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Sunday, August 07, 2016

Tim Duncan's Legacy is Defined by Consistency, Durability and Grace Under Pressure

Tim 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)."

Egan: "Grace."

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."

Egan: "Yes."

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 PM


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At Monday, August 08, 2016 11:57:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

You know about Duncan. Its a saying how he was blessed to have been drafted by the Spurs organization. Because how well run they have been all these years.In recent years you can say that. Because the last time Duncan was really a true super star in the league was about in 2009. Maybe 2010 in my opinion. Even well out of his prime the Spurs still contended because they had the right pieces.

Think about this though. People say Duncan was blessed the Spurs drafted him because he had a great front office, good cast of players and a great coach in Popavich. When Duncan was drafted, Popavich had a record of 17-47 I believe. So he was no proven coach. The Spurs had no titles prior to Duncan. Robinson was choking out of the playoffs prior to Duncan coming along.Robinson sis take a backseat to Duncan but in reality he had no choice. In 1999 when the Spurs won their first title, Robinson was past his prime at that point. All of Duncan's Teams he had weren't as good as people say they were. Those 2000-2003 teams Duncan made them look that good.

If the Spurs already had won a title prior to drafting Duncan then you can say he fell into a great situation.

Without Duncan the Spurs don't win in 1999. The franchise eventually goes downhill because their main cast of players would have gotten too old. Popavich and Buford most likely wouldn't have been in San Antonio all of these years. Popavichs legacy is most likely completely different today. Robinson retires ringless unless he winds up on a contender at the end of his career as a bench player playing limited minutes. And the narrative would be he deserves a title but the Spurs failed to put a team around him in his prime.

If Duncan goes to Boston like most thought would happen, I think he turns them into a contender. Even though the Celtics won in 2008, I know their fans still wish they got Duncan in 1997.

At Monday, August 08, 2016 10:52:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I think Duncan is the greatest big man to ever play the game. I'm so glad you mentioned his screen-setting, because that was probably worth 15-20 points a game but there are no statistic that speak to it directly. Similarly, is impact on the defensive end can only be captured by looking at how good the Spurs were defensively year to year as every single other piece changed.

There have been better offensive big men- Wilt, Moses, Kareem, Shaq. There have been better defensive big men- Russell, Olajuwon. Of those five, only Wilt and Olajuwon could claim to compete with Duncan on both ends (though Kareem comes close), and neither of them had either the longevity or the team success that Duncan did. That he won in an era where he routinely had to beat Kobe Bryant or Lebron James, nevermind Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, etc. etc. is even more impressive. Kareem and Russell won their titles on teams loaded with HoFers; Duncan, for his career, had 3 or 4, and one of them didn't play any defense.

I'd probably take Kareem as the second best big man, but if you look at who his second best players were- Oscar and Magic- vs who Duncan's were- Robinson/Parker/Leonard- I think it's pretty clear which guy had to carry the bigger load. It's telling that when Kareem first went to LA the Lakers were nothing special, but even after Robinson left and before Parker/Ginobili ascended the Spurs were still an elite basketball outfit.

The supporting cast argument for Duncan over Kareem only gets stronger if you go beyond the second banana; Ginobili and Worthy are perhaps comparable, but Bruce Bowen was no Michael Cooper, nor were any of the Spurs' various other guards any Byron Scott, nor any of their other big men (post-Robinson) Bob McAdoo or AC Green.

The man was the ultimate big man. I'll go to my grave hating him for all those PHX series, but his greatness is absolutely undeniable.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 7:21:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Great tribute to Duncan.

Your assessment of Duncan is so far from where I would place him historically I don't think we can meaningfully agree on his place, Nick. Suffice to say Kareem/Wilt/Russell are on the top tier for me with Duncan a level below. Something like Hakeem/Duncan/Shaq/Moses.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duncan's probably in the top 10 all-time. I've usually felt he should be placed above Shaq until recently. Duncan had a little better longevity(Shaq still had great longevity, too), but a lot of this was enhanced by SA continuing to put forth championship-caliber rosters as they will without Duncan next year. Duncan was able to take on a role-player role and save his his body a lot, playing a bit longer.

But, Shaq had more elite years, unless you think Duncan losing badly to DAL in 1st round in 09 still counts for being elite. Or Duncan putting up pedestrian numbers losing badly to 8-seeded MEM in 11 without Gay is also elite-worthy. And Shaq was much more dominant in his prime than Duncan was. Sure, Shaq had lots of issues and Duncan was a better teammate. When Duncan beat Shaq, it was a lockout year in 99 and LAL was going for 4 straight titles in 03. Both instances are big things to consider, and not normal years. Duncan won one more title than Shaq, but this was on the backside of his career on stacked teams, something Shaq never had the luxury of, except in 2010 when James quit. Though, if Leonard quit like James did in 2010, SA wouldn't have won in 2014.

