51Q: How much will Tim Duncan’s retirement change the Spurs?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Who leads the Spurs with Tim Duncan gone?

Pau Gasol described the leadership situation he found since signing with the Spurs this summer. He talked of vocal leaders and leaders by example. He mentioned Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili by name.

“But the main leader of the team, as we all know,” Gasol said, “is Popovich.”

I was taken aback. I expected Gasol to finish that sentence with “was Duncan.” After all, Popovich has credited Duncan time and time again with running the team.

Gasol is not influenced by previous setups, though. A newcomer in San Antonio, he sees Popovich as the compass.

“He dictates the pace and the terms, and everyone kind of follows that path,” Gasol said. “And that’s just how it is. And so I think it’s a great way to be, because everyone respects him. Everyone buys in.”

Duncan and Popovich were the ultimate partnership. They worked together for 19 years, winning five championships, 35 playoff series and 1,001 regular-season games. It was a relationship of not just mutual respect, but mutual excellence.

By working hard, remaining focused and competing relentlessly, Duncan defined the Spurs’ identity. He set a tone that made it easier for Popovich to coach, setting an example for the entire team to follow.

Popovich rewarded Duncan’s devotion with supreme game-planning. It’s easier to buy into a coach who provides a strategic advantage.

I’d argue Popovich is correct, that Duncan did more for him than vice versa. But perhaps Duncan provided one final gift – leaving an imprint so deep, the culture he helped create remains in tact after his retirement with Popovich at the helm.

“I guess I’m fairly demonstrative,” Popovich said. “The guys know what I want. I’m not like the leader. I’m there to point them in the right direction if I think something is needed. But I depend on Timmy and Manu and Tony in the past to do that. Now, it’s turning into a situation where Manu and Tony are still there doing it, but they’re passing it on to LaMarcus, to Kawhi and hopefully Pau.

The torch has already been passed to Kawhi Leonard as the team’s top player, and LaMarcus Aldridge played better than Duncan last year. But Duncan still contributed dependably to last year’s 67-win team.

Duncan has often been lumped in with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett as all-time greats who retired this year. But Duncan remained productive, ranking second in the NBA in defensive Real Plus-Minus last season. Even his postseason struggles against the Thunder were as likely due to a bad matchup as an irreversible decline. Kobe and Garnett were washed up when they hung ’em up. The Lakers and Timberwolves won’t be worse on the court due to losing either. That’s not the case with the Spurs. You can’t fret over, say, the Cavaliers losing Matthew Dellavedova and ignore the on-court effects of San Antonio losing Duncan.

Gasol will be an offensive upgrade with better touch and passing. The downturn will come on the other end. Gasol blocks shots well at the rim, but his overall defense is problematic, because he’s so stationary. He gets position at the rim only so often.

This will be an excellent test of where Duncan ended and Popovich began. Duncan’s defense remained superb late in his career, because he positioned himself so well. He didn’t need to sprint all over the court, because he knew where to go before everyone else.

If that was all Duncan’s intelligence, the Spurs will miss him greatly. But if Popovich’s system puts defenders in the right spot, Gasol could be more than adequate.

When he meets a shooter at the rim, Gasol is pretty good. He just doesn’t get there often enough.

Popovich said the defensive system will not change. It’s up to Gasol to fill Duncan’s shoes on that end the best he can.

Not that Gasol feels that burden.

“I don’t look at myself as I come here as a replacement for Tim Duncan, because no one can replace Tim Duncan,” Gasol said. “Not me, not LaMarcus, not any other talented player in the league. Tim Duncan has been icon in San Antonio, probably the best power forward to ever play the game. So, just plain and simple. Now, here, what we’ve got to do, individually and collectively, is do our best to give ourselves a chance to win a title.”

San Antonio lost its standard bearer and a pretty good player. Neither aspect should be minimized.

Can the Spurs maintain the same goal and realistically contend for a championship without him?

Though many of the pieces — Popovich, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard and Aldridge — remain in place, it’s a new era in San Antonio. Losing Duncan alone changes so much. We’ll soon see just how much.