- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- After four championships and a dozen grueling seasons and the first tangible first-round exit of his life, Tim Duncan has done all the calculations in his head.
There's a reason he changed his diet and shed 15 pounds even though no one suggested he should.
It's the same reason Duncan voiced no resistance when the San Antonio Spurs did ask him to surrender his preferred summertime hobbies of flinging heavy tires and running up steep hills and to instead delay offseason workouts of any sort for an extra month.
The Big Fundamental is "just trying to do something better for my body" because he has a very full and realistic grasp of what all the math means. Just as you would imagine.
"I've only got a couple years left in me," Duncan said the other day, stopping for a brief chat after the Spurs' opening practice of the season. "The history of basketball says that more than anything else.
"The window for me is closing," Duncan continued. "It's towards the end of my career, I have slowed down, all that stuff is true."
Duncan, at 33, will concur on every level as long as you give him this, too.
"In the same respect," Duncan quickly adds, "I still think I can play pretty well.
"I still think I can help a team win."
Duncan's bosses in San Antonio wholeheartedly agree, as confirmed by owner Peter Holt's willingness to sanction a roster makeover that has taken the payroll of the home team in the nation's 37th-largest TV market all the way to $81.7 million at present. That figure will come down slightly by opening night when the roster is pared to 14 or 15, but even so the Spurs will still sit more than $10 million above the NBA's $69.9 million luxury-tax threshold.
The organization's unspoken fantasy used to be stockpiling as much salary-cap space as possible for the ballyhooed summer of 2010 to chase Toronto Raptors big man Chris Bosh. As a Texan -- and a lefty like David Robinson -- Bosh seemed an ideal target to pair with Duncan in his twilight years, theoretically reprising the old twin towers effect in San Antonio, with Duncan cast in the Robinson role this time.
Yet waiting for July 2010 -- and waiting on a total free-agent maybe with no guarantee of actually landing Bosh -- likely meant grinding through one more excruciating season like last season. That's when Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker appeared in only 41 games together and when the Dallas Mavericks drubbed the Manu-less Spurs in Round 1 in five games. San Antonio's only other first-round loss in the Duncan era carries a Texas-sized asterisk because Duncan didn't play at all in that series against the Phoenix Suns in 2000, forced into street clothes by a knee injury.
The Spurs' brain trust of coach Gregg Popovich, front-office chief R.C. Buford and Holt decided it didn't want to burn Duncan's 13th season in that sort of holding pattern/torture chamber, especially with no promise of a payoff with the resulting cap space. Popovich, Buford and Holt likewise still believe that Duncan has enough of his prime left to be the centerpiece of a championship team, with the caveat that Duncan needs a little more help than he used to.
So they elected not to wait. A few days before scoring DeJuan Blair with the 37th overall pick in what immediately was trumpeted as the steal of the draft, San Antonio traded three expiring contracts to Milwaukee -- Fabricio Oberto, Kurt Thomas and defensive mainstay Bruce Bowen -- for the right to inherit the final two years and nearly $30 million left on Richard Jefferson's contract. The Spurs then extended two guaranteed years at $9.4 million and a partially guaranteed third year to free-agent forward Antonio McDyess, who just turned 35.
"Guys like me, Timmy and Manu," Parker said on media day, owe Holt a hearty "thank you."
The only way the Spurs can be a 2010 player now would be for them to part company with free agent-to-be Ginobili at season's end and for Jefferson to opt out of the final year of his contract worth a tidy $15 million. You can safely expect neither to happen, but San Antonio's elite status could well be restored if -- and we realize this is a pretty healthy-sized if in itself -- Duncan, Ginobili and Parker can stay on the floor.
It has to be somewhat disconcerting that both Duncan and Jefferson, when asked on media day to pinpoint their goals for the season, had the same cautious reply: "Stay healthy." But let's assume, just for fun, that these Spurs do avoid significant injuries. What then?
In Jefferson, they will have the fourth option offensively that Popovich has coveted for years, enabling Pop to ask that much less of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in the regular season.
In McDyess, they will have Duncan's most capable frontcourt sidekick since Robinson retired after San Antonio's title in 2003 with highly touted Brazilian power forward Tiago Splitter perhaps finally ready to leave Europe and join the Spurs for the 2010-11 season.
Factor in Roger Mason, Michael Finley, George Hill, Theo Ratliff, Matt Bonner, Keith Bogans, and maybe even Blair, and you're looking at what might be the most useful supporting cast Duncan has ever had.
Which is why New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, well acquainted with Duncan's Spurs at their best from his days in Phoenix, proclaimed to the San Antonio Express-News that the Spurs are "right back where they were a couple years ago" after the team's busy summer.
"I feel great about it," Duncan said of what he describes as "basically a total overhaul."
Asked whether he thinks that overhaul has restored the Spurs to the same ZIP code as the defending champions from Los Angeles, Duncan said: "I hope so, I hope so. It remains to be seen, obviously, how the pieces fit. It's all on paper now. You can put all these pieces together. Unless they fit, it doesn't matter. But if we can put all those things together and we can be healthy at the right time, I see no reason why we shouldn't be excited about it."
The state of Duncan's physique, for starters, has attendees at Spurs camp pretty revved up about what the new season might hold. By changing his diet and returning to the swimming pool with the frequency he did as a kid, Duncan dropped those 15 pounds to get down into the 240-pound ballpark and looks skinnier than anyone can remember.
"Just trying to change my body a little bit, take some stress off my knees," Duncan said. "I've got a lot of miles on me and I thought losing a little bit of weight would be better for the knees and for the body throughout the year."
Sounds like a wise idea, given how Duncan's knees steadily deteriorated last season after he flashed some early MVP form. But there's even more to it, according to fellow vet Finley.
It's not about coasting into retirement. He's still about being one of the best players in the league.
”-- Spurs forward Michael Finley on Duncan
"You know how Tim is," Finley told local reporters after practice Wednesday. "Tim is a guy who leads by example. He's not going to broadcast it. He's just going to go in and do his job and come back and you see the results.
"It shows me and his teammates that he's taking this seriously. It's not about coasting into retirement. He's still about being one of the best players in the league."
Truth is, Duncan was still quite a force against Dallas on his two sore knees, averaging 19.8 points and 8.0 rebounds for the series. It was mostly on defense that you really noticed his hampered mobility, after Duncan's many years as a top-shelf rim protector with the savvy and sufficient speed to harass the likes of Steve Nash on pick-and-rolls, too.
Duncan has two seasons left on his contract after this season and plays a position that should allow him to stay in the game for well beyond the aforementioned "couple years" if he chooses.
The louder questions are thus being thrown at Ginobili, after issues with both ankles sidelined the game's most feared sixth man for 38 regular-season games, ruled him out of the playoffs and necessitated offseason surgery.
The louder dissent is coming from Ginobili, as well. The 32-year-old, entering a critical contract year, rejects the premise that the Spurs' core trio is no longer sturdy enough to benefit from the considerable upgrades to the rest of the roster.
"I think it's a little unfair," Ginobili said. "Tim and I both went through a lot of injuries last year. If it continues for two more years, then, OK, it's fair to say. But I think we deserve to get another chance."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
With Tim Duncan shedding weight to help his knees, the Spurs appear to be heavily invested in winning now.