Great basketball players generally distinguish themselves through the consistent execution of extraordinary plays. It is their ability to explode to the basket, soar above the rim, knock down contested fadeaway jumpers or deliver a no-look pass that propels them to stardom and their teams to victory.
Tim Duncan was not blessed with a 40'' vertical leap, blazing speed or a picture-perfect jumper. The San Antonio Spurs forward found another way to dominate: He mastered the mundane. Duncan learned to perform every ordinary aspect of the game extraordinarily well.
Casual basketball fans are quick to dismiss Duncan and his game as boring. They fail to see the intense passion, piercing intelligence, selfless devotion and relentless desire to win that make his brilliant execution on the court appear so simple.
Instead of relying on superb talent or sensational athleticism, Duncan perfected the fundamentals of the game. And the breadth of his expertise may be unprecedented.
Most scoring big men can either beat you with their back to the basket or facing the rim. Regardless of their preference, they generally rely on one or two go-to moves.
Timmy can execute a vast array of moves from various spots on the floor. He can hit you with a right hook, left hook or fadeaway. Cut off his path to the paint, and he will bust out a drop step or spin by you baseline. He uses the glass as well as anybody in the game from the wing. His jumper from the elbow is deadly, and if you crowd him, he will take you off the dribble or draw the foul.
The secret to his offensive efficiency is flawless footwork, developed through countless hours of repetition, and a brilliant understanding of how individual defenders and teams plan to stop him. He is always aware of where the help defense is coming from. When he is double-teamed, he knows not only when to pass the ball, but who to pass it to, often throwing a skip pass to the opposite wing for an open shot.
Some star players focus on the offensive end of the floor, which they believe drives their marketability, and tend to coast defensively. Not Timmy. His work ethic and remarkable defensive instincts earned him nine NBA All-Defensive First Team selections.
His timing on defensive rotations is impeccable, and he possesses an uncanny ability to alter or block shots without leaving his feet. Duncan also has an excellent grasp on when to help out a teammate without overcommitting and leaving his man free at the rim. His outlet passes are quick and on point, hitting the point guard in stride.
There is no ego in Duncan's game. He shuns individual accolades, avoids media attention and prefers the efficient play to the SportsCenter highlight. As Dave Odom, his coach at Wake Forest University put it, "Today's game is style over substance. He's the opposite. He's substance over style" (via Pat Forde of ESPN.com).
When Duncan does throw down a vicious dunk over a helpless opponent, he does not preen and pose for the cameras. The big man sprints back on defense and prepares for the next play. It is reminiscent of when Barry Sanders used to calmly hand the football to the referee after busting out a breathtaking touchdown run.
When other star players are promoting their sneaker lines, Duncan is working on his hook shot. Some players seem to get up for certain opponents or nationally televised games. Basketball is always at the forefront of his mind, and he has given it everything he has each game for the past 16 seasons.
In the "look at me" culture of the NBA, Timmy has always put the Spurs first. He bought into Gregg Popovich's system and is willing to be coached. In recent years, he turned over the reins of the team to Tony Parker without so much as a peep. That selfless approach has set an example for his teammates, encouraging them to accept their roles.
Success has not changed the Spurs' superstar. After four championship rings, two MVP awards, 14 All-Star appearances and over $200 million in career earnings (via Basketball-Reference.com), Duncan is still driven by his love of the game and a burning desire to win. And he is still dominating the league.