Back in the 2002-03 season when the Spurs were ringing up the first of the half dozen 60-win seasons of his career, Tony Parker often caught grief for being too young, too rash, too impulsive.
Now 14 seasons later, the barbs are still coming his way, but the criticism of Parker’s flaws say that he’s too old, too slow, too predictable.
In between there were those four championships, six All-Star game appearances and the MVP award for the 2007 NBA Finals. Yet none of that ever seemed enough to take him out of the crosshairs.
Through nearly two decades of San Antonio setting the bar so high, Tim Duncan was the Big Fundamental, tactical and taciturn, regarded as the monarch beyond reproach of the Spurs’ royal family. Manu Ginobili was the firecracker in the silverware drawer, all explosive, uncontrollable energy that wreaked havoc.
Meanwhile Parker, drafted in 2001 as a grinning 19-year-old teenager out of France, has always played the dual role of both lightning and lightning rod. He made the Spurs go and got the lion’s share of the blame when they didn’t.
“He gives us a sense of stability, keeps us organized. We rely on him.”
When the rookie stepped out onto the court for his first taste of the postseason in 2002, some of the other point guards in those playoffs were named John Stockton, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson and Parker was expected to hold his own.
Now 15 seasons later, Parker will face a potential playoff conga line of younger next-generation point men that could include Mike Conley, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry and the burden remains the same.
Parker, who’ll turn 35 on May 17, will likely be the oldest every day player in the spotlight, under the microscope, on the cutting edge, any other analogy you choose, for a true contender in the 2017 playoffs. If the 60-win Spurs are to make the deep run into June that they want, they will need the old Parker instead of an old Parker.
“I’m excited,” he told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “The playoffs are the best time of the year. If you’re not motivated for that, you should not play basketball or any sport.”
However, motivation and inspiration are often not enough when up against young legs
Parker is averaging 10.2 points and 4.6 assists and shooting 46.3 percent from the field, all the lowest numbers since his rookie season. He is averaging a career-low 25.4 minutes per game and is on track to play his fewest games (64) in any non-lockout season. There are reasons: nagging back pain, a quadriceps injury, problems with both knees and one foot.
“To be honest, I am surprised if I wake up in the morning and something doesn’t hurt,” Parker said earlier this season.
Yet he maintains that his goal is still to play in the NBA until he’s 40 and fewer minutes doesn’t mean less of an impact on the team.
“I think my role is even bigger on the leadership thing, make sure that the Spurs mentality and the way we play -- unselfish, sharing the ball, only caring about winning -- stays the same. That was the best thing about Timmy when I first came in, showing all of us how to do it.”
“The playoffs are the best time of the year. If you’re not motivated for that, you should not play basketball or any sport.”
The things is, while an elder Duncan was given credit for his willingness to step back, fade into the woodwork and accept a lesser role, and Ginobili is now a 39-year-old fire alarm to be pulled only in emergency, Parker, always a whipping boy even through the best of times, is thought by many to have simply lost it.
Just three years ago, Parker was No. 4 in the Sports Illustrated preseason ranking of the NBA’s top 100 players. This year, he didn’t even make the list that included 17 other point guards.
Last week when Golden State came from 22 down to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, Parker was outscored 29-0 by Curry. Two nights later the Spurs won in OKC, but Westbrook rung up a triple-double of 32 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists to just eight points, two assists and three turnovers by Parker. He shot 4-for-15 with just four assists in those two games.
The shouts of alarm were so loud you might have thought the ghost of Santa Anna was spotted in San Antonio.
“I’ve been here a long time,” said Parker. “It doesn’t really bother me. It’s been like that my whole career and I’m still here.”
While the Spurs’ front-court, led by Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, has carried much of the load all season, the backcourt is seen as their Achilles’ heel. Danny Green’s shot has gone absent for long stretches, rookie Dejounte Murray is not yet ready for the crucible and backup point guard Patty Mills is more live-wire electric scorer than someone who makes the power lines hum steadily like Parker.
He can no longer take over and dominate entire games the way he used to. But the Spurs need Parker to push the pace in spurts, spread the ball around and make things easier for everyone else.
“Tony can calm things down and make things run smoother,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He gives us a sense of stability, keeps us organized. We rely on him.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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