NBA legend Tim Duncan retired this week. Many consider him the greatest power forward of all time (as do I). But you know what many people don’t consider him to be? A top-five all-time player.
The usual names come up in the top-five discussion: Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Wilt, Russell, Shaq, Kobe, even LeBron nowadays. But Duncan often ends up on the back-end of someone’s top-10, or not even there at all.
To be fair, a top five does not have to include one of each position. But as the GOAT PF, you would think that Duncan’s status warrants stronger consideration. Let’s take a look at what his resume brings to the table.
Wins: Duncan’s career was all about winning, so let’s start there. With five NBA championships, he fares very well against the NBA’s all-time greats. Duncan only has one fewer ring than MJ and Kareem, and has the same number as Magic and Kobe. Bill Russell is the only top-tier player way ahead of him with 11 eleven rings to his name.
During his 19-year career with the San Antonio Spurs, Duncan led his team to 50 or more wins every season except the lockout-shortened 1999 season (in which the Spurs went 37-13, a 61-win pace for a full season). That level of consistency for basically two decades is unmatched in NBA history.
Awards and Statistics: I don’t care much about All-Star teams made, as every great player had a boatload of them. Making the All-NBA team is a much more exclusive honor that indicates the best of the best in a given year. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team a whooping 10 times, tied for the second-most ever. He also made the Second Team three times and the Third Team two times. Duncan won two regular season MVPs, and more importantly, two Finals MVPs (in which he barely missed a quadruple-double in one of those games).
Duncan received First Team All-Defensive honors eight times and Second Team honors seven times. Another testament to his consistency and longevity. I won’t throw in too many advanced metrics in this piece, but here’s a cool stat to chew on: Tim Duncan is the only player in NBA history to have 100 offensive and defensive win shares each. Also, check out his per-36 minute stats sometimes; it’s staggering how good he still was even in his late-30s.
Competition: Team-wise, the Spurs went up against the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, Dirk’s Mavs, and the Big Three Miami Heat among others. Individually, Duncan faced off against a deep crop of power forwards in the West, particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s. Names like Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber (a great player before the injuries), Rasheed Wallace, and Dirk Nowitzki. Later on, he squared off with Pau Gasol, Elton Brand, Amare Stoudemire, and future teammate LaMarcus Aldridge and still fared great against them.
So what’s the deal? Duncan’s accolades stack up very well historically. But why doesn’t he get more love from the pundits and the fans in the rankings? Well, there are a couple knocks against him, although some are debatable.
Never successfully defended a championship: What’s harder than winning an NBA title? Winning it again the following season when everyone is gunning for you. Until the Spurs fifth Larry O’Brien trophy in 2014, the running gag was they only could win the championship in odd-numbered years.
San Antonio never even defended any Western Conference title until 2014, late in Duncan’s career. Sure, there were some extenuating circumstances (Duncan’s injury in 2000, Derek Fisher’s 0.4 shot in 2004). But there were other opportunities for Duncan and the Spurs, and they couldn’t quite do it.
Of course, many would point out that the Spurs caught some breaks in their championship runs (‘Sheed leaving Horry wide open in 2005, Phoenix losing key players to suspensions in 2007). Maybe it all evened out in the end.
Gregg Popovich: They won 1,001 games together, but who made who? This is like the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick chicken-or-egg thing. Popovich, who has more basketball knowledge in his little toe than most people do in their whole bodies, would undoubtedly say Duncan was the straw that stirred the drink, and I do agree with that. But let’s not sell Pop short either. While Duncan was the constant, Pop had to coach a revolving cast of supporting players: from Hall-of-Famer David Robinson, to the duo of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, to rising star Kawhi Leonard.
Scoring: A flimsy reason in my view, but let’s look into it anyways. Duncan only had one season where he averaged 25 points a game. Maybe the Spurs would’ve won more had he “taken over the game” more frequently. Maybe, but I doubt it. The Spurs were all about making the right play, especially with ball movement. Duncan scored enough to be effective, but also filled the other parts of the stat sheet on a nightly basis.
I actually believe a big part of the reason Duncan often doesn’t get his just due is because of his image. Now, calling Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs boring is hardly breaking news. But let’s unpack that statement some more and figure out why Duncan gets overlooked.
It starts with his college career. Wake Forest is a small, private university that stands in the shadows of nearby basketball blue bloods North Carolina and Duke. Duncan was a three-time All-American (twice on the first team) at Wake. He could’ve easily left a year or two early and been a lottery pick if not #1 overall. But he decided to stay all four years and get his degree. Even in the mid-90s that was rare for a player of his caliber.
When he got to the NBA, Duncan did some ads here and there (this is one I particularly remember). But I could’ve sworn those were those last ones he ever did, cause I could not remember anything else he did on TV off the top of my head. I know he had his own shoes, but did you ever hear anyone on the playground talk about rocking those new Duncan’s?
I mentioned the scoring earlier: people gravitated towards the Jordan’s and Kobe’s of the world who could roll out of bed and score 30. And it wasn’t just the wing players who put up the big numbers. Kareem is still the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Shaq had several 40-point games in the playoffs, including the Finals.
Even players who never won a championship such as George Gervin and Allen Iverson are fondly remembered because they put the ball in the bucket and they did it very often. In comparison, Duncan quietly got his 20 and went about his night.
In the NBA during his era, the nicknames really captured people’s imaginations (The Answer, The Truth, King James, The Glove, Agent Zero, etc). Duncan’s nicknames were either basic or corny (TD, The Big Fundamental), but they fit him to a tee.
His style of play was the furthest thing from flashy too. No ankle-breaking crossovers like Iverson, no turnaround fadeaways like Kobe, no earth-shattering dunks like Shaq, no freight-train breakaway slams like LeBron, and definitely no pull-up 30-footers like Curry (although he did hit this clutch 3). With Duncan, it was bank shots, up-and-unders, and baby hooks. Simple, but effective.
Other than having incredulous looks on his face whenever a call went against him, Duncan didn’t rock the boat on or off the court. You never heard about feuds between him and his teammates, he never undermined his coaches, and he stayed out of trouble. Duncan didn’t rant and rave or cuss and fuss like some fellow stars tended to do. Off the court, his personal life was mostly a mystery. He had zero social media presence. Even when he retired, he skipped the press conference in classic Duncan fashion.
In short, basketball has more of an urban culture than any other major sport, and Duncan wasn’t equipped with a multitude of street cred. When he was drafted in 1997, the NBA was in the midst of the “next Jordan” era, and fans flocked to the players that fit that archetype: Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, and so on. Shaq was one of the few big men who also had that pull with fans, and that was due to his charisma and side hip-hop and movie projects.
Tim Duncan did his work quietly and efficiently. He wasn’t focused on the glitz and glamour; he just wanted to be a winning basketball player. Duncan does get a good amount of praise from basketball diehards. But as a whole, he’s perhaps the most underrated player in NBA history, hell maybe even sports history. That does seem hyperbolic, but take a good long look at his career and ask yourself; how many sports careers would you rather have?
Photo credit: CBS News