Before the San Antonio Spurs game against the Houston Rockets this past week, Spurs forward Tim Duncan was averaging a career-low 12.9 points per game.
The popular opinion on the 35-year-old Duncan is that he is likely in the last or second-to-last year of his career, that he's lost a step and he is a shell of his former self. But after scoring 25 points, and 16 in a momentum-changing third quarter in the Spurs' recent win over the Houston Rockets, that notion may not be a mutual one amongst NBA players.
"No, look at today. It looks like he has about three or four more years left," Rockets guard Courtney Lee said. "They (isolated) him, they went to him down low and he's able to do what he does great."
While one can point to stats to highlight a player's decline, Duncan is just two seasons removed from averaging 17.9 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
The biggest factor in Duncan's change in game-by-game production has been the addition of several scorers and the transition from a halfcourt, grind-it-out offense with Duncan serving as the first priority to a balanced offense with several players available to take the scoring load. Add to that a drastic reduction in minutes, sitting out back-to-back games, and while there is no doubt that there is some slippage, these other key factors play into it.
In a four-down system with the ball always going through Duncan, it wouldn't be nearly as obvious, but this is definitely not that same system.
Lee spoke to the new balanced offense and why it works to the Spurs' advantage.
"When you got Tim Duncan rolling and getting down low, you gotta respect that," Lee said. "And when you have Parker cutting and you got Bonner spotting up and you got Gary Neal so it's like pick your poison."
"They still got that big guy down low Tim Duncan and you can't forget that."
Duncan took 244 less shots and played three fewer minutes in 2010-2011 than he did in 2009-10, and that pattern is continuing this season.
So while you may not give 12.9 points per game much of a thought, it might be best to take Lee's advice, especially after scoring 25 last night, 28 against New Orleans on January 23 and a 24 point, 11 rebound, two blocked shot night against Phoenix on January 15.
As Rockets forward Luis Scola told me last night, it's no secret that Duncan is still capable of such performances.
"I'm not surprised at all in Tim Duncan tonight," Scola said. "He's an all-star, he's a great player. He will never surprise me."
Wise words, especially from someone who knows Duncan well. Being in the same division as the Spurs, Scola has seen Duncan 18 times in his career and has been on the wrong side of that matchup in 12 of those games.