Tim Duncan, a Case of Substance Over Style

David MurphyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, TX - January 2: Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the New York Knicks at the AT&T Center on January 2, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Ask your average basketball observer to describe Tim Duncan and you’ll get the most predictable of answers—he’s boring, underrated, fundamentally talented and over the hill. Only some of that is true.

Well into his 17th NBA season, Duncan keeps chugging along, averaging 15 points, 10 boards, three assists and two blocks through 45 games. His career isn’t finished yet, even though prognosticators predict his demise each and every season.

Duncan keeps proving them wrong, leading his San Antonio Spurs into the playoffs with a regularity that is predictable as the comments about his supposed lack of personality.

There’s also the four NBA Championship rings that he owns and the three NBA Finals MVP awards, along with countless other records and accomplishments. Duncan recently claimed the 786th double-double of his career, passing Bill Russell for sixth place on the all-time list.

A couple of nights later Duncan had another—23 points and 17 boards against the Sacramento Kings.

He did it his usual unassuming way, a typical Duncan matter of substance over style. You’ll get a mild fist pump here and there and his trademark bug-eyed look which serves a variety of purposes—disbelief at getting called for a foul or not getting the benefit of a foul. And then it’s back to work.  

Duncan’s so understated he doesn’t even run out of the locker room with the rest of the guys. Instead, he follows along at a fast robotic walk, eyes down like the kid who never gets picked to play.


Except, he’s got all those rings and records—and the trust of his team and the trust of his coach. Duncan just refuses to go out of his way to get noticed.

A native of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Duncan was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft, selected by the Spurs. He’s been with one team his entire career and one head coach. Their relationship combines cranky humor and genuine respect.

During the 2013 playoffs, Sam Amick, for USA Today, relayed Gregg Popovich’s categorization of his relationship with the "Big Fundamental":

“Timmy's a pain in the ass, and I'm tired of coaching him. Anybody else (have questions)? Good. Have a good day.”

And then, there’s the respect factor. During a 2013 NBA Finals press conference, Popovich was asked about Duncan’s ability to maintain his game at such a high level at such a late point in his career:

Timmy is a consummate pro, he takes great pride in fulfilling his responsibility to his teammates. He feels it very strongly. It’s just a personal character quality that he has, it’s as simple as that.

Asked whether legacy matters to Duncan, "Pop" responded as follows:

He has great respect for those who have come before him, and he loves the game. But, as far as personal accolades or legacy, it doesn’t even enter his mind. Very honestly. And that’s not disrespectful to basketball, it’s just who he is.

Duncan may have lost a step over the course of all those seasons, and all those playoffs, but he’s still a master craftsman under the glass with some of the best mechanics in the game.

He’s methodical but not cumbersome; he's a thinking player but never seems to get lost in the moment. If a defender hangs on his left shoulder, he’ll pivot for a nearly automatic hook shot or finish at the rim. And then there’s the classic Duncan bank shot off the glass—some might call it boring, but others see a fundamental purity of the game.

And then of course, there’s the matter of taking care of business at the other end of the court.

An eight-time All-Defensive First Team, Duncan has that innate ability of being in the right place at the right time, using his timing and discipline these days instead of leaping ability—tracking rebounds, blocking shots and being the last line of defense under the rim.

It’s easy to pick on the guy’s stoic manner, but there’s also a sly sense of humor that many never notice. A case in point—the sublimely deadpan and goofy commercials he and his teammates have done for the H-E-B supermarket chain in Texas. Duncan has also, never in his NBA career, tried to gain anything by throwing someone else under the bus. And that is something that can be said of few people.

The Spurs lost a heartbreaking seven-game NBA Finals series to the Miami Heat last season, and the common narrative was that they simply couldn’t come back once again—that the loss took too much out of them, that they were simply too old, too banged up.

It’s the same song year after year, and yet here they are again with the same core players and the same dogmatic attitude—led by Duncan, of course. February has arrived, and the Spurs are cruising through their annual rodeo road trip, tucked into second place in the Western Conference standings through 48 games, catching a draft and barely noticed behind the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder.

Spurs fans will moan and groan in their self-deprecating way; they can’t win the big games and will probably fade out at just the wrong time. Like an NBA version of Muhammed Ali in his later years, the Spurs loll against the ropes, marshalling strength and catching opponents and critics unaware as they come to life in a flurry of devastatingly effective counterpunches.

As far as not beating winning teams, don’t believe it—the Spurs are 18-11 against teams over .500, led of course, by Duncan—the most unnoticed 14-time All-Star of all time. 

The Spurs long-running mantra is “pounding the rock,” borrowed from the late Danish-American photo-journalist Jacob Riis. It’s the simple principal that if a stonecutter keeps pounding away, it may be the 101st blow that finally cracks the boulder. This is Duncan at his essence—the idea of being relentless, dedicated and wholly committed to a singular purpose.

Speaking of Pounding the Rock (SB Nation), check out a terrific article by Chris Itz on Duncan’s consistency, cemented by enough statistical evidence to convince any doubter.

This is a man who has dedicated himself unswervingly to his team and the game and who distances himself so determinedly from the trappings of fame. And at some point, time will have its final say, and Duncan will retire, quietly, leaving behind a fundamental body of work that may never again be duplicated.

His career has been, a case of substance over style.