Tim Duncan retired from the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, and left as the face of a franchise. You cannot think of the Spurs without thinking of Duncan, the two have cross-defined themselves, and that's how it will be for a long time even as Duncan slips away from the public eye to do whatever it is that Duncan does when he's not playing basketball. (Hint: Paintball.)
Tim Duncan is San Antonio Spurs basketball.
Except he almost wasn't.
"I came close to leaving," said Duncan.
"It was a nerve-wrecking time," (Gregg) Popovich admitted.
"It was hell. You get close to a player and you don't want to see him leave. I never let myself believe he was going to stay. I was just getting myself prepared, for sanity reasons. It's no fun.
"It also seems like it takes forever to resolve. That's the worst part of it. We made our pitch to him and let him be, let him make up his own mind."
It wouldn't have just been Duncan and Grant Hill, though. Tracy McGrady also joined that year. They would have formed a super-team that at the time was as incredible as the 2011 Heat, though not as star-packed as the Kevin Durant Warriors. Deadspin found this incredible quote from McGrady:
"Once Grant and I get here, this will definitely be the city. The East is locked up. If Duncan comes here, it will be scary.[...]
"It will be unfair to the league if all three of us come here. We have the East. We'll be playing the Lakers for years."
That's not "Not one, not two, not three, not four..." like LeBron James' infamous press conference intro quote, but it's up there.
It's also notable that Duncan made this decision coming off his rookie contract; restricted free agency had not yet been implemented in the collective bargaining agreement. Nowadays, even if Duncan wanted to leave, he would have signed his max offer sheet with Orlando, and then watched San Antonio sprint to the fax machine to match the offer immediately and retain Duncan.
The Magic wouldn't have just gotten Tim Duncan, they would have gotten him at 24 years old.
Obviously, everything changes if Duncan goes to Orlando. The Spurs likely fall into a prolonged period of searching for that next star and it might have cost Gregg Popovich his job; he likely does not become arguably the greatest coach in the sport's history. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? Their careers are radically different.
Depending on how far you want to go down the rabbit hole, imagine this: Duncan goes to Orlando, which forces other teams to react, and suddenly rosters start changing. Teams get better, worse, a few games swing a different way, and perhaps at the end of it the 2003 draft order is altered. Maybe LeBron doesn't go to Cleveland. Maybe Carmelo never ends up in Denver, or D-Wade in Miami. If D-Wade isn't in Miami, then that super-team with LeBron and Chris Bosh -- if it even would've come together in the first place -- would've had to happen somewhere else.
You could go forever with this, and none of it is entirely implausible. All it took was Tim Duncan saying he felt more "comfortable" in San Antonio for the entire NBA to align differently over the next sixteen years. (Sixteen!)
In the end, the better story was this one, though. Duncan cemented a legacy in San Antonio, and changed what the franchise is synonymous with, forever. He built a kingdom in south Texas, something that was both sustainable and incredible. Retiring with the same team that drafted him altered his legacy forever and made his legend that much greater.
Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki may have been the last of a dying breed in that respect, though. It's hard not to laugh when you see this quote from Popovich before the summer of 2010:
"I think this whole free agent thing is much ado about nothing," said Popovich. "Most guys are going to stay. It usually ends up that way."
Funny thing about that...