There’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead. Most fans will never forgive Michael Jordan for the Washington Wizards era, and they choose to forget that Shaquille O’Neal bounced around four different teams after winning his last championship.
San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan appears to get the message. It’s believed that, if the Spurs can upset the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Duncan will hang up the sneakers and announce his retirement.
Many think if San Antonio had not blown the Finals last year, Duncan would have retired then. And yes, the Spurs blew it last year. Just because they’re revered and respected by fans doesn’t erase the fact they squandered a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in Game 6, while being up 3-2 in the series.
Duncan knows it as well as anyone, which is why he’s playing this year. In that Game 6, he had a nearly flawless first half, but he struggled the rest of the way, allowing Miami to come back in both the game and the series. He may not show it, but he’s hungrier than ever to end his career on top.
Fans often misinterpret the level of a competitor Duncan has been throughout his career. We can all understand Russell Westbrook‘s will to win, for instance, because he wears it right on his sleeve. Duncan’s competitive fire, however, burns from within. It’s easiest to see not in the way he expresses himself, but in the way he’s improved and altered his game year after year as his freakish athleticism slowly began to wane.
He’s the closest thing the modern era has to Bill Russell: a quiet, determined winner.
If the Spurs are victorious this Finals, Duncan may not be the only one to walk away. Head coach Gregg Popovich is mulling retirement as well, and would probably make his annual wine retreat a full-time gig if the Spurs win.
Perhaps only sideline reporters would be relieved if Popovich retired. He, like Duncan, is one of the best of his generation for how he was able to reinvent both himself and his teams. When this dynasty began, the Spurs had staggering defense and bruising post play with Duncan and David Robinson. Now they’re a completely different team that thrives on scoring in the triple digits and shooting as many open threes as possible.
That’s all Popovich, who has the foresight to understand where the league is headed and to always keep his team ahead of the curve.
Popovich seeks vengeance too, over a mistake he made in — you guessed it — Game 6 of last year. He beats himself up over not having Duncan, his best player and rebounder, on the court for the final play of regulation, in which Miami secured multiple offensive boards and eventually found Ray Allen for the greatest shot in NBA history.
Having Duncan out there would have changed the outcome, so both he and his coach are looking to correct mistakes they made a year ago. The greatest player-coach tandem of the 21st Century (except for maybe Stephon Marbury and Larry Brown) deserves one more title with which they can ride off into the sunset. If not, expect them to keep coming back until they win it.