In the wake of the Super Bowl, where they're still sweeping purple and gold confetti off Bourbon Street, symbolic of a night gone right for the Ravens, a player who enjoyed an iconic run of championships in the mid-2000s is no doubt wondering when or if he'll taste champagne again.
This isn't a story about Tom Brady (football season is over, after all). This is about his NBA counterpart, a player who's had a similar career arc -- Tim Duncan. It's easy to compare the two, since both ruled a good portion of the previous decade, both used to be unbeatable in the championship round and both became Hall of Fame locks and all-time greats.
Both are also lurching toward the twilight and while their teams have stayed in the title hunt lately, they're running a race against time. How many more cracks will they get, and how many times can they afford to come up short?
Once again, we see the Spurs and Duncan ripping through another regular season, gaining steam toward spring, setting themselves up for a special summer or another devastating downfall. There's really no in-between for Duncan, not at this stage of the game when he's 36 years old and playing only for championships. He's battling the forces of age, health and a certain force in Oklahoma City -- Kevin Durant. This vulnerability was demonstrated vividly just a few days ago, when the Spurs won their 18th straight at home and also watched in horror as Duncan collapsed to the floor, clutching a knee.
He's listed as day to day with a sprain -- the scene, as it turned out, was more scary than serious. Still, as the Spurs begin to crisscross the country on their annual rodeo trip, playing 10 games on the road while bull riders and clowns take over the AT&T Center, this is a good time to study a team and a player and a trophy case that hasn't been restocked in six years.
The Spurs won in 2003, 2005 and 2007 (also in 1999 with David Robinson). But nothing since. In this championship dry spell, they've won nearly 69 percent of their regular-season games and three division titles. They reached the Western Conference finals twice. Last year, they had a 20-game winning streak that stretched into the post-season. They managed all this by doing what they do best: keeping the franchise well-tuned with useful spare parts while relying on Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. All in all, taking into account the quality of the West and the difficult task of beating Kobe Bryant and lately Durant, the Spurs' run has been nothing short of impressive.
But, zero titles. Not even a trip to the Finals.
Some of this is due to crummy luck, mostly with injuries. Two years after their last championship the Spurs didn't have Ginobili for the playoffs and were swept by the Mavericks. In 2011 Ginobili missed Game 1 of the first round against Memphis and the Spurs were ambushed by a hungrier team; it was only the second time a one-seed lost to an eight. San Antonio's timing was just as bad in a few other cases. In '08, Kobe teamed with Pau Gasol. Last year, OKC grew up and caught fire.
Gregg Popovich understands the urgency, understands what's at stake. He'll rest his key players at the first sign of fatigue or injury, which is why you shouldn't expect to see much of Duncan on this long road trip. As much as the coach is criticized for yanking his players, Popovich is simply making sure the odds are in his favor and the Spurs are navigating the 82-game grind as best they can. He, too, is tired of winning April championships.
"What Pop is doing is making us stay fresh and sharp," said Duncan. "The guys, they've played so well without me on the floor that we have quite a rotation going. There's no reason to mess with that. The goal is to stay healthy for the long run."
It's astonishing when you think about it, how the Spurs have stayed near the top of the West all season in spite of Popovich rationing the minutes for Ginobili and especially Duncan, who has actually been a model of good health, mainly due to luck and the fact that his game is below the rim. He's only missed 33 games since 2005 and most were on rest orders from Popovich. The concern, as always, lies more with Ginobili, now dealing with occasional hamstring issues.
The real fear is being experienced by the rest of the West, however. The Spurs are looking that good. Their record in January was 11-3. They're pounding teams and they're almost unbeatable at home. There's really nothing more to prove until the playoffs.
"We can play big, we can play small, we've got all kinds of options that will be good for us, with all the different types of teams we'll see in the playoffs," Duncan said.
Here are reasons to believe this might be the Spurs' year:
He's making a solid case for the Hall of Fame if he isn't already there. Over the last five games, Parker has shot 65 percent. That's six-five. Plus nearly 10 assists. Once again, Parker finds himself among the elite point guards, still able to cause whiplashes with his first step to the hoop, still able to knock down the pull-up jumper. At times he has carried the team. If you're the Spurs and you must deal with Russell Westbrook or even Chris Paul in the post-season at some point, you're feeling pretty secure. Parker's the only guy who can give those other elite PGs trouble.
"He's our leader and I feel I'm following him on the court," said Duncan. "I actually think he's having a better season than last year. People are keying on him and he's still doing what he's doing. He would have gaudier numbers but Pop only wants him for 30 minutes on the floor and that has worked out great. The load has kind of switched over to him and he's handled it great."
2) The Supporting Cast
Gary Neal. Tiago Splitter. Danny Green. Stephen Jackson. Matt Bonner. Patty Mills. Oh, did we mention Kawhi Leonard? This could be the deepest Spurs team in a while -- if not ever -- and that's saying a lot. For an organization that prides itself on finding the right pieces, year after year, have the Spurs outdone themselves? Twelve different Spurs have started at least one game, and all bring something different to the mix. Because Parker is the only starter who sees more than 30 minutes a game -- and he barely gets that -- the role players benefit. Obviously, when the playoffs begin, the game tends to shrink and rotations tighten. By then, the Big Three should be rested and healthy and the bench, if needed, will at least have enough burn behind them to give Popovich enough confidence to reach deep if necessary.
"I love this team and what we're doing," Duncan said. "I've got a clause in my contract that if I'm traded, I take a bunch of people with me."
His approach still resonates with the core players and he's getting the most from everyone else. There's a reason Popovich always makes the short list of coaches that players would love to play for, even if he occasionally gets into your face.
Ah, yes. It all comes back to him, right? Well, all things considered, this is one of the best seasons of his career. Understand that Duncan wasn't terribly impressive in the playoffs last year (12.7 points) and had too many so-so lapses in 2011-12 that raised questions about his future. Then he signed a three-year extension and so far has more than lived up to it. Seemingly refreshed, and definitely frisky before his knee mishap, Duncan is averaging 17 points and almost 10 rebounds in 29 minutes of work per night. His player efficiency rating is the highest on the team and, after a year's absence, he was an easy choice for the All-Star team.
"I've kind of thought those days of making the All-Star team were over, so it's good to be back in the mix," Duncan said.
The potential minuses? Well, Ginobili's injury history, obviously. And OKC, where Durant is playing at MVP level, still aching from losing in the Finals last summer. And the old-but-true saying that anything can happen in the post-season -- the Spurs know this better than most.
When he won three times in the mid-2000s, surely Duncan couldn't see him going this long without at least reaching the Finals again. Not with this coach, this organization and this point guard. (At least Tom Brady played in two more Super Bowls after he won his last one.) There's a lot of time between now and late April, when the playoffs begin, and June, when champions are celebrated. Whatever's working for Duncan and the Spurs at the moment must continue, or else.
"We're headed in the right direction," he said.
They own the best record in basketball as they make a mad dash toward spring. And yet their championship momentum, the only kind that counts with Tim Duncan, remains stuck in 2007.