Shaq being elite longer and much better during those years, I have to give the nod to Shaq. They still each reached 6 finals, but Duncan's last 2 were with much lesser roles. And Duncan had better and more consistent teams overall.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Eh, I think the margin between Duncan/Kareem/Hakeem/Wilt/Russell/Moses/Shaq is pretty minimal, so I don't really fault anyone who puts them in a different order than I do. I have Duncan on top for his consistency, two-way dominance, and longevity, and because I think he won with less help than the rest of the guys on that list (specifically in '03, and overall). I have Shaq at the bottom of that list because he only played serious defense for about seven or eight years of his career, and because his free throw shooting was a vulnerability in a really major was (as was Wilt's).

I disagree that Duncan had more help than most of those guys, and especially than Shaq. Shaq played most of his career with another All-NBA First Team candidate beside him, and none of Duncan's teammates were at the level of Kobe or Lebron or Peak Wade. He also played with a near All-Star team in Orlando, a PHX team that nearly won the title the year before they got him, and at the end of his career, a seriously deep Boston team.

I would perhaps agree that Duncan had more *consistent* help but he didn't benefit from having other top 20 teammates like everyone else on that list except Hakeem did; Kareem has Oscar and Magic (and Dandridge/Worthy/McAdoo/Nixon/Scott/Cooper/Green), Wilt had West and Baylor (and Billy Cunningham/Hal Greer/Gail Goodrich), Russell had Havlicek (and Cousy/Heinsohn/Jones/another half dozen guys), Moses, when he won, had Doc/Toney/Cheeks, etc. Tony Parker would not have been the second best player on any of those other guys' best title teams except perhaps for Hakeem's first title.

Still, there's a plenty strong case to be made for any of that "Big 7" as I like to call them. I just think Duncan's is a hair stronger.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 2:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't discussing most of those guys, just Shaq. But, Duncan had a ridiculous amount of help throughout his entire career, and SA has been so good lately that they're still an elite team without Duncan, albeit old, role-player Duncan. Kobe was better than any teammate Duncan had, obviously, but basketball isn't played 2 on 2, it's 5 on 5, and you need at least 8-9 guys to play. Nobody on those Shaq-Orlando teams other than Shaq did much without Shaq. Duncan still had a top 2-3 cast at worst in 03. Both of them played on and led several teams which greatly underperformed.

Shaq at his best was much much better than Duncan at his best, while Shaq remained elite longer than Duncan. It's close, but I'd have to go with Shaq.

And sure, PHO was very good in 08, brutal 1st round matchup between 55 and 56-win teams. I'd still take Duncan's cast in that series with Parker playing like an MVP. Obviously, 31yo Duncan should outperform 35yo Shaq at that stage of their careers.

At Tuesday, August 09, 2016 3:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


I remain perplexed at who you thought was so good on the '03 Spurs. We've been through this enough that I'm loathe to get back into it in any depth, but they were a shallow team on which nobody but Duncan scored remotely efficiently, only really went 7 deep, and started a defensive sieve at the PG position. They had a few strong defensive players in Jackson, Bowen, and Robinson, but offensively only Duncan shot over 47% and both Manu and Jackson shot below 44% for the season. Bowen was the team's sole above-average 3pt shooter, and Malik Rose was... Malik Rose. In the playoffs, only Duncan and Robinson shot above 42%, and both Bowen and Manu dropped into the 30s.

2nd and 3rd best Spurs that year would probably be Parker (15/5 on 46%) and Robinson (8/8 on 47%). You could arugably sub Bowen in for Parker there, but I know your opinions on defense, so we'll go with Parker here. Parker/Robinson were good for 23 points, 6 assist, and 10.5 rebounds a game. By contrast, here are the 2nd and 3rd best players on the teams SAS had to beat:

PHX: Marbury (22/3/8 on 44%) and Stoudemire (15/9/1 on 47%). 37/12/9 total. They also had Penny Hardaway and Joe Johnson, though neither was in peak form.

LAL: Kobe (30/7/6 on 45%) and Fisher (10.5/3/3.5 on 44%) 40.5/10/9.5 total.

DAL: Finley (19.5/6/3 on 43%) and Nash (17.5/3/7 on 46%). 47/9/10 total. They also had Van Exel.

NJN: Jefferson (15.5/6.5/2.5 on 50%) and Martin (16.5/8.5/2.5 on 47%). 32/15/5 total. They also had Kittles and COllins.

Now, sure, some of those guys aren't very good defensively (but then neither is Parker), but all those pairs pretty dramatically out-performed Parker/Robinson. With the notable exception of LAL, those other teams were all deeper at positions 4-10, too.

And that's not even getting into the teams SAS didn't run into in the playoffs (Detroit had Billups, Hamilton, Wallace, and Cliff RObinson, for instance).

Show me another player who won with that weak a supporting cast, and I'll show you a lie.

At Wednesday, August 10, 2016 12:20:00 AM, Anonymous CR said...

Just to piggyback on your point about the Lakers. It was interesting to see the Lakers unable to get even a meeting with Kevin Durant or any of the other top free agents with Kobe Bryant no longer on the team. But I'm sure Henry Abbott will soon write a piece about how the Ghost of Kobe Bryant now haunts Staples Center and continues to scare away all potential free agents.

Kobe was the ONLY reason they got meetings with free agents despite never having significant cap room during the prime of his career. And by the time they did have space Kobe had torn his achilles and was no longer an all-nba player worth teaming up with.


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