Pick your favorite blockbuster move from the transactional maelstrom we’ve witnessed during this bonkers NBA offseason. Pick any blockbuster.
At least on this scorecard, Monday’s Tim Duncan thunderbolt from the coaching ranks matched it or even topped it.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets? Kemba Walker replacing Irving on the Boston Celtics? D’Angelo Russell winding up with the Golden State Warriors via the same transaction that made Durant a Net? Russell Westbrook reuniting with James Harden on the Houston Rockets?
No joke: The San Antonio Spurs’ abrupt announcement that Duncan has accepted a full-time, on-the-bench role as an assistant coach beside Gregg Popovich had my BlackBerry buzzing as much as any bulletin #thisleague has delivered lately.
In terms of on-court impact, of course, it’s a news item that doesn’t come close to touching what we expect to soon flow from the covert maneuvering that landed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the same building — with the Los Angeles Clippers — opposite the Los Angeles Lakers’ new star duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Yet the idea of Duncan emerging from three years of relative seclusion to take such a front-facing position at Popovich’s side — in a suit, no less, for 82 games plus the playoffs — prompted a string of accusatory texts from longtime Duncan-watchers who thought I was tweeting April Fools’ Day material Monday.
“T.D. hates wearing suits with a passion,” his former teammate Antonio Daniels, now an analyst on New Orleans Pelicans broadcasts, confirmed in an interview.
Above all, though, Duncan still longs to be in the gym — and simply couldn’t stay away.
He has quietly been a frequent presence at the Spurs’ practice facility throughout his retirement, happily tutoring any Spurs big man who wanted the instruction. Those sessions, mind you, were always conducted out of public view — just how Duncan likes it.
That’s the root of the shock factor generated by Duncan’s looming rerun. He has not granted an interview since he abruptly retired July 11, 2016, at age 40. Apart from special occasions, like Manu Ginobili’s jersey retirement ceremony in March, we’ve scarcely seen Duncan since he stopped playing.
In consulting multiple former Duncan peers Monday night, I heard echoes of the same shock rattling around my own brain. It would be one thing if No. 21 were accepting an expanded player-development role that didn’t come with the demands of full-time travel. A bench slot, by contrast, represents a significant step up in terms of time commitment, profile and, yes, wardrobe obligations.
Those are the reasons you struggle to remember anyone in South Texas who ever suggested we would someday see Duncan, for all of his basketball genius, in an official coaching capacity. Taking this new job will force Duncan to sacrifice some of the privacy he clearly cherishes.
Yet I also heard more than once in Monday’s conversations that this, amazingly, was Duncan’s idea for the most part. He knew Popovich was struggling to fill the last open spot on his bench staff and made himself available because he sensed that Popovich needed him.
“He loves the game,” Daniels said, explaining why he, for one, wasn’t completely floored that Duncan could be lured back to the grind. “He’s so much different than what people think.”
At this point in his coaching career, Pop is presumably interested far more in camaraderie and personality from his top aides than Xs and Os — or Os and Xs, as Pop prefers to call them. He turned 70 in January, and, if he’s going to keep doing this, bringing in a player he has loved like a son as a rookie assistant is the sort of thing that could help keep Popovich young.
Popovich, remember, is only the fourth head coach in league history to work beyond his 70th birthday, joining Bill Bertka, Hubie Brown and his NBA mentor Larry Brown in that very select club.
The assistant coaching concept, I’m told, was also broached with Ginobili, who has been retired for only one season and was apparently not quite ready to dive back in. But then Duncan volunteered — and happily took second billing to Will Hardy in the Spurs’ official news release bearing this predictably saucy headline: “Spurs Announce Assistant Coach Updates.”
“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said in a statement.
Veteran Spurs assistant coach Ime Udoka left to take a similar position with the Philadelphia 76ers. The venerable Ettore Messina returned to top-level European basketball by taking over Olimpia Milano in his native Italy. So Popovich, going forward, will be joined on the front row of the Spurs’ bench by Becky Hammon, Hardy and Duncan — with no stated clarity yet on who takes over when Popovich inevitably gets tossed from a game.
Based on seniority, it would be Hammon, which would make for a truly historic occasion. The Spurs, however, were not prepared to verify Monday who would step in for an ejected Pop, preferring to let him address the chain of command when he’s ready.
The more pressing concern for Pop is putting together a U.S. team good enough to win gold at the FIBA World Cup in China from Aug. 31-Sept. 15. It will be his first competition as Team USA head coach — his dream job — but seven of the 20 players invited to training camp in early August in Las Vegas have already pulled out: Davis, Harden, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Eric Gordon and Tobias Harris.
Yet those are tomorrow’s problems. What’s clear, for now, is that Popovich — as the Spurs continue their recovery from the crushing exit Leonard forced in July 2018 — just made what has to rank as his dream hire when it comes to building a staff. Don’t forget: R.C. Buford, San Antonio’s seen-it-all chief executive officer, once described the five-time championship couple to me as “soul mates.”
On the practice floor, on planes and benches, in calm and heated huddles, at pre- and postgame dinners, Pop and Timmy will be together again.
As predicted by pretty much no one heading into this (still) nutso summer.
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.