Chasing Tim Duncan

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It was, and shall remain, my favorite twist from the looniest N.B.A. off-season ever.

Not the dueling star duos that formed in Los Angeles. Not the Nets’ stunning free-agent superiority over the Knicks. Not even the combustible reunion of James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Houston.

Nothing shook me like the July 22 bulletin that Tim Duncan was returning to public life as a member of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff in San Antonio.

So this hopeless hoops romantic, in response, felt compelled to attend a Spurs game as early as possible. The heart, as they say, wants what it wants — and I just had to go see Duncan coach.

But after catching the Spurs live twice in the season’s opening month, I realized why this story grips me so, even if it makes me sound sappier than usual.

After two decades tracking the spotlight-shy Duncan, I wanted to believe his decision to exit three years’ worth of relative seclusion in retirement and return to Pop’s side would also come with the bonus of Timmy describing in detail the various forces that lured him back.

No such luck.

In response to numerous requests from nosy reporters, Duncan has relayed word through Tom James, the Spurs’ longtime press officer, that he intends to do no interviews this season.


Will he stick to such a rigid policy? If anyone can, it’s Duncan, who has not granted an interview of substance since he abruptly announced after the 2015-16 N.B.A. season, his 19th, that he was done playing.

At least I managed to muster some reassurance that I was not alone in my curiosity. On Nov. 5 in Atlanta, I crossed paths with Kevin Willis, the former Hawks standout, who went on to play for the Spurs’ title-winning team in 2002-03. Willis was on a scouting mission similar to mine that night.

“It’s just beautiful,” Willis said. “I love seeing him out there. I never saw it coming — I never really saw Tim as a coach. But since it happened, why not? When he’s working with other players, he’s the ultimate teacher.”

Before games, Duncan is back on display for fans who arrive early enough, warming up the reserve center Jakob Poeltl and the former All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan has let his hair grow out extra long and has styled it in dreadlocks, and he typically duels with Poeltl and Aldridge while wearing a pair of camouflage Spurs practice shorts — along with an unmistakably bulky brace he still faithfully slides over his left knee.

In Dallas on Nov. 18, Duncan, unlike any other assistant coach I’ve seen lately, could be spotted in the hallway adjacent to the visitors’ locker room doing situps on the concrete floor between preparatory sessions with Poeltl and Aldridge. During the game, Duncan inspired repeated flashbacks to his playing days as he leapt off the bench to dish out pats of support to the chests of various Spurs, as he so often did in the days he was faithfully flanked by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“When a young kid has Tim Duncan put his arm around him and guide them in a certain way, give them a piece of advice, that’s way more important than what I can do,” Popovich said.

Coaching full time, though, comes with ancillary demands, all of which Duncan happily avoided the past few seasons, when he routinely tutored San Antonio’s big men in the privacy of the Spurs’ practice facility. By agreeing to take a spot on Popovich’s bench, Duncan committed to wearing the sports coats he is known to loathe, to lengthy travel spells away from his children and to the prospect of headline-grabbing nights like Nov. 16 — when Duncan was thrust in the role of acting head coach, ahead of the more experienced Becky Hammon, after Popovich got ejected in an eventual loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

The initial word was that Duncan, Hammon and the Spurs’ other top assistant, Will Hardy, were filling in by committee, but Popovich clarified postgame that Duncan had been in charge. In the first timeout after Pop’s ouster, it was indeed Duncan who addressed the Spurs.

“I don’t think anybody’s used to it yet,” said a smiling Derrick White, San Antonio’s third-year guard, when asked two nights later to describe what it was like to have Duncan in charge.

Considerable intrigue naturally stems from what may happen the next time Popovich is ejected. Duncan’s elevation was widely attributed to the fact that he, rather than Hammon or Hardy, was responsible for the Portland scouting report, but the Spurs have not committed to using the same formula when Pop is inevitably tossed again. The wait for Hammon to become the first female head coach in a major men’s North American team sport, even for just one game, thus continues.

Yet greater mystery suddenly surrounds the Spurs’ future. They have lost nine of their past 10 games and are slogging through what already has the look of the most difficult season this franchise has faced since the 20-62 campaign in 1996-97 that positioned San Antonio to draft Duncan.

Duncan’s biggest responsibility as a rookie coach thus may be the behind-the-scenes support he lends Popovich, mere months after a severely depleted United States squad finished a humbling seventh under Popovich at the FIBA World Cup in China.

The Spurs went a promising 48-34 last season — Year 1 after Kawhi Leonard became the first Spur in the Popovich Era to force his way out via trade — but hopes that they were destined to improve this year simply by bringing back the dynamic guard Dejounte Murray from injury were quickly dashed. Even amid continuing concerns about Murray’s ability to mesh with Aldridge and the veteran swingman DeMar DeRozan, since none of them are proficient 3-pointer shooters, San Antonio ranks a surprising sixth in offensive efficiency. The problem: San Antonio ranks a wholly uncharacteristic 26th in defensive efficiency, and advanced statistics repeatedly highlight DeRozan as a prime culprit.

Duncan’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame is looming next fall, so we will (presumably) hear from him eventually. Surely even Duncan, considered a lock to join an epic 2020 class expected to feature Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, can’t duck a speech when he is ushered into Springfield.

Yet these are tense times in South Texas, filled with many more questions than answers. Suddenly, lots of curious observers are watching the Spurs.

How much longer can stubborn scribes like me get away with saying that it is a crime to write off the Spurs? How tempting will it be for Pop, who turns 71 in January, to walk away from coaching if the United States, with a much starrier roster, wins the Olympics in Tokyo next summer, as expected? How far back did Leonard’s departure really set this franchise?

The Spurs’ increasingly uneasy future, rather than Duncan, is the real show. Pop and Co. certainly deserve some leeway after a record 22 consecutive trips to the playoffs, but I suspect — if this is finally it for that streak — that the end will still hit us all in April like a shock of Timmy-in-a-suit proportions.

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