Five NBA titles later, Tim Duncan is still quiet as ever, preferring to score, rebound, defend and dominate in peace, the occasional crazy eyes and half-smile remaining the only evidence that he feels at all.
Five NBA titles later, Kobe Bryant's ubiquitous hold over the league is alive and well, his contentious status a hallmark even in injury, despite his hard, stone-cold demeanor having softened with time and perspective.
There aren't two superstars in the NBA more different than Bryant and Duncan. One feeds off the bright lights his Los Angeles Lakers provide, the other thrives where the limelight doesn't shine with the San Antonio Spurs.
Both have been chasing the same thing, though: Basketball immortality.
Bryant is acutely aware of it and has been for some time. Winning championships is what drives him; distinguishing himself from everyone else is what pushes him further.
Duncan, meanwhile, has simply stumbled upon it. There is a certain inadvertence to his legacy, like his inclusion in these discussions is the accidental offshoot of just wanting to win without drawing attention himself.
Seventeen seasons into his career, there is no more hiding. After spending years involuntarily chasing and joining Bryant's company, Duncan may have surpassed him with his fifth title, rendering himself the unequivocal king of a fleeting generation.
Rings and Things
If there's anything that fails to separate Bryant and Duncan enough for us to roll with one over the other, it's their individual and team accolades.
The number of awards and hardware belonging to each player is strikingly similar. Both have five championships to their name, though Duncan does edge out Bryant once we factor in league and Finals MVPs:
Perhaps an extra couple of MVP awards is enough of a difference for some. But when Bryant led Duncan in rings, it shouldn't have been seen as an achievement that dwarfed his status. This is the same thing.
More of the same is found in their All-NBA and All-Defensive Team selections. Bryant has 27 of those combined to Duncan's 28, which is, well, absolutely absurd.
Maybe you see Duncan's Rookie of the Year award as a conversation-changer. Or maybe you see Bryant's four All-Star MVPs as further evidence of his ability and penchant to stand out among the league's best.
Whatever you see, it doesn't create a noticeable edge.
For every extra trophy or ring or intangible honor one has, the other comes right back with an advantage of his own somewhere else. It's madness. And it forces us to dig deeper.
Look at the numbers of both Bryant and Duncan and they tell you one thing: These dudes know how to ball.
How's that for analysis?
Not good enough?
Up until this season, Bryant's statistical output received far more attention than Duncan's. Part of this will always be attributed to market contrast, but Bryant has also drawn countless comparisons to Michael Jordan, placing more of an emphasis on his career-long productivity.
After you factor in Bryant's six-game, transition-ridden 2013-14 campaign, he's still averaging 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game for his career. Not many others can say the same. Or even close to the same.
Only three other players in NBA history have maintained career averages of at least 25 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals—Jerry West, LeBron James and Jordan, or two Hall of Famers and a present-day, world-dominating all-time great.
Eclipsing the 30,000-point plateau has also helped immortalize Bryant in ways most talents can only dream about. Five players in league history have tallied at least 30,000 career points, and Bryant ranks fourth overall with 31,700, behind only Michael Jordan (32,292), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).
By the time he retires, Bryant should rank third at worst, health-permitting. And by exceeding 30,000 points, Bryant has left himself as the lone player to rattle off at least 5,900 assists in addition to his point totals.
Standing out on offense sparks more interest. It just does. The NBA is a scorer's league and has been for decades. Even when rough-and-tough enforcers like Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason were touted for their physicality, and even when the pace of play crawled along, it was still the superstar scorers who took center stage.
Timmy D has been put at a disadvantage there. He's never been someone who will frequently attempt 20 shots per game. His offensive rapport was poetic in its traditionalism and efficiency. And he could score with the best.
But as time wore on, San Antonio's system changed, because the league changed.
Consider what Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote on the Spurs' sustained excellence:
The Spurs were quick to understand the impact of the two major rule changes of the last decade: the crackdown in handchecking after 2004, and the elimination of the old illegal-defense rules. The handcheck ban would free up offensive players to penetrate and kick. On the other end, coaches would use zone-style trickery to squeeze the floor and clog the lane.
Shooting and passing would become paramount. The handcheck ban would enable those things. Sophisticated zone-style defenses would be impossible to beat without them.
Adapting to a faster pace and modernized rules didn't leave room for riding post-ups or implementing offensive philosophies that pound the ball down low. So the Spurs found a different way to pound the rock—by moving it, fast and furiously, exploiting defenses with vast amounts of slashes and pick-and-rolls and spot-up shooting.
