SAN ANTONIO — Ten years after he left the game on his own terms, David Robinson has the benefit of perspective and an even greater appreciation for what Tim Duncan has been able to — and continues to — accomplish.
Duncan turned 37 in April, the same age Robinson was when he retired in 2003 after the second NBA championship of his Hall of Fame career with the San Antonio Spurs. With Duncan at his side holding up his second Finals most valuable player award, Robinson raised the Larry O’Brien trophy one last time.
“I was fortunate to end my last game on a win,” said Robinson, who averaged career lows of 8.5 points and 7.9 rebounds in his final season. “I’d love to see that for Tim. I don’t know if this will be his last [year]. If they win it this time, there’s nothing to say they can’t win it again.”
Duncan seems to have more left, especially after becoming the second-oldest player to make first team all-NBA after averaging 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds. He is averaging 15.3 points and 11 rebounds through the first four games against the Miami Heat in the Finals, including a 20-point, 14-rebound effort in the Spurs’ 92-88 win in Game 1.
“He’s aging gracefully,” Robinson said of Duncan. “He’s playing amazing basketball. He’s phenomenal.”
Robinson always seemed to have a solid grasp of what it meant to have Duncan join him in San Antonio as the No. 1 overall pick in 1997. Robinson was on the back end of his prime and only two years removed from winning the league’s most valuable player award, but he wasn’t resistant or resentful of Duncan’s presence. He knew his days of scoring 70 points and winning a scoring title, as he did in 1994, were behind him.
“It’s not tough when you want to win. You realize what your limitations are,” Robinson said recently with a laugh. “When Tim came in and we started working out together, it was clear to me this guy could score and he was going to be a great player. So it would have been stupid for me to say, ‘No, I want to keep leading the team in scoring.’ Who cares? As long as we win, that’s all that matters.”
Since Robinson left the franchise in the hands of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have won two more championships and are now two victories away from another. “This is an unbelievable position to be in,” Robinson said. “You don’t get to this place every year.”
Robinson won his first title in his 10th season and remembers how Duncan used to give him a hard time for being old. He can chuckle as he watches Duncan go through a similar hazing. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich put “Did Not Play — Old” on a lineup card last season, and Parker said last week that what Duncan is doing at age 37 is “crazy.”
“I’ve not been so small as to come back at him,” Robinson said. “When he came in, every once in a while I’d have to warm up a little longer than him, and he’d tell me how much of an old man I was. I’d have to go ice my knees down and jump in the hot tub. He’s experiencing some of those growing pains.”
Like Robinson before him, Duncan realized he would need help to extend his career and his championship window. “I don’t know that there was a point where we actually said, ‘I’m stepping aside, and this is your team’ or whatever else. There was kind of an evolution of my game and his game,” Duncan said of taking the baton from Robinson. “It is happening the same way now with Tony and Manu. I don’t think I’ve stepped aside or anything else. Our roles have just changed. And we’re all comfortable with that as long as we’re working toward the same goal.”
Popovich has assisted Duncan by limiting his minutes and by surrounding him with younger, capable legs such as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Parker has emerged as the focal point of an offense geared around movement and spacing more than simply dumping the ball inside and getting out of the way.
“I think Tim understands that, too. And he sees his limitations starting to come up and says: ‘Hey, Tony can carry this team just as well. We give him good support, we’re still going to win and we all get the credit,’ ” Robinson said. “So I think we just were smart players. There’s only one agenda on this team, and it’s been that way for 20 years.”