As The Big Fundamental attempts to win his fifth championship with the San Antonio Spurs, his historical standing is inching closer and closer to indisputable.
To be clear, there already exists a widespread belief that Duncan is undeniably the best power forward to have ever played the game, which I agree with.
There hasn't been anyone better than Duncan at his position. Call him a power forward often turned center if you must, it doesn't change anything. He's simply the best there ever was at the 4 and there's not much more he can do to prove it, aside from winning a fifth title.
Nothing Duncan accomplishes now should surprise us. The backboard-abusing big man has been playing at a high level for nearly two decades and has distinguished himself from the rest of the power forward ranks more than most realize.
Aside from four championship rings, Duncan was named the 1998 NBA Rookie of the Year, selected to 14 All-Star teams, made 14 All-Defensive and All-NBA teams and named league MVP twice and Finals MVP three times. He and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are also the only players in NBA history to have registered at least 23,000 points, 13,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 2,500 blocks.
All that is enough for Duncan to stake claim as the greatest power forward of all time. It's more than enough.
Still, a select few wouldn't hesitate to toss Karl Malone's name into the conversation. Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Elvin Hayes will find their way into the discussion as well. And people will listen, all the while knowing that, really, it's Duncan.
One more Spurs victory and there really will be only Duncan.
His standing in NBA history among power forwards won't be a source of debate.
Duncan already has more championships than Malone, Barkley, Nowitzki, Garnett and Hayes combined (three). A fifth only puts more distance between he and them.
Suddenly Kevin McHale's three rings would seem that much less impressive. Garnett, Nowitzki and Hayes' one seem diminutive and Malone and Barkley's empty fingers appear more noticeable than ever. His five would put some of them to shame.
Of course, championships aren't the sole accolade that makes the player. Professional athletes are measured against how many they've won, but other achievements come into play.
Barkley and Malone made it into the Hall of Fame without a championship, so greatness without rings is possible. They're not a necessity. They're a distinction, a means to separate yourself from players who are legends. They immortalize.
Sixteen years in, that's all Duncan is playing for at this point. He's done everything else you could imagine and is a first-ballot Hall of Fame lock. All that's left is for him to cap off an incredible career with another ring, then any feeble-minded debate can be put to bed, ushering another one in.
Winning a fifth ring essentially removes Duncan from the company of his fellow power forwards and into a ring of fire that includes Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, among others.
They all have at least five rings and are the modern-day standard for individual excellence. Securing a fifth of his own puts him in that conversation, where he won't be measured against other power forwards exclusively, but rather the greatest players to have ever played.
I paint no delusional picture of a Duncan who will be considered the best player to have ever laced up a pair of basketball kicks. I know he's not the absolute best.
But is he a top-5 player? Top 10? Top 20? Those are the arguments that will ensue if this season culminates in a fifth championship.
Forget Malone, Garnett and Barkley, Duncan will find his name being mentioned in the same breath—perhaps even before—Shaquille O'Neal, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kareem, Magic and Jordan.
One victory and he'll become a more prominent topic in a discussion he's already a part of. Meanwhile, the likes of Malone, Barkley and other revered power forwards will be but faraway echoes.
They'll still be masters of their craft, some of the greatest at their to position and to ever play in the NBA. That much won't change. They just won't have anything on a five-ringed Duncan, who is on the verge of standing alone.
Completely and utterly alone.
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