Tim Duncan's Case as the Greatest of All Time
Before people start threatening to eat my children, slash my tires or whatever the kids do these days for vandalistic fun, please understand the stipulations of this column.
I am not saying that Tim Duncan is the greatest player of all time. I am simply saying that if the Spurs are able to win a fifth title this year (or next) with Duncan as the heart and soul of that team, then this would be the legitimate case made for him as the best ever.
Please keep that thought with you as you read the arguments made in this column.
Duncan by the Numbers
- He has scored 22,558 point in his career (26th all time), and he’s most likely going to finish his career in the top 15.
- He has 12,533 career rebounds (18th all time) and should finish in the top 10 in that category.
- Duncan is ninth all time in blocks with 2,469 and has a legitimate chance to crack the top five before he calls it quits.
- He has shot over 50 percent from the field for his entire career.
- He has averaged more assists per game for his career than turnovers, as a power forward.
- He was selected to the All NBA team for 12 straight seasons (13 total), including eight straight seasons to the first team and ninth overall.
- He is one of only 12 players in the history of the NBA with multiple MVP awards.
- He has won three NBA Finals MVPs.
- He has four NBA Championships.
Those are all indisputable facts, but if we only used facts and statistics to measure a player’s greatness, Karl Malone could be considered better than Michael Jordan, and Allen Iverson could be more important historically than Larry Bird.
Fortunately, statistics aren’t the only measuring stick of a player’s greatness, and in the case of Duncan, the numbers barely scratch the surface of his legacy.
His Dominance at His Position
A friend of mine pointed this out to me the other day, and I’m in total agreement of his point. Tim Duncan is, without a doubt, the greatest power forward of all time.
Anyone considered knowledgeable about basketball would agree with that statement, and most people would be hard-pressed to even make a case for another power forward. Duncan is the only player in NBA history with such a stranglehold on his position, and that positional dominance works strongly in his favor as the greatest of all time.
At center, the case could be made for Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Hakeem, Shaq and Shawn Bradley (just kidding). At small forward, Larry Legend is most people’s pick, but the case could be made for LeBron James (sorry, but it’s true), Elgin Baylor, Havlicek, Dr. J and even, Scottie Pippen, depending on where you fall in the argument about the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty.
The point guard discussion would have to include Magic, Oscar, Jerry West, Isiah Thomas and the projection of Chris Paul, with legitimate cases for each of them. And the shooting guard debate would start with MJ, would have Hondo sprinkled in (again) for old time’s sake and conclude with some young 25-year-old punk claiming that Kobe will take the crown some day.
While I have my opinions on who's the best at each position (C-Kareem, SF-Bird, SG-MJ, PG-Magic now and CP3 one day), I could formulate a legitimate debate for multiple players in each group.
However, the greatest power forward conversation of all time starts with Tim Duncan and ends with TIMMMMAY! Now, the case could be made this is partly because it’s been a historically weak position, but it’s also in large part due to the extended brilliance of Duncan.
In terms of playing both ends of the floor, no power forward did it better and because of the crater-sized gap between him and No. 2 (Barkley? Dirk?); that, at least, gets him to the table of the "Greatest of All Time Feast."
A Great Teammate
If you’re still not even a little convinced yet that Duncan belongs in the argument, Duncan as the ultimate teammate is the best case that can be made for him.
Duncan’s career has transitioned from the incredibly slow tempo the Spurs were famous for playing to start the 2000s to one of the highest scoring teams over the last few years. While Phil Jackson had to design an offense as a last-ditch effort to prevent Jordan from being such a ball hog, Duncan adapted to any style and any role his team needed.
If he needed to lead the offense and score 40 points, he did it. If he needed to control the paint on defense and get the fast break started, he did it. You never heard one word, one excuse or one complaint out of Duncan; he just did what he had to in order to help his team win.
Jordan punched Steve Kerr in the face. Duncan patted Steve Kerr on the back. Wilt started passing incessantly and avoiding foul outs because it was in the best interest of his legacy (and he was a self-absorbed moron).
Tim deferred to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili because he knew it would help them win a title, and it did. The responsibility of a superstar is essentially two-fold: 1) you have to be able to carry a franchise; 2) you have to be able to make everyone around you better.
The ultimate goal of your best player is to make the team as competitive as possible, and both those tasks do just that. Duncan proved he could carry a franchise when he won back-to-back MVPs, and he’s also proved over the past 15 years that everyone loves playing with him, and everyone plays their best when he’s on the court.
You can’t say that about MJ or Wilt, and even Magic, demanding a coach to be fired doesn’t exactly scream good soldier. But Duncan only cared about winning and the success of his teammates, and aren’t those the two most important things for a superstar?
Tim Duncan from a Historical Perspective
OK, for my final point, we’re going to play the "Perfect World Game." The PWG is quite simple: you can adjust things in any manner you choose in order to make your point, and it’s just assumed that it’s possible.
For this version, we’re going to create the "Ultimate NBA" where we have 30 teams, all starting from scratch and able to pick any player from any era. The team will get the services of every player for the duration of their career, and the franchise will have no knowledge of who they will be playing against or what era they will be playing in.
In other words, you have to be prepared for EVERYTHING. That means you could be playing in a 1950s style one night and a modern-day version of the game the next.
Now that we’ve established MY ground rules in MY Perfect World Game, let’s talk about how the drafting process would go. Because seven-footers are so rare and so meaningful to the history of the NBA, I’d imagine many teams would be leaning in that direction right from the get-go.
Also, teams want model citizens because negative publicity off the court could lead to negative fan reaction, which in turn leads to lost revenue. The best type of player would be one that you NEVER heard about off the court in a negative light. He would be a, what’s the word I’m looking for...an adult.
Sure, everyone loves Jordan’s fiery competitiveness and his incredible will to win, but punching teammates in the face and gambling at practice for thousands on half-court shots isn’t the best atmosphere to create for a franchise unless you had the perfect coach in place.
Since we can’t guarantee with our new franchises who the coach will be, picking Jordan would be a bit more of a "gambling" risk. Wilt was notoriously selfish so he’s out. Bird and Magic both had shortened careers, Kobe had Colorado, Shaq had offseason cupcakes, rap albums and Kazaam and Oscar was too bitter.
That leaves us with Duncan, Abdul-Jabbar and Russell, but I have to eliminate Russell simply because he wasn’t big enough to handle modern players. Between Duncan and Kareem, ultimately, I think most teams would pick Duncan because of Kareem’s supposed moodiness, lack of defensive prowess and overall disconnect from his teammates.
It took an infectious like Magic to bring out Kareem’s minimal personality; Duncan WAS that personality, and in the end, that’s the difference.
Duncan has proven throughout his career that he can play in any system, with any type of teammates, do everything necessary to win and make everyone around him better. Plus, he’s proved that he can do it for 15-plus years and never do anything outside of basketball to jeopardize himself or the organization.
What other all time great can you say that about? (Letting you think) Exactly.
And that, along with the fact that he's one of the most talented basketball players to ever grace the earth, is why Tim Duncan could (and maybe should…maybe) be considered the greatest NBA player of all time.
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