January 20, 2019
Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan remains the same, just in a different role (Photo: Soobum Im – USA TODAY Sports)

The load is a lot lighter for San Antonio Spurs veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili these days. Both are averaging career low minutes per game for the 2015-16 campaign, and head coach Gregg Popovich continues to give them nights off entirely.

When the Washington Wizards visited San Antonio, Duncan’s greatest accomplishment was knocking the cap off a ball boy’s head—with wearing clothes that actually fit his large frame running a close second. For the Spurs’ trip to Philadelphia, Ginobili was permitted to wear warm-ups, but never allowed to take them off, as the Spurs cruised to victory over the hapless 76ers.

But even with limited minutes and games played, Duncan and Ginobili still quietly make an indelible impact.

Sharing opportunity and burden is not new to Duncan. Though he was the Spurs’ undisputed workhorse and offensive focal point through the first eight seasons of his career, Duncan, along with Ginobili and Tony Parker—like John Ritter, Joyce Dewitt, and Suzanne Somers before them—discovered that three’s company.

With the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, and the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, the number of go-to Spurs in Duncan’s starting lineup has grown into a bit of a crowd.

Duncan no longer has to lead from the front, at least not in terms of points or touches. He is averaging 9.1 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and 1.4 blocks per game—solid work for a 39-year-old logging limited minutes. Those who suggest Duncan is having a bad season confuse limited usage with poor play.

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Through 26 games, he has used just 17.2 percent of his team’s possessions when he was on the court; easily the lowest rate of his career. Consequently, his scoring has dipped about five points per game from last year, but he’s making his rare attempts count. At 52.7 percent, Duncan is currently at his highest shooting percentage since 2006-07, and the third best of his 19-year career.

“My role has changed a little bit this year,” Duncan said after a Nov. 3 game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. “I’m not really sure what it is yet, but I’m trying to figure it out.”

The success he and the Spurs have enjoyed to this point of the season has depended on his adaptability and ease with that uncertainty.

Like David Robinson before him, Duncan’s success late in his career has much to do with his willingness to step aside, and what he is still able to accomplish in that peripheral role. He’s long since transformed himself into a lighter, leaner, midrange shooting version of himself. He’s also stayed committed to making his teammates better, and learned how to do it from his new spots on the floor.

Occasionally, Duncan still goes to work on the block, where his footwork remains as good as ever. But he rarely garners a double-team anymore, and so has few opportunities to dissect defenses out of the low post. Instead, the 2015-16 season finds Duncan where he’s had little occasion to venture in the past—out near the three-point line.

No, Duncan hasn’t completed the transition to postmodern big man, bombing away from deep. Sometimes he gets there as a result of a play, popping after setting a pick. Other times, he stops around the arc on his way to the offensive end, surveying the paint for Aldridge, lobbing perfect entry passes over the top of fronting defenses as Aldridge seals his defender.

Duncan has made it his business to help Aldridge adapt, looking to get his new frontcourt mate quality looks whenever possible. The high-low chemistry they’ve developed has been brutally effective, working against formidable front lines like the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers—hitting up the latter two possessions in a row:

The high-low isn’t the only play that features Duncan facilitating from the perimeter. When a back screen is set just right and the help defense is asleep, there he’ll be, throwing the alley-oop to Leonard. It’s possible the little hop he does after the pass is crucial to the entire play, but there is no data to support this:

On defense, Duncan has found the familiarity that has somewhat eluded him on offense. His attention on that end never wanes, no matter how often or little he touches the basketball on the other end.

He still protects the rim exceptionally well despite having to play below it. Thus far he has posted a league-leading 5.5 defensive real plus-minus and a defensive rating of 91.4, less than a point behind teammate Leonard and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside for third in the league.  His presence has been one of several key factors powering the best defense in the NBA.

Ginobili’s role is less changed.  He’s averaging 10.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and one steal, while shooting 35.8 percent from deep, and remains the engine of the Spurs’ second unit: primary ball-handler and creator, pick-and-roll extraordinaire, and part-time architect of wild passes that have equal chance of becoming assists or turnovers. 

It is the same role he’s played the majority of his NBA career, altered slightly to accommodate his age.  He still competes fiercely, but insists, “I am changing the way I play a lot. I still have that essence, but, of course, I don’t have the ability to go all the way as I used to do, or get to the line, or throw my body onto defenders. I have to mix it up, pick my battles, less minutes.”

To see the effect he can have in limited minutes, look at how his bench unit has transformed first quarters this season.  Ginobili has appeared in 23 games. In 10 of those, the Spurs were trailing when he first checked into the game.  In six of those instances, the Spurs have finished the first quarter with a lead, erasing double-digit deficits three times.  That support has been vital to a starting five still finding its sea legs offensively.

Though Manu sometimes enters the game alone, he often checks in with Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, leaving Leonard and Aldridge to fill out their group until the starting forwards make their first trip to the bench.  This lineup has been one of the Spurs’ best, third most featured, and +21.5 over opponents per 100 possessions. 

Between that, and Popovich’s preference for finishing with Ginobili in close games (Ginobili in place of Green with the first five is the Spurs’ fourth most featured lineup and +30.5), Ginobili shares the floor with a wide range of teammates, from starters to those averaging five minutes, like Serbian big man Boban Marjanovic.  Ginobili makes them all better. 

Here Ginobili shows Marjanovic where to set the pick, adjusting him from behind T.J. Warren to Warren’s left hip.  He telegraphs it right in front of two Suns’ defenders and still executes well enough to gift Marjanovic an easy two points.  He’s literally coaching while playing.

Sometimes he doesn’t even need a gesture. At least three times this season Ginobili has led Patty Mills with a pass that told Mills where to cut.


Ginobili uses precision passes the way regular folks use a controller to play NBA2K. He moves teammates into spots where they can be successful, and is equally adept at providing the service for rookies and four-time All-Stars alike.

Here he runs the pick-and-roll twice so Aldridge can get perfect position for a dunk.

Only two Spurs routinely run the team and create for themselves and others from the perimeter: Parker and Ginobili. Diaw has point guard skills but mostly creates from the post. Mills is still working to become a better facilitator. Jonathon Simmons is a rookie with lots of potential.  But Ginobili is still the Spurs’ best perimeter creator off the bench, and that makes him as important as ever. While he fills that need, he provides guys like Mills and Simmons with a superlative teacher. 

Steadfast as they’ve been with Popovich and their Big Three, the Spurs have never been a team to stand still.  They understand they need to adapt to survive, bring in new faces, and tailor a system around their strengths.  The most familiar faces are happy to help.   

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Sarah Cilea

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