Tim Duncan's Legacy is Defined by Consistency, Durability and Grace Under PressureTim Duncan entered the NBA with as little fanfare as is possible for a number one overall draft pick and after a brilliant 19 year NBA career he has departed the NBA with even less fanfare. There will be no farewell tour--just a press release and Duncan will ride off into the sunset.
A few phrases jump to mind when trying to summarize what makes Duncan so special.
Quiet dominance. Even-keeled personality. Grace under pressure. Durability. Unselfishness.
Duncan rarely posted gaudy statistics and he did not set many records but his resume is nonetheless quite full: five NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), two regular season MVPs (2002, 2003), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), 1998 Rookie of the Year, 2000 All-Star Game MVP, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, eight All-Defensive First Team selections. He ranked in the top eight in regular season MVP voting in each of his first 11 seasons, including five times when he finished in the top three. Duncan only averaged more than 25 ppg once but he ranks 14th on the NBA's career scoring list (and 17th on the ABA-NBA list) with 26,496 points. Duncan's 15,091 career rebounds rank sixth in NBA history and seventh on the ABA-NBA leaderboard and his 3020 blocked shots rank fifth on the NBA list (and sixth when ABA numbers are included; blocked shots became an official statistic in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Duncan averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg in each of his first eight seasons and he averaged a double double in each of his first 13 seasons.
As Hubie Brown would say, the numbers are there but then you also have to look at the impact. Duncan's arrival in San Antonio heralded the elevation of the Spurs to championship contender status and they remained championship contenders throughout his career. His minutes were limited in recent seasons, which led to a corresponding decline in his other statistics, but Duncan always had a major effect on the game both as the anchor of the defense and as a key offensive player who could do all of the fundamental things well: shoot, pass, handle the ball and--perhaps most underrated--set good, solid screens to free up his teammates.
As a San Antonio assistant coach, Hank Egan saw Tim Duncan's development first hand. An exchange during my first interview with Coach Egan illuminates many of the subtleties of Duncan's game that a casual fan might ignore. While Duncan rightly earned the nickname "Big Fundamental" from Shaquille O'Neal, Egan recalls that even a player as sound as Duncan still had to make some adjustments after entering the NBA:
Egan: "He had a couple years of a learning curve and then, bam. He's a great player. I think that he is the best player in the NBA right now and he has been for several years. He had the luxury while he was breaking in of having David Robinson right there, cleaning up a lot."
Friedman: "The personality that Robinson has, to accept the transition (to a lesser role)."
Friedman: "It's hard to think of another player of his status who could do something like that. I think a little bit of Julius Erving with Moses Malone coming in and them winning a championship together with Julius stepping back somewhat. But David Robinson did it year after year."
Egan: "After Tim's first year, someone asked him if it bothered him that we were going more to Tim on offense and he said, 'Tim is better offensively than I am.' That's exactly what he said. He didn't say that he was getting older or anything like that. He just said that Tim was better."
Friedman: "They had different offensive games. Robinson's game, particularly after some of the injuries, was a face-up game."
Egan: "Yeah. He was always better faced up because he was a narrow-based player. He was straight up and down. He couldn't go to the post where other players would hunker down and use their width. So he played straight up and down."
Friedman: "Duncan has a different kind of body to get in the post."
Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."
Friedman: "That's another thing that I guess is a natural gift in a sense. Robinson is certainly strong and muscular in his arms but he has that tiny waist."
Egan: "Tiny waist, a little knock kneed. Tim Duncan is built like Olajuwon."
Friedman: "Yeah. Your game gets constructed around your body type in a certain sense."
Egan: "Absolutely. Yeah. People would say, 'You have to get this guy to play down low.' He can't play low; he's a straight up and down guy. You have to figure out how to use what God gave him."
Friedman: "That's a big part of coaching, right? You have to see what you are working with. You can't just say, 'My system is best and in my system the 5 does this.' If you have a 5 who can't do that, then you have to find other ways to use his skills."
Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."
Friedman: "Robinson was amazing, particularly before he got hurt—his quickness, the way he could run the floor and steal the ball from guards. He was a very unusual player with what he could do."
The "grace" that Egan correctly attributes to Robinson has been displayed by Duncan as well during the latter portion of Duncan's career. Very few elite players have so seamlessly adjusted to each phase of their careers; Duncan blended well with elder statesman Robinson, Duncan dominated during his prime years (winning back to back regular season MVPs while leading the Spurs to four titles in nine years), Duncan ceded shot attempts and limelight to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as those players emerged and then Duncan made room for Kawhi Leonard's ascension as well. Last season, Duncan played the reduced elder statesman David Robinson role as LaMarcus Aldridge became the team's primary low post offensive weapon.
The only plausible reason for not labeling Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time is that it could be argued that he was a de facto center during a significant portion of his career. Was Duncan the greatest player of his era? There are only a few legitimate candidates for that title: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal was the most physically dominant of that quartet but his inattention to conditioning affected his durability and left him trailing both Bryant and Duncan in terms of championships. James would be the choice of the "stat gurus" because he fills up every category in the box score. Bryant was the one man wrecking crew, the scoring machine/defensive fiend who could carry a team with Smush and Kwame to the playoffs and who was an integral part of two back to back championship dynasties nearly a decade apart (something that none of the other three players accomplished).
There is no definitive right or wrong answer. My personal feeling is I would be reluctant to take O'Neal unless I have a Phil Jackson or Pat Riley to keep him motivated. James is a wunderkind but I will always be baffled by his disappearing act in several key playoff series, most notably the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals; I don't trust him the way that I trust Bryant and Duncan. The problem with comparing Bryant and Duncan is that they need two completely different kinds of supporting casts around them to win, because one is a perimeter player and the other is a post player. The general rule in basketball is that size matters, which would favor Duncan. Bryant asserted his dominance in a more obvious fashion, by scoring 40 or 50 points in a game or by averaging 30 ppg in a series; Duncan's dominance was more understated--sliding over to deter an opponent from driving, setting a screen that freed up someone else to score. Picking one will inevitably be viewed as disrespecting the other, so in the year that both Bryant and Duncan retired from the NBA let's just say that Bryant was the best perimeter player of the post-Jordan era and Duncan was the best big man of the post-Jordan era.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 PM