Tim Duncan is already a basketball legend.
Heading into the 2014 NBA Finals, he's widely viewed as one of the greatest players in the history of this sport. He earns accolades like "best power forward of all time" and "future Hall of Famer" on a daily basis, and those statements go largely unquestioned.
Sure, Karl Malone might have something to say about the former designation, but he really doesn't have much of an argument.
Duncan, along with Kobe Bryant, stands out as the absolute cream of the crop for the generation that came after Michael Jordan and before LeBron James and Kevin Durant took over the league. That's an accomplishment in itself.
Beating the Miami Heat and earning redemption for last season's disappointing outcome would be the icing atop a wonderful career. But would losing put a damper on his legacy?
If the Heat were able to prevail against the Spurs for the second year in a row—whether it's in four games or seven—would that actually change how we think about the man affectionately known as "The Big Fundamental" throughout his career?
A Huge Number of Achievements
Let's say the big man chooses to retire after this final series draws to a conclusion. Whether the San Antonio Spurs are victorious or not, it's a distinct possibility, though the NBA would be a much darker place without his effervescent personality consistent excellence.
If he did so, he'd already have quite the laundry list of things to brag about, not that the ever-humble Duncan would actually choose to boast in a public forum.
Career averages of 19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 blocks per game. Four championships (1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007). A Rookie of the Year trophy. Two regular-season MVPs and three Finals MVPs. Fourteen All-Star appearances, All-NBA selections and All-Defensive nominations.
That's a pretty insane collection already, even if a fifth title would be rather nice to add to the collection.
One of my personal favorite ways of looking at a legacy—among the methods that can be encapsulated in a single number—is MVP award shares. Instead of a winner-takes-all approach to the premier individual honor, it gives each player a portion of the award based on the percentage of the possible voting points he earned.
Here's the top 10 of all time, per Basketball-Reference.com:
- Michael Jordan, 8.138
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 6.203
- LeBron James, 6.100
- Larry Bird, 5.693
- Magic Johnson, 5.129
- Bill Russell, 4.827
- Shaquille O'Neal, 4.380
- Karl Malone, 4.296
- Tim Duncan, 4.278
- Wilt Chamberlain, 4.269
Granted, there are plenty of inherent flaws in this process, primarily that it's subjective and based entirely off MVP voting, which can sometimes see ballots that border on nonsensical. Hell, some are nonsensical.
Nonetheless, it's a nice approximation of a place in history, and it should say something that Duncan is right in the mix with all the other legends.
In addition to that, the sheer quantity of the statistics he's amassed over the years are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Only 18 players in NBA history have scored more points throughout a career. He sits at No. 11 on the all-time rebounding list, and only Malone and Kevin Garnett have pulled down more boards on the defensive end of the court. Just six players have blocked more shots, though Duncan's always seemed to lead to transition points.
And how about his postseason numbers?
He ranks No. 5, No. 3 and No. 1 in playoff scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking, respectively. That, in a nutshell, is a nice legacy.
Then again, it's also a strange legacy.
Strange Type of Legacy
When I think of Duncan, I don't immediately think of unsurpassed levels of dominance; I immediately conjure up images of excellent play that stretches over well more than just a decade. I don't think about rings (even though he has four); I think about years of making the right basketball play, one that puts his team in the best position to win.
Kobe's legacy involves his ridiculous peak, one that left him as the clear-cut No. 1 player in basketball thanks to his scoring prowess and penchant for making ridiculous shots look easy. Michael Jordan was always going to step up in those big moments, hence the six rings. Not that he was too shabby in the small ones.
LeBron's versatility made him—rather easily—the best player in basketball over the last few years. Durant simply can't be stopped as a scorer.
But Duncan? He's just always good while laboring away in the background.
As Jimmy Spencer wrote for Bleacher Report after the 2013 Finals:
Duncan is an underwhelming superstar only because he never stirred the pot, he never switched teams and he never provided memorable sound bites. He rarely lit up the scoreboard in incomprehensible ways nor did he fill a highlight reel.
His trademark of kissing tough bank shots from the perimeter isn’t as marketable as a powerful dunk or swift handles.
Even though he has four titles on his mantle, Duncan's legacy has never been about rings. Even though he's won MVP twice in his storied career, his excellence has never stemmed from being the absolute top dog in the NBA.
It's consistent excellence.
Now, let's play a game.
I'm going to give you Duncan's per-36-minute numbers from one of his many incredible seasons, and you're going to tell me which year it was. If you want to make things even easier, you can guess either the early portion of his career (1997-2003), the middle portion (2004-09) or the late portion (2010-present):
Here's the answer key:
- Candidate 1 is from 2012-13 (late).
- Candidate 2 is from 2002-03 (early).
- Candidate 3 is from 1999-00 (early).
- Candidate 4 is from 2006-07 (middle).
- Candidate 5 is from 2013-14 (late).
Honestly, there's no way to tell unless you're either cheating or have memorized Duncan's exact numbers for some strange reason. He's maintained his per-minute performance throughout his career with relatively little variation in any one category.
That's what is most impressive about Duncan, and it's why his legacy is safe even if he's unable to fill up a hand with rings by the time he's done with this latest clash against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the two-time defending champions.
Let's also be clear the back-to-back element is ultimately irrelevant. If anything, it helps Duncan out because both losses would occur in the twilight of his career. But in terms of legacy, it doesn't matter if Duncan lost once early in his career and then once at the very end.
Two losses are two losses.
Ultimately, another failure wouldn't put any sort of damper on the way Duncan is remembered.
He isn't that premier superstar at the top of his game (sorry, LeBron), nor was he last year during the first Finals loss he's suffered in his career. The pressure is on only because he can add to the legacy, not because he has a chance of detracting from it.
But don't tell Duncan that.
Would a loss hurt Duncan's legacy?
"We're happy to have another opportunity at it," the soft-spoken big man claimed during his interview after the Western Conference Finals, via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "We're happy it's the Heat again."
It was a rare bit of braggadocio from Duncan, but it shows just how much this next series means to the 38-year-old basketball cyborg.
Fortunately, he's just playing with house money. And there's a good chance he wins.