LAS VEGAS -- San Antonio Spurs guard Jonathon Simmons stared straight ahead, stroking his goatee, looking for the words needed to articulate exactly what it would mean for the team to play without Tim Duncan.
“He’s been everything to this franchise,” Simmons said. “Tim is like Kobe [Bryant] was with the Lakers. He’s set certain standards for us young guys to follow as the new guys coming into the program.”
Expect those guiding principles to remain for years to come, even in the wake of Duncan announcing his retirement on Monday after a 19-year career that produced five NBA titles, two MVP awards and 15 All-Star nods. During Duncan's tenure, the Spurs posted a 1,072-438 record and .710 winning percentage, which ranks as the best 19-year stretch in league history and is tops among all teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB over that span.
“He’s been the top guy in the franchise for a long time, way before I was even here,” forward Kyle Anderson said. “Sheesh, that’s going to be different [to no longer have Duncan on the team]. It will be a big change, and it will take some time for us to get adjusted to it.”
Best believe the Spurs won’t wait long to adjust to life without Duncan. Through a combination of the development of its own players, such as Kawhi Leonard, and shrewd offseason moves, such as the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, San Antonio has positioned itself to transition seamlessly from the big three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into the next evolution of Spurs basketball.
“We’ve been building scenario-planning, not just for this season but for every season,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford explained shortly after this year's NBA draft. “We’ll be ready to answer the questions that are posed to us to hopefully find pieces within our abilities within collective bargaining that will help us build a competitive team.”
That has long been San Antonio’s modus operandi, which, interestingly, was made possible by Duncan’s longevity, consistency and excellence. Largely because of Duncan -- as well as calculated moves from the front office -- the Spurs won’t have to start over the way many franchises do at the end of such a long run of success. Thanks in large part to the stability and success Duncan has provided, San Antonio has been able to stash away overseas draft prospects and bring them into the fold once they’re ready to contribute, while Duncan and the rest of the Spurs continued to seriously contend for titles.
The Spurs also owe a debt of gratitude to Duncan for playing a key role in establishing a culture of selflessness and team basketball that makes San Antonio one of the NBA’s most coveted destinations for top talent. Duncan made that talent more attainable, too, by taking team-friendly deals throughout his career. Remember the hometown discount Duncan gave the Spurs last year when he re-upped for $10.8 million over two years?
Because of that, the team’s new core of Leonard, Aldridge, Parker and Gasol should be strong enough to carry the franchise into a future.
“I’ve said it many times: He’s unbelievable. His longevity, the way he’s professional, the way he approaches the game just sets a great example for everybody to follow,” Parker said in March when Duncan became the sixth player in NBA history to reach 15,000 rebounds.
The thing is, all those positive attributes will continue to resonate long after Duncan’s departure and will influence nearly every player donning the silver and black for the next several years. Duncan, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the team's front office have made sure of it. Duncan’s presence alone helped the organization tremendously in achieving as much.
With Duncan retired, San Antonio will reconfigure its frontcourt as part of one of the most significant roster turnovers in recent franchise history. That movement is afoot. But all of this has been long in the making, which is part of the reason why Buford worked all the team’s contracts two years in advance to put San Antonio in prime position financially last summer to land Aldridge, who was arguably the most coveted free agent on the market in 2015.
Gasol and Aldridge won’t make anybody forget about Duncan. Popovich often describes Duncan as “the center of everything” the team does on defense. Neither Gasol nor Aldridge can rotate on a pick-and-roll like Duncan. Neither is as ferocious as Duncan on the boards.
Still, San Antonio won’t implode with Duncan no longer on the court because the Spurs have done enough building over the years at other positions to make the departure of arguably the best power forward of all time easier to stomach.
Sensing the Duncan era was coming to an end, the Spurs brought aboard Gasol earlier this month, which forced them to part ways with Boris Diaw in a cost-cutting trade. In addition, San Antonio lost other key free-agent big men such as Boban Marjanovic and David West. Those losses hurt but were needed for San Antonio to try to duplicate Duncan’s production moving forward as best as it could.
Perhaps Duncan’s physical departure removes the San Antonio Spurs from the championship conversation.
Maybe it doesn’t.
But the culture forged by Duncan’s legacy of greatness raised the bar on several fronts for the entire organization, which means the Spurs will have a fighting chance for years to come -- even without No. 21 roaming the paint.