Love him, hate him, worship him or despise him, the Black Mamba is considered the best of his generation. Five championships, 15 All-Star selections and an unfettered ego have left him at the top.
Depicted as inefficient and even selfish, Kobe has been the standard to which all greatness has been held for the better part of two decades—and not just for his generation of players. He continues to garner comparisons to Michael Jordan, and there exists an innate need for us to pit him against LeBron James and anyone else the NBA considers spectacular. Kobe is timeless.
But so is Duncan.
Quiet as ever, the 37-year-old Duncan has proven ageless. The two-time MVP and 14-time All-Star was one of just four players from the 1997 NBA draft who finished the 2012-13 season on an NBA roster—along with Tracy McGrady, Chauncey Billups and Stephen Jackson, none of whom have been able to be as relevant or remain as consistently productive as he has.
His San Antonio Spurs have been a constant fixture in the NBA's title race, and he has procured four championship rings and is now positioning himself for a fifth—which would pull him even with Kobe in the title department.
San Antonio has put the Memphis Grizzlies in what has thus far been an impossible situation. Up 3-0, the Spurs are one victory away from their fifth finals appearance of Duncan's career. Timmy hasn't just aided the cause—he's spearheaded it.
Duncan comes off a regular season that saw him make history. With averages of 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game on 50.2 percent shooting, he became just the sixth player in league history over the age of 30 to sustain such marks for an entire year. He and Hakeem Olajuwon are also the only players to post said averages after their 35th birthdays.
The playoffs have seen much of the same, only more so. Duncan is now the only player in NBA history to average at least 18 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest through 10 or more postseason bouts at the age of 35 or older.
Joining the ranks of greatness or creating his own place in the record books is nothing new. Duncan has spoiled San Antonio and the Association in general for 16 years. Still, the notion of him as the best superstar of his era isn't exactly a fluid concept.
Along with Kobe, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett, among a select few others, few have been exalted in this regard. Duncan has been considered, but never hailed as the definitive answer. Securing a fifth title changes things.
Should Duncan snag the fifth championship of his career, he'll join the most exclusive of clubs. Only 25 players have ever acquired five rings.
To obtain that fifth title, Duncan will also have to remain undefeated in the finals. He's 4-0 in the championship round since joining the NBA. It took Kobe seven finals appearances to bring in his fifth ring.
That isn't a knock on Kobe by any means. Seven finals berths in 17 years is incredible. He's spent nearly half his career (41 percent) playing his way to within victories of championships. Duncan has been right there, though. When he's made it to the finals, he's been perfect. And to get a fifth, he'll have to stay perfect.
"This is a special run for me," Duncan explained to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports. "I really want to get this one done. I really want to get back to the Finals. I want to win another championship."
It's special because it means attaining what few believed the Spurs as a whole were capable of still attaining. And yeah, it's special because it will help us reevaluate the triumphs of an already preeminent talent.
That fifth ring alone doesn't determine anything. Rather, it's a vessel that allows the rest of Duncan's resume to speak for itself. Sixteen years into his career, the Big Fundamental has used more than championships to distinguish himself from the rest.
As it stands, Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only two players in NBA history to total at least 23,000 points, 13,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 2,500 blocks for their careers. Per Marc Spears, Duncan is now second in career playoff double-doubles (144) and sixth on the all-time playoff scoring list. He's also the only player to register 500 total blocks in the postseason.
Duncan has already solidified his status as a legend. What he's doing now is toiling with basketball immortality.
More so than Shaq? Or Garnett? Or even Kobe?
Let's answer that with another question: Why not?
If Duncan doesn't already have the personal accolades necessary to justify placement ahead of each of the previous three, a fifth title sure puts him right there. He's already joined statistical ranks that they haven't (or couldn't), and he's compiled more career win shares (184.2) than Shaq (181.7) and Kobe (173.3), and just three fewer than Garnett (187.2).
Stats will tell us he's comparable. Most narratives won't.
Perhaps, because he's never sought the shelter of a better situation or been in possession of the ardent ego many of his peers have, he's been passed over. Maybe, he's been too damn quiet (not boring) to command the attention that others have. Perhaps, he's just too Tim Duncan to be heralded as the greatest player of his era.
That logic seems irrational because it is. Duncan has accomplished more than enough to become a part of the conversation. But because he's been passively immaculate—and yes, because Kobe has more rings—our perception of his standing is skewed.
"The greatest power forward of all time," Billups said.
Few would hesitate to deem Duncan one of the best of his generation or one of the best this game has ever seen. Those who don't have failed to understand how astounding he's been for so long.
Who is the greatest player of Tim Duncan's generation?
Even fewer, however, are prepared to attach "best" to his name the way Billups did. Not so long as Kobe is Kobe and has more rings. And not so long as Shaq is mentioned in the same breath.
A fifth ring changes this. It changes everything by bringing further credence to a superstar who, in so many ways, is overlooked.
"I never felt anything was promised," Duncan said.
Five championships doesn't guarantee he'll be held in a higher regard than Kobe (or Shaq), but it does promise to make him a more prominent component of a conversation he should've always been a part of.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.