they did soldier so long beside Duncan. Leonard is reticent in matters of communication, and those close to the team say LaMarcus Aldridge has in just one year proved to be the disengaged personality he was in Portland.

The unselfish family atmosphere that Popovich promotes needs the connectivity that Duncan, with his amazingly consistent defensive help and awkwardly humorous private personality, helped bring.

Make no mistake: This is a year of transition in San Antonio.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinDing.