Legendary Spurs big man Tim Duncan has graduated from unofficial “coach of whatever he feels like” under Gregg Popovich to an official job as a Spurs assistant coach. Popovich’s coaching staff has lost quite a few assistants over the last year or so: last summer James Borrego left to become head coach of the Charlotte Hornets; last month Ettore Messina left to become head coach at Olimplia Milano in Italy; also last month, Ime Udoka left to join the coaching staff of Brett Brown in Philadelphia. To fill in their thinned-out ranks, the team hired only one of the best and smartest big men in NBA history. Popovich had a fun quote in the team’s understated announcement:
Duncan, a 1997 Wake Forest graduate, played 19 seasons with the Spurs before retiring in the summer of 2016.
“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” said Popovich.
It’s going to be extremely cool to have Duncan back on an NBA sideline, making comical faces of extreme bewilderment at NBA referees whenever a call goes against his Spurs. Plenty of all-time greats have bombed out as coaches, but Duncan is joining the prolific coaching tree of about as stable and well-run an organization as there is in American professional sports. And besides, it’s not like Duncan doesn’t have experience coaching NBA players—apart from whatever mentoring he did for younger teammates and whatever here-and-there work he’s done for the Spurs over the last three years, there was the time he coached up counterpart Wizards big-man Etan Thomas, on the court, during an actual NBA regular season game:
You are picturing a wizened old Tim Duncan giving friendly pointers to a younger and relatively fresh-faced Etan Thomas right now. About that: Thomas played nine seasons in the NBA, and over that time he played minutes in 12 regular season games against Tim Duncan. Since the story involves Thomas getting up at least two shots and having one of them blocked by Duncan, you can narrow this story down to seven games in which Thomas got up at least two shots against the Spurs, and Tim Duncan blocked at least one shot. All of them happened when Thomas was with the Wizards; the earliest of these came in January 2002, the latest in February 2007. So at the very latest, Tim Duncan was a 30-year-old superstar giving coaching tips to a 28-year old veteran opponent. And though Thomas missed the second one, it’s not nothing that Duncan’s advice yielded an actual tangible change in Thomas’s jump hook that made it harder to block.
In fact, it’s fair to say Duncan probably did more to develop Etan Thomas’s interior scoring repertoire in that one exchange than the Wizards organization has done for a big man in the last decade. Duncan’s going to be fine.