Duncan himself has been forced to adjust. Post-ups are not only a smaller part of his offensive repertoire, but he's added an outside jumper. While valuable in theory, it's excluded him from commanding the same attention on offense as Bryant.
Big men aren't supposed to shoot jumpers as often as point guards and swingmen. Leave shooting to the shooters, scoring to the scorers. You towers do the occasional dirty work down low.
In more ways than one, Duncan has—of course, quietly—picked apart this notion, turned it inside out and made it his own. He isn't renowned for his offense the way Bryant is, but he's been one of the best at his position, and his two-way prowess stands out more than his counterpart's.
Career averages of 19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 blocks have a modest feel to them, probably because he doesn't crack that 20-point mark many of us are naturally drawn toward. But make no mistake, these numbers aren't modest.
There is only one other player who has ever matched Duncan's per-game production—Abdul-Jabbar. That's it. No one else. Abdul-Jabbar is also the only other player to amass at least 24,900 points, 13,900 rebounds, 3,800 assists and 2,700 blocks.
This is what Duncan has done at a time when the league put a premium on players unlike himself. It doesn't diminish what Bryant has accomplished, but it certainly makes Duncan's track record that much more impressive.
Especially during the playoffs.
Following his 2014 expedition, Duncan now ranks second all time in playoff win shares (36.2)—behind only Michael Jordan (39.8)—and seventh in player efficiency rating (24.6) among those who have appeared in at least 25 postseason contests. Bryant checks in at eighth (28.3) and 23rd (22.4), respectively.
Regular-season numbers tell a similar story. Duncan ranks 13th all time in PER (24.6) among players who have played in at least 25 regular-season outings. Bryant is 21st (23.4). The difference in win shares is even more drastic.
Here's a look at the players who have accumulated the most since Bryant entered the league in 1996:
Most of the arguments between Duncan and Bryant are close. This one isn't. The Big Fundamental's 191.6 win shares rank sixth all time, while Bryant's 173 come in at 14th.
There's really nothing else to say.
Deciding Between Two Greats
Debates like this are difficult and seem unfair, but they're going to be had, so we may as well indulge them when appropriate.
Bryant and Duncan are the two greatest players of their generation. There is no room for discussion. No one is going to touch them. Not even Kevin Garnett.
In a field of two, they stand alone, together.
Narrow it down to one, and it's Duncan who stands completely alone.
Certain people will sneer. They will laugh. They will ignore this entirely.
They will argue differently.
Hasn't Bryant's case been adversely impacted by the last two years? By his own, unexpected mortality?
Indeed. That's why we're here, honoring Duncan as their generation's greatest star.
Look at the maintained dominance of the Spurs. Bryant's Lakers don't have that to hang their hat on. Yes, Bryant has won back-to-back titles twice and successfully completed a three-peat, two things Duncan has never done.
But Duncan has been more of a chameleon than Bryant, in that he's constantly been tasked with undergoing unprovoked changed. He has played fewer minutes, sacrificed money, played the mentor to youngsters—things that Bryant has never done or only started doing, as Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb explained:
It's not so much that Duncan's been a better leader than Bryant. It's just that he's done things that Bryant probably would have scoffed at doing.
He's taken a backseat when he was still more than capable of scoring 20-plus points per game. He's rejected the spotlight, evaded the fame.
Successful as Bryant's Lakers have been—especially when dominant bigs like Shaq were around—Duncan's willingness to eschew the big numbers and larger-than-life persona have been uniquely key to keeping the Spurs at a certain level of success year in and year out.
Trade demands never loomed heavy over San Antonio. The Spurs were never coerced into entering an abrupt, untimely rebuilding period because Duncan wasn't happy playing with David Robinson or Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Eluding the spotlight has helped make him great. Embracing the shadows within which he and the Spurs have played under has made him one of the greatest.
Much of what we know about Bryant is the result of fame. He has earned every bit of praise hurled his way. Rings and stats speak for themselves, regardless of how much controversy they're accompanied by. And there is no discrediting or demeaning Bryant's accomplishments. Duncan has merely put himself in a slightly different class.
This is a conversation we've been able to have for more than five years, yet it's only started to pick up steam in recent seasons. Exposure has something to do with it, as does Bryant's polarizing on- and off-court persona.
Duncan's brilliant stoicism takes care of the rest.
“It's amazing to think about having done this five times,” Duncan said after winning his fifth title, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. “The kind of company I'm in...it's just an amazing blessing, and it's not to be taken lightly.”
It's not to be taken lightly at all. His fifth title weighs heavily, because it further compels us to advance a conversation that should have taken place and been decided even before now.
Duncan may not be the face of his generation, but he, quiet and humble as ever, is its greatest product.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise cited.