Look, we've been saying it since 2008, Tim Duncan isn't really getting any younger, and maybe it's about time we find someone to give him a hand in the frontcourt, you know, another shot-blocking, rebounding big, that can space the floor, and play next to Timmy and spot him some minutes. Of course, whenever any Spurs fan says that, we invariably think of David Robinson, and of course we go out of our way to say that of course we're not expecting another Hall of Fame center to waltz into the doors, especially at the bottom of the waiver wire or at the end of the draft or out of the obscure depths of the Euroleague, but secretly, you know we're all thinking something like that. Naturally names get thrown out, and people get all giddy about trying to get Tyson Chandler or Chris Kaman or Eddy Curry.
As much as we say we're not looking for the next David Robinson, the spectrum of range between "the next David Robinson" and "better than Matt Bonner" is pretty broad and expansive. I mean, let's realistically think about it, what made the Twin Towers work? It's because both Duncan and Robinson were interchangeable in the low block, they had remarkable basketball IQ, were good passers, rebounders, and shot blockers. It's really the lack of another player that has those last two skills in combination that I believe most Spurs fans are looking for. Of course that's understandable given that the bigs in the rotation around Duncan are currently Diaw, Splitter, Bonner, and Blair, none of which are exactly known for shot blocking and only Blair being any good at rebounding consistently, though for a variety of other reasons make him an unfavorable match with Duncan. Ultimately, what made the Duncan and Robinson combination lethal, and it's been said before, was their mobility.
Let's be honest with ourselves then, there are only three players that are the contemporaries of Duncan that I would argue would have fit well next to him, and frankly, once you have seen who they are, you'd understand why the Spurs probably never really had much of a shot with them.
1) Kevin Garnett
Beyond the fact that he and Duncan arguably played the same position, are the same size, and same age as each other, Garnett could be argued as the anti-Duncan. Garnett came into the league out of high school while Duncan completed his Bachelor's degree (in psychology, with honors) at Wake Forest. Duncan is the quiet, lead-by-example kind of guy while Garnett is the outspoken, in-your-face kind of player. Duncan relished the low post, while Garnett never really developed a legitimate go-to move. The Duncan/Garnett comparisons have been hashed out ad nauseum, but let's face it, despite all their differences, they would have been among the greatest big men ever paired together, their games perfectly complement each other. While Garnett prefers the jumper off pick-and-pops, he's solid enough inside to warrant attention, likewise, while Duncan is a beast on the low block, his mid range game is solid enough to need to be respected by the defense. Both are highly active on the defensive end, hounding players and altering shots, grabbing rebounds, etc...
2) Rasheed Wallace
Most people's impression of Wallace is a headcase who takes ill-advised three pointers. Those of us with a longer memory recall him as the guy Scottie Pippen hated playing with on the Blazers. Yet why I put his name here, is because of my re-evaluated perspective on Wallace after watching the matchup between him and Duncan in the 2005 NBA finals. Granted we'll never know what Duncan could have become had he not had to have knee surgery in 2000, but Wallace was one of those players that could give even Duncan trouble, particularly on the defensive end. He was relatively explosive a leaper, had long arms and solid post moves. He was mobile on defense, and as we all know, his range extended all the way to the three point line. While we hated him for taking so many of them, he could still knock them down at a reasonable clip.
3) Pau Gasol
I know that in recent memory Gasol has always gotten the "soft" label whenever the Lakers have underachieved. I mean, I understand that he doesn't like the spot light, the focal point of the defense, it's wearing, because the big men are also asked to do anchor their own team's defense too, which is what makes two way players like Duncan so remarkable. That being said, Gasol isn't bad defensively, while he may not have the reputation that perhaps Garnett or Wallace have, he is big and smart and is able to adequately swat shots and grab rebounds. Additionally, Gasol is a great high post player who passes well, which compliments Duncan wonderfully offensively, because Gasol is also a solid low post player and Duncan is a good high post player that passes well too. While Gasol I suppose would nominally be the center, I never thought for a moment that Gasol doesn't like player center, I think it was his subtle way of saying, he didn't like having to play in a frontcourt with Hakim Warrick.
Anyways, enough with the dream scenario, let's look at where the Spurs are now. Excluding Duncan, the remaining big men on the roster are as we previously mentioned Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair. Now in looking at this, we understand that the best overall player that complements Duncan is Diaw, the biggest player is Splitter, the best rebounder is Blair, and the best floor spacer is Bonner, it's not really ideal, but it does give us a glimpse of what exactly it is the front office is looking for to put next to Duncan. That being said, we now need to look at the rotation, typically Diaw will start with Duncan and Bonner will come in usually with Splitter, I understand that Pop will try playing more with Splitter and Duncan sharing floor time but that generally doesn't happen too often, for two reasons. First, size, with both Splitter and Duncan on the floor for extended minutes may mean that there will be times when both of them will be off the floor at the same time, leaving the tallest player in the Spurs lineup one of Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner (or Stephen Jackson). Secondly, spacing, Splitter has no mid-range game so to speak, but you ideally want Duncan under the basket, then they both occupy the same space on offense, which ultimately means, for things to run smoothly, Duncan becomes the mid-range shooter full-time.
So, what then do we need ascertain what exactly it is that we're looking for in a big man. The biggest question that ultimately I have would be how much more can Tiago Splitter grow? The reason Diaw is such a good fit is because he can play well next to both Duncan and Splitter, he provides passing and has an adequate enough jumper to space the floor. So ultimately, if the player we want to get is to have any sort of meaningful (i.e. Matt Bonner's) playing time, he'll need to be able to do the same. That's asking a lot of a big man who blocks shots. Bringing in say a Tyson Chandler-type player would only signal to me that we've sort of given up on Splitter, because frankly that player can't share any floor time with Splitter.
It's not an easy answer. When I look back at the OKC series, besides Green and Bonner not being able to find a three to save their lives, one thing that stood out to me was the inability of Tiago Splitter to punish Serge Ibaka in the post when Perkins was off the floor. That's why a low post beast like Eddy Curry was an intriguing prospect to me. However, maybe this year Splitter takes a step forward with his post game. That's ultimately what I think it will take, we're probably not going to find a shot blocker type player that's going to meet our specific needs, but short of us landing LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Horford off the waiver wires, I'm not really sure we're going to do significantly "better than Matt Bonner". Who knows? I haven't really given up on Splitter yet, so maybe he steps it up this year, and we won't be talking so much about the need for a big man.