Tim Duncan raised his arm as he walked off the court and was cheered by the Oklahoma City fans on Thursday night, acknowledging the crowd after what might have been his final NBA game. The San Antonio Spurs had just been eliminated from the playoffs after a 113-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of their series, as the 15-time All-Star gave everything he had in defeat.
Duncan played 34 minutes, his highest total of the postseason, scoring 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting while grabbing five rebounds. But it was his best performance in a series in which Duncan showed his age, having turned 40 years old just four days before Game 1. Along with teammate Manu Ginobili, Duncan indicated that he’ll ponder retirement now that the season is over, though a decision may not be close.
"I'll get to that after I get out of here and figure out life. That's it," Duncan told reporters.
Drafted first overall out of Wake Forest in 1997, Duncan has spent 19 years with the Spurs. Ginobili joined the team in 2002, and he’s been by Duncan’s side ever since. Both players were solid contributors to a 67-win team that ended the season in disappointment.
"Why do you say that?" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich responded when asked about Game 6 potentially being Duncan’s last. "Do you know something that I don't know? I just wanted to make that clear. Tim was playing really well. So we played him as much as we possibly could because he earned the minutes. He really did a good job."
Duncan helped spearhead San Antonio’s comeback attempt in Game 6, as the Spurs cut a 26-point fourth-quarter deficit to 11 with 3:45 remaining in regulation. But Oklahoma City pulled away when Duncan missed a 14-foot jumper and had a layup blocked on the next possession. He struggled in the final minutes like he had for much of the series, averaging just 2.25 points on 16.7 percent shooting in Games 2-5. The Thunder’s young athletic big men gave them a distinct advantage over the Spurs and Duncan, who was forced to go up against Enes Kanter and Steven Adams, whose combined age is just five years more than Duncan’s.
Timmy talks with the media postgamehttps://t.co/cvRL5nvjL2
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) May 13, 2016
Duncan and Ginobili have showns signs of slowing down all season, prompting whispers of retirement. Playing in 60 games, his fewest total of any season in which there wasn’t a lockout, Duncan averaged career lows in points (8.6), rebounds (7.3), blocks (1.3) and minutes (25.2). For Ginobili, his statistics in those categories were his worst since he was a rookie.
Duncan’s role on the team was reduced with the signing of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge in the offseason. In their biggest win of the year when they defeated the Golden State Warriors on March 19, Duncan played just eight minutes and scored one point.
The 1,643 combined playoff and regular-season games have put a toll on Duncan’s health, and knee issues have contributed to his declining performance. Having suffered a right knee injury in January, the injuries might be too much for Duncan to play a 20th season.
"This may be a health thing,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on "SportsCenter." "He may need surgery on that knee and I don’t think he can come back from that. So only he knows and the Spurs doctors know what really going on in there, and I feel like that’s been what’s been holding him back recently, and if that can be corrected with therapy, maybe that’s something he looks into. If it can’t be, maybe he’s done."
Even though Duncan and Ginobili are no longer the players they once were, San Antonio would love to have them back. Duncan is one of the all-time greatest players, and remains a quality low-post defender. He’s the team’s second-leading rebounder, and Ginobili, 38, made the most of his time off the bench, averaging 17.6 points per 36 minutes.
Both players have player options that would pay them well below market value, prompting no reason for Popovich or general manager R.C. Buford to feel hampered by their presence on the roster. Duncan’s 2016-2017 salary would pay him a base of over $5.6 million with $750,000 in incentives, via Sportrac, while Ginobili’s player option is worth just $2.94 million. Duncan has made over $236 million in his career, and Ginobili has earned more than $108 million through his contracts with San Antonio.
Having come up short after being knocked out by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in 2015 and missing out on the challenge of facing Golden State, the two veterans may feel motivated for one more shot at a championship run. San Antonio was clearly the second-best team in the regular season behind the defending champion Warriors, and the Spurs will surely be among the title favorites in 2017, particularly with an offseason packed with elite free agents that can easily shift the balance of power to San Antonio. It also helps that the Spurs have established such a family atmosphere over the years that returning for an extra season isn't a big sacrifice.
"If I was miserable every day and I couldn't stand the guys next to me, it would be an easy decision," Ginobili said. "It could have happened two years ago. I really appreciate everybody: the team, front office, coaches, everything. So it makes it different."
But both players may want to avoid the tiring grind of NBA travel and sporadic minutes, particularly after all they have accomplished. Winning five championships and three NBA Finals MVP awards, Duncan established himself as one of the best players of his generation. Ginobili, who has dealt with back spasms and a groin injury, won four titles, and his contributions to the Spurs' championship teams, as well as his achievements in international basketball, will earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The past few years have seen a changing of the guard in San Antonio. With Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker getting older, Kawhi Leonard and Aldridge have emerged as the roster's most productive players. It's unclear if Duncan and Ginobili will feel interested in playing an even lesser role over an arduous 82-game schedule and postseason.
"It's been an amazing run," said Ginobili. "We all enjoy playing with each other. We've accomplished amazing things. We won 67 games. Of course, it's disappointing when you don't end up winning the last game. But only one team can do it. In 14 seasons, in my case, it happened a lot of times."