Tim Duncan’s Incredible Legacy

Kobe Bryant’s less-than-glorious but still memorable farewell tour was one of the most memorable factors for the 2016 NBA season, but Tim Duncan’s retirement earlier today marked the end of another immortal career. Here’s how the Twitter world reacted to him leaving the game for good.

Let’s take a look at what made Duncan such a memorable player.

Offense

Duncan’s prime coincided with the slowest-paced era in NBA history, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great offensive player. For the first half of the 00s decade, Duncan was one of the league’s premier scoring big men. Along with having a devastating low-post game, Duncan was also a force to reckon with off the ball and a masterful free throw drawer at the rim.

From the 2002 season to the end of the 2004 season, Duncan shot a 71.4, 67,8 and 71.2 percent at the rim, while drawing free throws at a 46.6, 45.5 and 49.8 percent rate. In the playoffs, the latter number goes to 55.8, 56.3 and 54.7. That kind of increase in attacking the rim – especially against better opponents in the postseason – is ridiculous.

For his career, Duncan also shot 40.3 percent from 16 feet to 22 feet, showing that while he wasn’t an amazing shooter, he could still hit an open jumper if needed. Although it’s certainly not proof of him being a consistently competent three-point shooter, Duncan also hit probably the most clutch jumper I’ve ever seen a big man shoot before. That’s not an actual argument for his offensive greatness – just another number to add to the amount of amazing high stakes Duncan moments.

Duncan’s volume as a scorer was never as good as his contemporary Shaquille O’Neal, but it didn’t have to be. From the 1999 to 2004, Duncan stayed in the top ten each year in points scored per game, capping out at a solid 25.48 PPG in 2002. For his career, Duncan scored a modest, but effective 19.0 PPG, but in the playoffs, that number increased to 20.6.

Don’t confuse his brilliance in lower-paced teams for a reliance on the half-court. Despite Duncan’s daunting 6’11, 250-pound frame as a big man, he was bulky, yet quick and long enough in transition to be a matchup nightmare for any transition defender. Not to mention, extremely intelligent in understanding when he had an advantage.

In the clip above, you can see Duncan immediately react off the initial steal and go running on the break. Noticing Manu Ginobili slightly behind Andrei Kirilenko coming back in transition, Duncan speeds up and finishes with a thunderous slam over Kirilenko, who at the time was one of the league’s premier shotblockers and defensive standouts. This play doesn’t separate Duncan from any other capable offensive player in transition but it shows that he could do it when needed against the best competition. That’s not even going into his ability as a passer, which his head coach once said was “the best passer [I’ve] seen at his size since Bill Walton.”

Duncan’s consistency was especially noticeable in the playoffs, where he was almost always willing to step up his game. For his career, his regular season Player Efficiency Rating marks at a 24.2, but in the playoffs, that number stays consistent at 24.3. That doesn’t sound worthy of praise, but consider that most players are expected to play worse in the regular season.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 5.04.53 PM

This is obviously not a definitive list of the 15 best offensive players in NBA history, but the top 15 of career PER certainly show a good list of the most impressive stat-stuffers in NBA history. Out of all 15 of these players, only Jordan, Duncan and James actually improve in the playoffs. As you can tell, almost every star player produces a bit worse when facing tough competition, but Duncan is part of a special breed of players that continue to produce in the toughest circumstances.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 5.10.40 PM

Defense/Rebounding

Don’t be fooled by his lack of a defensive player of the year award – Duncan ends his career as one of the greatest defensive players in league history. While he was a strong shotblocker, Duncan’s blocks per game total doesn’t do justice to his legacy on the defensive end of the court.

Rather than commit himself to stuffing opposing players coming to the rim, Duncan’s length on its own would cause enough problems to disrupt their path to scoring. Instead of jumping up and fully putting himself in harms way as a shot blocker, Duncan knew how to
defensive legacy comes from his ability to contest shots, while still being able to make necessary rotations and switches if necessary. During his prime, Duncan was one of the league’s best pick and roll defenders. Not to mention, one of the few people in the NBA capable of doing stretches of man coverage against its most terrifying interior scorer ever.

You don’t even have to look at the tape to tell Duncan’s impact on the glass and on offense. Here’s some facts to remember:

– From 1998 to 2009, the Spurs finished at least top-five in defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions). 
– From 2004 to 2006, the Spurs finished first in the league in defensive rating. 
– San Antonio never finished lower than 11th in the NBA in defensive rating during Duncan’s career. 
– In six out of 19 years playing in the NBA, Duncan-led defenses led the NBA in defensive rating.
– From 2000 to 2015, Duncan stayed in the top ten of the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage.
– Duncan has the most total All-Defensive Team selections in NBA history.

