Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs did everything they could to prepare for life without Tim Duncan.
They studied the pitfalls that plagued other franchises that lost foundational stars, drafted and developed talented players to be ready to pick up where he left off, and designed a basketball ecosystem that could sustain the loss of even the most important player.
Even after all that careful planning and shrewd evaluation, the reality of the first season in two decades without Duncan on the court was a jarring one at first for the most stable franchise in American professional sports and its veteran coach.
“I think throughout the first year there’s been a little search for the center. I don’t mean the position. I mean the center of gravity, what we revolve around now,” Popovich told The Associated Press. “It’s taken this entire year for everybody to realize that we all have to perform our roles better because Timmy covered up so many errors, whether he could score a lot or not.”
While so many teams have bottomed out after saying goodbye to a centerpiece player, the Spurs have somehow flourished. They have won at least 60 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. They will enter the Western Conference playoffs as the No. 2 seed, one of the few real challengers to prevent Golden State from a third straight trip to the NBA Finals.
“They exploit everything that you’re not doing well,” LeBron James said after Cleveland’s 29-point loss in San Antonio on March 27. “They are a well-oiled machine.”
Duncan wasn’t a larger-than-life presence like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, but there is no overstating the importance of his quiet leadership and calming influence to the Spurs’ success.
“When he was there, there were things that didn’t need to be said,” Manu Ginobili said of Duncan. “You see his look and you know how to react, when you are doing things right and when you are not. We are not going to have that because there is not a player with that type of weight, with that type of charisma and legend status. So with the ones we have, we try to do the best, try to be the best for each other and help each other as much as we can.”
In a league built on stars, losing one can be devastating to a franchise.
When Larry Bird retired from the Celtics, Boston made the playoffs just twice in the next nine years, including six straight trips to the lottery.
When Jordan walked away after leading the 62-win Bulls to the franchise’s sixth championship in 1998, Chicago won just 13 games the next year and missed the playoffs six straight seasons. Karl Malone left the Jazz to chase a championship with the Lakers in 2003-04, which ended Utah’s run of 20 straight playoff seasons. The Lakers crumbled when Bryant’s body gave out. The Cavaliers imploded when James left for Miami.
Popovich and general manager RC Buford decided that defense would be the key to surviving without Duncan.
“If times came where we didn’t have enough offensive punch, if we established a good defensive program it would sustain us and allow us to be in ballgames more than other organizations were in the past when they lost their star,” Popovich said. “So you wouldn’t have to find another 35-point scorer or 30-point scorer or even 25- or 26-point scorer because that’s never been Timmy or Tony or Manu or anybody.”
The Spurs have led the league in defensive efficiency eight times and finished in the top three seven more times in Popovich’s 20 seasons on the bench, a philosophical backbone that gives them a margin for error when the shots aren’t falling.
On offense, the ball movement and unselfishness generally keep individual statistics from jumping off the page, but also make the team less reliant on a single transcendent scorer.
And they have also been a little bit lucky with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, the 15th overall pick in 2011 acquired in a draft night trade whose rise from raw rookie to NBA Finals MVP in 2014 and legitimate league MVP candidate in 2017 has stunned even Popovich and Buford.
“We didn’t trade for him and say, `He’s going to be first-team All-NBA,'” Popovich said with a chuckle. “If RC told you that, he lied to you.”
Hitting the jackpot allowed the Spurs to gradually reduce their reliance on Duncan while he was still playing so there wasn’t such a shock to the system when Duncan finally did retire. They also added valuable role players like Danny Green and Patty Mills and signed Pau Gasol last summer to beef up the frontcourt.
“We thought we could always establish the defense just by coaching it, demanding it, the corporate knowledge of it. Everybody kind of falls in line,” Popovich said. “But we better go find some offensive people that can put it in the bucket.”
That pursuit led them to break character two years ago and throw a max contract at LaMarcus Aldridge , the most sought-after free agent on the market.
“Had he not come, no matter how good of defense we would’ve played, we would’ve had trouble scoring,” Popovich said. “The attention that he draws and the ability he has allows us to keep going and have enough offense so, if we maintain our defense, we can be in the hunt.”
The wins have piled up, the defense has locked down and the Spurs are gunning for a title, just like they did when Duncan was playing. But they won’t really know how successful they’ve been in transitioning to life without Duncan until they go through a postseason without him.
In some ways, h has never really left. He still shows up to the team’s practice facility for workouts and camaraderie. To make him feel welcome, Popovich gave him a locker right next to his own in the coach’s room and an open invitation to join the team on the road.
Come playoff time, they just might need him.
“Having him, there is a sense of peace in a way,” Popovich said. “And I love it on a personal basis. When you coach somebody for that long, to still have him around is a lot of fun.”