Tim Duncan is in the business of turning questions demanding subjective answers into matters of fact.
Does he have the fairest half-smile of them all?
So, um, yeah. What else is there to talk about?
Seventeen years and five titles deep into his career, Duncan could have walked away, quitting while he was ahead, saving us from the realization that he's making formalities out of usually contentious debates.
Instead of leaving, Duncan is coming back:
Confetti didn't mark his return. His decision was quiet, understated and predictable—just like him. But it reminded us there's still room for deliberation within that credential-crammed legacy of his, so long as we're asking the right question.
Is Duncan a top-10 player of all time?
All Timmy D arguments aren't created equal, but they start in the same place: his hand.
Right or left. Pick your poison. Duncan has five championship rings and thus the ability to tweet like Phil Jackson (provided he's only using one hand).
Five championships is a lot. Only 25 other players in NBA history won five titles during their careers. Fifteen of them are Hall of Famers. Just two of them amassed more win shares than Duncan—Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Only one of them has more career playoff win shares than Duncan (Jordan).
This is not a drill. This is for real.
Championships matter in these arguments. They aren't deathblows to discussions or conversation-clinchers, but they matter.
“It's amazing to think about having done this five times,” Duncan said, 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.”
That Duncan has five rings matters.
That he'll be chasing No. 6 next season matters, and, in foresight, strengthens and advances a colloquy we would be having any way.
Softly Sensational Statistics
When thinking about Duncan, a number of different things spring to mind.
Stoicism. Crazy eyes. Selflessness. Bank shots. The fashion sense of a 47-year-old father of three who owns neither a mirror nor an iron and shops exclusively at Costco and yard sales.
What your mind isn't immediately drawn to is statistical dominance. There is a quiet brilliance to Duncan. You (should) know that he's produced stellar stat lines for his entire career, but is there anything about him that's truly historical?
Pretend that's not a question, because it isn't.
The Big Fundamental/Blank-Faced Behemoth boasts career per-game averages of 19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.2 blocks, which both stand out and have the potential to go over heads.
Maybe his career line would receive more attention if he eclipsed that 20-point plateau. Or if he rebounded for his entire NBA tenure like Kevin Love does now. Whatever the reason, the significance of Duncan's sustained production is inadvertently glossed over.
Here on out, this must be forever known as cardinal (basketball) sin.
One other player maintained averages of at least 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks for his entire career. That's it. Just one. And it's Abdul-Jabbar.
Nothing can be disregarded there, nor can we overlook Duncan's dove-like twilight years. That's part of this argument. Players who stick around too long are looked down upon; their legacies, however slight, are tarnished.
Can we all honestly say our perceptions of legends like Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon aren't partially skewed after watching them try to eek out an extra year or two while playing below individual standards? They are all-time greats—Jordan is the greatest of all time—but a confirmation bias exists when twilights are extended too far.
Duncan has skillfully avoided this. Attribute it to San Antonio's depth or coach Gregg Popovich's ingenuity if you like. There isn't a sense that Duncan—even now, when he has the opportunity to walk away on top—is sticking around too long.
This past season was nothing if not absolute proof. Duncan registered a modest 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, three assists and 1.9 blocks per game. But in doing so, he became the first player in league history to reach said benchmarks while logging under 30 minutes a night. He himself held the previous record, accomplishing the same feat during 2009-10 in 31.3 ticks per game.
Big Tim is 38, by the way. Don't forget that. Thirty-somethings on the verge of becoming 40-somethings aren't supposed to make such dynamic history.
Not even Pop had a definitive response when asked about Duncan's logic-defying, time-thwarting heroics by McDonald:
You’re asking me questions that are hard to answer. I just have to give him credit.
And I think that he’s just a mentally tough individual who really feels the responsibility to help carry the program. He really loves being at practice, in the locker room, with the guys. I think he wants to extend that as long as he can. So it’s the mental toughness that he’s driven to do that. I think all those things together allow him to play at this age on one leg.
Single-season records aren't absolute measuring sticks in the scheme of things, but they add up. All these individual accolades mean something when thrown together.
There are, of course, fatal flaws to this type of analysis. Production varies by position. Certain categories are weighted more heavily than others. Rebounds for big men, assists for point guards, etc.
Measuring Duncan's impact across history and every position becomes more meaningful when factoring in other metrics, like player efficiency rating and win shares. Standing that test means more—especially for Duncan, who passes with flying colors and, obviously, a stone-faced frown.
Take a look at where Duncan ranks all time in win shares:
Why, yes, that is Duncan checking in at No. 6...of every player ever.
Looking at his standing in certain categories gets a little ridiculous. He appears near the top of relevant statistical departments frequently, from the regular season to the postseason.
|Timmy D's Historical Totals|
|Regular Season Rank||19||11||7||6||13|
Complete and utter historical dominance.
Making Sense of It All
Greatest-of-all-time conversations are dangerous to traverse.
Subjectivity dictates their direction. Rarely is one specific ranking universally agreed upon. Most of the time, there are debates to be had even when attempting to forecast historical range, like we're doing here.
Such is the risk of having these treacherous yet necessary discussions. Production and championships mean only so much. There are other things to look at, to value.
Does Duncan's one-team reign count for something? Absolutely. Not necessarily in the sense that he never left, but in a way that rewards him for how good the Spurs have been over the last 17 years—making the playoffs every season, winning five championships, forging a dynasty.
And yeah, that he stayed by his own hand means something too, as Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher didn't hesitate to acknowledge during the NBA Finals:
Those are the people who believe that results are not everything, that the choices made to achieve them are just as important. They do not believe the ends justify the means. Those are the people who'd like to see Duncan rewarded one more time for his loyalty.
Maybe that's why it feels as if something larger is at stake than a mere title.
With so much about this up for interpretation, a requisite ingredient is some semblance of commonality; you must first answer another question.
Can you start this dialogue without reaching?
In Duncan's case, the answer is a wholehearted, unchallenged yes. He can be compared and pitted against anyone without inciting laughter, sordid responses and flagrant rejection.
Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation even felt comfortable arguing that he's a top-five player of all time, and while you can disagree, he—after an extensive analysis—made an astute observation:
As we can see, all-time rankings are a fickle, subjective thing. But given his combination of peak play, longevity, intangibles and accolades, Duncan compares favorably with just about any player in history. And depending on what you value and how the debate is framed, he surpasses all but a precious few.
Accept McCarney's premise as further proof. He made a case for Duncan as a top-five player. That happened. And it had grounds to happen, leading us down an already brightly lit path that ends with one, non-subjective conclusion: Asking whether Duncan ranks among the top 10 players ever is rapidly becoming an antiquated inquest.
Start pondering something else—Is he top seven? Top five?—because he's officially withstood this test, and his legacy, tried and true, is now up for a greater, more subjective challenge.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.