Obviously, not all of this is due to Duncan. Along with playing with a defensive genius and brilliant head coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan also got to play with premier perimeter defenders in Bruce Bowen and Kawhi Leonard throughout his career, as well as Hall of Famer and defensive stalwart David Robinson.

Where does that put his defensive legacy? Probably a bit lower than Bill Russell or prime Ben Wallace, but Duncan is clearly in second tier of all-time defenders the Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett tier of defenders – awards be damned. As a rebounder, he can also hold his own with anyone in league history.

Legacy

Almost every top player in NBA history was a head-case or egomaniac of some sort. In addition to Michael Jordan being a gambler and selfish me-first player for a good chunk of his career, Bill Russell had a (understandably) strained relationship with the city of Boston, Wilt Chamberlain went through head coaches like women he slept with and Shaquille O’Neal was partially responsible for destroying what people considered an all-time long-term dynasty. Even modern contemporaries like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have gotten criticism for being divas while leading their respective franchises.

Yet, unlike other basketball legends, Duncan was always willing to put his franchise’s long-term success ahead of everything else. When the Spurs found a matchup advantage at point guard against the Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals, Duncan quietly played strong interior defense and rebounded while letting teammate and Finals MVP Tony Parker do most of the work on offense.

Just compare the way Duncan and Bryant left the game in their last few seasons. Despite no longer being the best player on his own team, Bryant continued taking as many shots as he wanted on the court, actively hurt his team on defense and created a media circus around his retirement throughout the whole season.

Conversely, Duncan slowly ceded control of the franchise to the upcoming Kawhi Leonard and arguably even LaMarcus Aldridge. Even more impressively, despite the massive drop in minutes played for him, Duncan maintained a star-level impact on the court when he did come out. Per defensive RPM, Duncan ranked second in the NBA last season, just behind Andrew Bogut. His overall production (16.98 PER) decreased, but his presence on the court was as felt as any other center in the NBA. Keep in mind that Duncan is currently 40 years-old.

The closet comparison you could find for Duncan’s career arc is Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who started off his career as the face of the NBA, but ended up as its most decorated figure, leading points scorer and as a supporting cast member for the Magic Johnson-led Showtime Lakers. But Abdul Jabbar didn’t have Duncan’s level of professionalism. In fact, he was traded during the middle of his prime in Milwaukee and also known as one of the league’s most mercurial players.

Duncan never had that problem.He was always willing to do what’s best for his teammates, whether it was a grind-it-out gritty sub-90 possessions a game slugfest championship team like the 2005 Spurs or a playmaking, three-point shooting heavy one like the 2014 Spurs.

Sure – Duncan doesn’t have the same level of prime as players like Jordan, Russell, Abdul Jabbar or James. He wasn’t even as game-breaking as a guy like Chamberlain. But in a league where his contemporaries were Shaq, Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki, Duncan was the best player out of all of them throughout last decade.

Think about that for a moment: in an era with arguably the most physically dominant big man ever, a guy heralded as the “next Jordan,” the league’s greatest pick and roll defender ever and its greatest stretch power forward, Duncan ended up with the most MVPs and Finals MVPs. You can’t argue that his success came as a byproduct of a weak era.

Moreover, it’d be foolish to dismiss Duncan as a system player because he was willing to concede being a franchise player to Leonard. Though a lot of his success came as a result of an amazing front office, head coach and supporting cast, not all of those strengths were always present. In the NBA, you almost always need a superstar talent to become relevant, but you also need a second star to ensure a shot at a title. Tim Duncan is one of the few cases in NBA history where a franchise player single-handedly led a team to an NBA title.

On the surface, the 2003 Spurs had no business even getting to the NBA Finals. After Duncan, their team leader in playoff minutes played was 20 year-old Parker, while Duncan’s most impactful teammate was probably the still-effective but old Robinson. They were lucky to even qualify, given Nowitzki’s untimely injury in the Western Conference Finals.

The end result:  Duncan easily put up one of the greatest Finals performances in league history. Not to mention, a casual near-quadruple double to close out the series. Not bad for someone casual basketball fans used to criticize for being “boring.”

Compare 2003 Duncan’s run to anyone else in league history. Since 1980, only 1994 Olajuwon has succeeded with so little supporting talent. That’s a hell of an accomplishment when put into comparison with Jordan and other greats. It doesn’t mean Duncan’s better, but it puts his name in a select group of players that carried their teams to championships. Calling him a system player clearly doesn’t work.

Make no mistake, Duncan is the league’s greatest power forward ever and the man to remember most of his generation. A role model athlete and unselfish franchise player, Duncan is just below the likes of Jordan, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar in terms of his all-time standing among careers, but Duncan is without a doubt the epitome of brilliance, humility and consistency. We’ll be lucky if we see anything like him on a basketball court ever again.

Posted In

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s