Tim Duncan – A Forgotten All-Time Great?
We live in a time where people feel the need to rank every player’s place in NBA history. I’m not just talking about the talking heads you see on TV or hear on your favorite podcast. I’m talking about EVERYONE including me sometimes. Ranking guys leads to fun debates, especially if you are comparing players from different eras like Jordan versus LeBron or even comparing Larry Bird’s game to that of Kevin Durant. Fans have been so focused on ranking which guy is better than that guy. It’s become an exercise in RIDICOULOUSLY discrediting a player’s skills and accomplishments. This guy sucked because he wasn’t better than that one guy. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but some of these takes are getting so crazy that they would make ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith blush!
Most of the time I roll my eyes. Other times, I can’t help myself and jump right into the pile of manure. Headfirst too.
I’ve had conversations with people who have said that Michael Jordan was a bum and played against plumbers or janitors. Some say that LeBron James sucks and couldn’t survive playing in earlier eras. Others say that Larry Bird was the most overrated player in NBA history and had zero skills. The argument against Kobe is either that he couldn’t win without Shaq OR he’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan – so that makes him a bum too.
Some takes make me want to facepalm so badly that I’d be put into concussion protocol.
Should I let these takes go or spray Febreze on that pile of dog crap? Fine, hand me the Febreze…
1. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, was NOT a bum. Far from it! Picking LeBron over MJ as the GOAT isn’t a terrible stance. I personally don’t agree but it’s certainly debatable. Dominque Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, or Patrick Ewing were NOT plumbers. You tell those guys they were “plumbers!” For the record – there is nothing wrong with being an actual plumber. Or a janitor.
2. LeBron James does not suck. In fact, he can pretty much do anything he wants on a basketball court. He will have the greatest statistical career of any player in NBA history. A player as skilled as LeBron can be successful in any era. Would he fare as well as he has to date in other eras is another conversation.
3. Yeah, Larry Bird was a slow white guy. But that slow white guy was one of the top three NBA players during the 80s and still ranks as one of the top-ten best shooters in the history of the game. The man averaged 10 rebounds per game for his career – at a time where men went into the paint. People remember Magic Johnson’s passing, but people forget Bird was just as a good a passer. Hell, even his defense was underrated. Overrated? No.
4. Yes, Kobe Bryant won three championships with Shaq. He also got two rings without him and has one more championship than “The Diesel.” Also, when did one’s basketball skill being compared to Michael Jordan become a bad thing? See number one for more or follow my TED Talks on how great basketball players weren’t plumbers.
You know who else wasn’t a plumber? Tim Duncan. Duncan IS an NBA All-Time Great. I think people forget about that. Intelligent basketball fans can’t argue that he’s not. What is debatable about Tim Duncan is his basketball legacy and his place among the best to ever play in the NBA. Some people have “The Big Fundamental” in their Top-5. Others have him in their Top-10. Some have him ranked lower than that – and that’s ok. Again, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and preferences.
What I don’t understand is how many people dismiss Tim Duncan’s basketball career altogether. These same people don’t even think that he should even be mentioned in the greatest power forward discussion. Why is that? Is it because he wasn’t flashy? Is it because he played in San Antonio for his whole career? Is it because he played for Gregg Popovich? Was it his stoic demeanor?
Is it because he often looked confused? Is it because we rarely saw him in commercials? Is it because he rarely shot threes? Is it because he was quiet, at least publicly? Is it because he wasn’t perceived to be as athletic as guys like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Chris Webber, or Kevin Garnett? Was he too quiet for people?
He wasn’t too quiet for former NBA referee Joey Crawford. Crawford once ejected Duncan from a game for laughing. At him. From the bench.
I believe the answer is a combination of all those things. Ranking Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, or Kevin Garnett as a better all-time NBA power forwards isn’t a crime. Personally, I don’t understand why any of those three guys would be ahead of Duncan. I believe people forget how great Tim Duncan really was. It’s easy to forget about him. He stays out of the limelight. Despite the NBA Lottery being put in place, NBA Teams (mostly the Boston Celtics) were tanking during the 1996-97 season in hopes of landing the #1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft to land Duncan. The Celtics had two lottery selections that year. They were hoping and praying that one of them would lead to Duncan. They didn’t.
Please allow me to remind you how great Tim Duncan was.
The man was highly touted coming out of Wake Forest. Duncan was drafted #1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs in 1997. How many amateur players have been labeled as generational, franchise talents coming into the NBA Draft in the past 25 years AND met the hype? There have been guys expected to be stars, but I’m talking about guys who were can’t-miss and expected to be GREAT. Tim Duncan is certainly one. LeBron James is another easy answer. Kevin Durant is another. Anthony Davis. Should we add Yao Ming’s name to that list too? What about Dwight Howard? The point is that the list is not a long one.
The Spurs landed the #1 pick in 1997 after taking a nosedive to the Western Conference cellar. That was mostly because Hall-of-Fame center David Robinson was out nearly the entire season with a broken foot. All Duncan did in his rookie year with the Spurs was be selected to the All-Star team, lead the entire league in double-doubles, and was named to the 1997-98 All-NBA First Team. The FIRST Team! As an effing rookie! Here’s why that last piece is a big deal – because no other rookie since Duncan has been named to the All-NBA FIRST team! Not Magic, not LeBron, not Chuck, not “The Mailman,” not KG, not Kobe, and not even Shaq! Score one for Timmy! Here are some of the other guys who were All-NBA First Teamers as rookies. It’s an impressive list…
Michael Jordan. David Robinson. Larry Bird. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Oscar Robertson.
