Given the chance to do it all over again, Tim Duncan might have opted to hold his tongue, or at least offer a polite “no comment.”
He might have considered the wartime aphorism about loose lips sinking ships and how the idea might also apply to NBA contract talks.
When, on the cusp of free agency last May, Duncan christened himself a “Spur for life,” it was a heartening moment to fans who hoped he might end his Hall of Fame career in the place it began.
The sentiment turned out to be devastating to any chance Duncan had of playing hardball with Spurs management at the negotiating table.
“I’m an awful negotiator,” Duncan said, chuckling. “My agent was mad at me the whole time.”
Duncan was on hand at the Spurs’ practice facility Tuesday for the start of his 16th NBA training camp. That would have been surprising only if the notoriously casual dresser had arrived in something out of Craig Sager’s wardrobe.
Though technically a free agent for about a week in early July, the 36-year-old Duncan said he never seriously considered retirement and never remotely entertained the idea of playing elsewhere.
“I’ve been here for so long,” said Duncan, who took no calls from rival teams. “This is home for me.”
That’s a welcome statement for NBA observers who still cringe at the memory of Hakeem Olajuwon in a Toronto Raptors jersey or Patrick Ewing in Seattle SuperSonics green.
By accepting a three-year, $30 million deal to return to the Spurs, Duncan put his money where his mouth was.
Last season, Duncan earned $21.15 million, making him one of the NBA’s highest-paid players. This year, he will take home $9.6 million, a 54 percent pay cut that ranks below such not-so-luminaries as Corey Maggette, DeAndre Jordan and Hedo Turkoglu on the league’s salary list.
A 13-time All-Star and two-time league MVP, Duncan will be the fourth-highest paid player on the Spurs this season, behind Manu Ginobili ($14.1 million), Tony Parker ($12.5 million) and Stephen Jackson ($10.05 million).
If Duncan can resume his mid-30s mini-renaissance — he averaged 15.4 points and nine rebounds in a career-low 28.2 minutes per game last season — the power forward could rate as one of the league’s biggest bargains in 2012-13.
The last time the public saw Duncan on a basketball court, he put up 25 points and 14 rebounds in the Spurs’ Western Conference finals ouster at Oklahoma City.
“The way I felt and the way I was getting up and down and the way I was moving, I had no doubt I’d play a couple more (seasons),” Duncan said.
Duncan’s decision to return at a cut rate might also be read as a referendum on his team.
The captain would not have returned if he did not believe the Spurs — two wins away from a return to the NBA Finals a season ago — can remain among the league’s elite for at least a couple more years.
“We all hate losing,” Duncan said. “We all hate coming out here and feeling like we wasted our time. That’s why you want to put it all on the floor and do the best that we can.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — Duncan’s coach since the day he was drafted No. 1 overall in 1997 — joked the summertime negotiations with his star power forward grew contentious.
“He was just as big a pain in the neck as he was when he almost went to Orlando,” Popovich said, referencing Duncan’s serious flirtation with the Magic during free agency in 2000. “He toyed with me. He lied to me. He intimidated me. He threatened me.
“In the end, it worked out. But I had to take much abuse to get it done.”
Duncan describes a more laid-back approach to contract talks: “Sat down with Pop. He said, ‘Do you want to get it done?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ It was pretty easy.”
As has been his custom for the past several years, the 6-foot-11 Duncan reported to camp looking trim at 255 pounds.
Throughout last season’s lockout-shortened campaign, Duncan complained less frequently about the knee soreness that had plagued him in recent years. He missed just eight games last season, all for rest purposes.
Encouraged by his health last season, Duncan says he can envision playing out the duration of his new contract, which would take him to age 39.
He has not ruled out signing on for another tour of duty when this deal is up.
“I hope I feel that good at the end of this contract,” Duncan said.
If that’s the case, and Duncan does decide he wants a deal to keep playing, here’s one piece of unsolicited advice: Let your agent do the talking.
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