The long stretch of hallway was quiet, save for a faint hum of fluorescent lights and the sound of two giant sneakers shuffling on a laminate floor.
A familiar figure, long and lean and decked out in camouflage athletic shorts, approached. As the man drew nearer, it became apparent that he was completely drenched in sweat, from his socks to his mini-dreadlocks.
“How ya doing?” Tim Duncan asked politely, but he did not linger. It was 90 minutes to tipoff Monday evening, and he still had a shower to take and a dress shirt to button on.
It remains natural to wonder, on this particular night and surely on lots of others sure to come, why he is doing this. Duncan’s workday began more than eight hours earlier at the Spurs’ morning shootaround, for which he strapped on a knee brace despite the fact that previous Spurs assistants from P.J. Carlesimo to Ettore Messina always managed without one.
He showed up at the AT&T Center early enough to get in another workout — the aforementioned hallway led from the players’ exercise facility to the locker room — and all of that happened before he had to sit next to Gregg Popovich while the Spurs nearly blew a big fourth-quarter lead on their way to a 113-110 victory over Portland.
That’s quite a day for somebody who retired three years ago with millions of dollars in the bank, and we haven’t even gotten to what he happens to be risking.
In a different NBA arena the day before, another perennial All-Star invoked Duncan’s name. Like the Spurs’ future Hall of Famer, Golden State’s Draymond Green had been accustomed to winning ever since he joined the league. And the Warriors, like the Spurs, felt at times like they could contend forever.
But this summer saw Golden State lose not only Kevin Durant to free agency, but also Klay Thompson to a knee injury and a long list of key role players to various departures. When a new regular season began, it didn’t take long for reality to slap the Warriors across the face and then punch them in the gut.
They never led at any point of two blowout losses to the Clippers and Thunder, and when the latter was over, Green stood in an Oklahoma City hallway and mused about what it was like to be on an NBA team that suddenly couldn’t do anything right.
“I guess just about everybody except Tim Duncan (has) been through it,” Green said. “But it sucks pretty bad.”
If the pangs of despair and hopelessness can hit this decade’s Warriors, who dominated like few dynasties ever have, it can happen to just about anybody. And even though it’s been five years since the Spurs’ last championship, it continues to be remarkable just how long it’s been since Popovich’s team has been objectively bad.
The following statistic has been shared multiple times over the past decade or so, and it never ceases to stagger the mind:
In the last 23 years, through the results of Monday night, these are the NBA teams that have spent the fewest days (in-season) with losing records:
San Antonio’s run of — at minimum — competence is nothing short of unthinkable for every other franchise in the league, and Duncan’s experience with that success is even more amazing. When he was around, the Spurs never finished a full season with fewer than 50 victories.
Looking around at the rest of the Western Conference, there are no guarantees they will get back to that number with Duncan wearing a blazer. It would not even be a complete stunner if they show legitimate improvement from last season and still have to fight off multiple upstarts to recapture a seventh or eight seed in the playoffs.
There is genuine upside with this roster, but there also is potential for slumps the likes of which their most decorated assistant never has seen. To hear Golden State’s Green tell it, Duncan might be the last naïve man in the NBA.
Through three games, that glass hasn’t shattered yet. San Antonio remains undefeated, and Duncan still doesn’t know the reality everybody else does.
Mike Finger has worked for the Express-News since 1999, writing about the Texas Longhorns, the Big 12, the NBA and the NFL before becoming a sports columnist. He's covered 13 Spurs postseasons, six Final Fours and more than a dozen college bowl games.
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