That’s just Duncan’s rookie season. In his second season, he was THE driving force of leading the San Antonio Spurs to their first ever NBA Championship. Duncan put on a clinic in the NBA Finals. He dominated the New York Knicks with bank-shots, jump hooks, rebounding and defense. That’s where he became “The Big Fundamental!” Sure, the Knicks were without an injured Patrick Ewing but even he would have had trouble containing Duncan. It’s not like Marcus Camby (former Defensive Player of the Year) was a bum either. Simply put, the Spurs don’t win the 1999 NBA Championship or any other of their five titles without Tim Duncan.
For those keeping score at home: Duncan’s five rings are more than LeBron, Bird, KG, Giannis, Dirk Nowitzki, Rasheed Wallace (sure I’ll put him in here) and Elvin Hayes have. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant also have five rings. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Chris Webber have as many rings as I do – zero. In other words, Tim Duncan won more than his contemporaries did. He had one Top 75 NBA Player of All-Time for two of those rings – an aging David Robinson. Future Hall-of-Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were key cogs, but they’re also going into Springfield just as much for their FIBA (international) accomplishments as they are for their NBA careers. Duncan also had Kawhi Leonard as a teammate for the 2014 title. Leonard was just starting to emerge as a star and was not yet a Top 75-caliber player yet.
I know that greatness isn’t just about rings. Here are some other points about the greatness of Tim Duncan:
His Longevity & Loyalty:
– Duncan played 19 seasons in the NBA, all with the Spurs. Only eight other players have played longer entering the 2022-23 season.
– Kobe and Dirk are the only players to play longer with a single team in league history.
– Granted, Doc Rivers could have had Duncan in Orlando, but he stayed firm on his no WAGs (wives and girlfriends) being allowed to travel with the team rule. Idiot. Anyway…
– Duncan was selected to 15 All-NBA Team selections in his 19 seasons. That’s the same as Kareem and Kobe. Only LeBron James has more All-NBA selections with 18.
– No one in NBA history has more NBA All-Defensive Team selections than Duncan (15). NO ONE. The man did it at both ends of the floor.
– Duncan’s 15 All-Star Game selections are tied for the third most in NBA history. Only LeBron, Kobe, and Kareem have more.
– Duncan is one of 35 players in NBA history to have won an NBA MVP. He won it twice – which is more than Kobe (more on that in minute), Barkley, Dirk, and Kevin Garnett to name a few.
What other power forwards do you see even mentioned in those bullet points? Dirk Nowitzki and Barkley are mentioned, albeit rarely. What people also forget is that there were many other really good “fours” in the league during Duncan’s prime. He was going up against top-level power forwards every night. Most were in their primes! Sports Illustrated once called the era, “the golden age of power forwards.” Nowitzki wasn’t the only All-Star. There was Chris Webber. Amare Stoudemire. Elton Brand. Rasheed Wallace. Karl Malone. Charles Barkley. Jermaine O’Neal. Carlos Boozer. Zach Randolph. Pau Gasol. Kevin Garnett.
Duncan faced ALL of these guys on a nightly basis and did pretty, pretty well. He never appeared rattled either. Hell, Garnett once said that Duncan was the one guy he could NOT rattle with his trash talk!
I mentioned that Duncan has more MVPs than Kobe Bryant. I laugh when I see people saying that Duncan “stole” both MVPs from Kobe. Tim Duncan did NOT steal any MVPs from Kobe Bryant. Here’s a closer look at Duncan’s MVPs that he allegedly stole from Bryant. The NBA’s MVP is a regular season record. Don’t forget that winning plays a role.
2001-02 Season: (points per game =ppg; rebounds/game = rpg, assists/game = apg, etc)
Duncan: 25.5 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.5 blocks per game – Spurs record: 58-24
Bryant: 25.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.5 steals per game – Lakers record: 58-24
– Jason Kidd was 2nd in MVP voting that year having led the rise of the New Jersey Nets of all teams as contenders. Not Bryant.
– Bryant was 2nd on his own team in MVP voting! Same with scoring – both to Shaq.
– Kobe had Shaq on his team. Dude was the most dominate player in the league! The second leading scorer for the Spurs that season was David Robinson – at only 12.2 points per game!
The argument shouldn’t be that Duncan stole an MVP from Kobe in 2002. It could be that he stole one from Shaq! Even then Duncan has an edge since he played 15 more games and their teams had the same record. Case Closed. Next!
Duncan: 23.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 3.9 apg, 2.9 blocks per game – Spurs record = 60-22
Bryant: 30.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 5.9 apg, 1.7 steals per game – Lakers record: 50-32
– Kevin Garnett was 2nd in MVP voting that year
– Bryant was 3rd overall in MVP voting ahead of Shaq (5th) and led the Lakers in scoring.
– Kobe again had Shaq (27.5 ppg, 11.1 rpg) on his team again. The second leading scorer for the Spurs that season – Tony Parker at 15.5 points per game
Bryant turned up his game, but his supporting case (Shaq was the supporting cast?) was stronger and the Lakers’ record was worse than that of the Spurs. San Antonio ended up winning the championship, so the voters ended up getting this one right too. There are other years where Kobe should have been named MVP, but these two seasons were not those years.
So which power forwards were GREATER than Tim Duncan again? There may have been other guys that were more talented, more athletic, and some could even shoot better. The fact of the matter was that “The Big Fundamental” lived up to his nickname and got the job done – on both ends of the court. He executed. He won. He was there and didn’t run from anyone. Was he flashy? No. But he was one of the best to ever do it.
The truth is that I don’t know what exact rank Duncan has on the NBA’s all-time list. I believe he’s easily at Top-15 player of all-time, maybe even as high as the Top-10. I’m not here to tell you how to place Tim Duncan among the all-time greats. Just don’t forget about Timmy when making your all-time or best power forward ranking arguments. It could make you sound like a smarter basketball fan.
Photo Credit: Creator: Geoff Livingston Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)