Gregg Popovich is not one for visible celebrations, but even the impassive Spurs coach must have exhaled in cautious relief on Saturday when Tim Duncan walked out of the arena under his own power.
Duncan put a scare into everybody in silver and black when he crumpled to the floor awkwardly during the second quarter of San Antonio’s win over the Wizards. Duncan, who has dealt with a sore left knee throughout the season, was given an initial diagnosis of a sprained left knee and a sprained right ankle.
Normally such an early diagnosis would be encouraging for a team, since neither is typically a long-term injury, depending on the severity of the sprains. As Celtics fans are aware, however, a hopeful first impression can lead to a disastrous conclusion. Both Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger suffered supposedly minor injuries before later learning they were out for the season. Rondo even played multiple overtimes with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, so Duncan’s unaided exit is not nearly as heartening as it might seem.
Such uncertainty about Duncan’s status has to be worrisome for the Spurs. For all Popovich’s brilliant tinkering, Duncan is the one player the Spurs cannot afford to lose if they plan on postseason success. Popovich absorbs the league’s chastisement over resting Duncan for this very reason. The best coach in the NBA recognizes that all the shrewd lineup-juggling in the world is a poor substitute for a future Hall of Fame center.
Duncan, at age 36, is still San Antonio’s most indispensable player. His position with the Spurs is similar to Kevin Garnett’s with the Celtics — despite the rise of two All-Star point guards in Tony Parker and Rondo, respectively, the veteran pivots are still their teams’ anchors. Boris Diaw is a fine playmaker from the post and Tiago Splitter is crafty enough to get easy baskets when opponents neglect him, but nobody can replace the overall impact of Duncan.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player’s numbers have grown more pedestrian in recent years as his minutes have declined, but statistics that measure productivity independent of playing time speak to his importance. Duncan averages 20.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes, and the Spurs are 11.2 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court. Parker has gradually become the Spurs’ go-to scorer, but Duncan still covers up his teammates’ defensive mistakes. He suffered his injury, not surprisingly, coming over to help after Martell Webster beat his defender along the baseline.
The Spurs have absorbed a number of key injuries this season, most notably to Manu Ginobili, who just cannot seem to stay healthy anymore. They even won four straight games before Saturday without Duncan, as he battled soreness in that same knee. No other coach makes adjustments like Popovich. But there is a vast difference between making a few tweaks for his team to survive for a week in January and February, and flourishing long-term without one of the game’s greats, who is still near the top of his game. Pop is a master of roster manipulation, but he is no miracle-worker.
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