Growing up in the Virgin Islands, Tim Duncan wasn''t dreaming of NBA stardom. He didn't start playing basketball competitively until the ninth grade, after a hurricane destroyed the islands' only Olympic-sized swimming pool.
When he picked up a ball as a fourteen-year old, he was a blank slate. An athletic and coordinated seven-footer without any bad habits or pre-conceived ideas on how to play the game.
** The reason why so many NBA players have awkward-looking jumpers is because they started shooting at such an early age. Five-year olds don't have the sufficient strength and hand-size to shoot a fundamentally sound jump-shot, so they power the ball towards the rim any way they can, developing bad habits that stick with them for life. **
It's easy to see where Duncan's humility and modesty come from -- basketball always came extremely easy for him. So what exactly was the big deal?
At 16, he played Alonzo Mourning (the #2 pick in the NBA Draft) to a draw.
One year later he was playing at Wake Forest. He didn't score a single basket in his first college game, something that would never happen again for the rest of his career.
During his sophomore year he led the Demon Deacons to the Sweet Sixteen and was a 3rd-team All-American. Five years after he had first picked up a basketball, Jerry West said he would be the first pick in the NBA Draft.
He stayed all four years at Wake Forest, honoring a promise he made to his mother on her deathbed. Despite facing double and triple teams his final two years, he became a two-time first-team All-American and won the Wooden Award as a senior.
Success came just as easy in the pros.
He's never missed an All-Star Game and his teams have never missed the playoffs.Tracy McGrady never made the second round, while Duncan has only missed it twice in thirteen years.
Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing, Malone, Barkley, KG, Dirk, Kobe, LeBron -- none of them won as consistently as Duncan. Not even Jordan.
** A fun hypothetical: A Tim Duncan/Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls team probably still wins six NBA titles. I doubt a MJ/Manu/Tony Parker Spurs team wins three.**
There's only one modern player who has, and unsurprisingly, he was also a seven foot colossus who dominated the interior of the paint. Shaq, a boisterous 7'0 350+ behemoth who starred in Hollywood movies, attacked the rim with ferocity and played in the biggest media fish-bowl in the NBA, was Duncan's polar opposite in almost every way.
Shaq is the only reason why Duncan isn't approaching Bill Russell numbers for titles. In his prime, the nine seasons from the ages of 22-30, Duncan's Spurs won four championships. In 2000, Duncan missed the playoffs with a knee injury. In 2006, they lost to Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks in a classic seven-game series that wasn't decided until well into OT of Game 7.
** A crazy stat: Asides from Game 2, the outcome of every single game of that series was in doubt with 0:00 left on the clock in regulation. **
The other four times, Duncan lost to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Basically, unless you had a Hall of Fame seven-footer of your own, you were not beating Tim Duncan in the playoffs.
When he won his fourth ring in 2007, he became the first player since Bill Russell to win a championship with the same franchise but with an entirely different supporting cast around him. The Spurs have won 50 or more games, the mark of a good team, every single year of his career, all the while steadily transitioning from the Duncan/Robinson era to the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker era.
In 2003, he won a title with a supporting cast of a 20-year old Tony Parker, a 37-year old David Robinson, Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose and a 25-year old Manu Ginobili (who averaged only 7.6 points a game that season).
That season, they defeated the three-time defending champion Lakers in the second round and the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. On the perimeter, the Mavericks had two future MVP's (Dirk and Nash), and two All-Stars (Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel). But they had Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz trying to guard Tim Duncan. And nothing else really mattered.
When a 6'11 260 center has a complete low-post game, there’s not much a defender can do to stop him. Duncan is strong enough to establish position close to the basket and quick enough to create an easy passing angle for a lob if his defender over-plays him. And since he can score over both shoulders, they can’t cheat him on either side and force him to go one way.
The only defense against a great low-post game is a double-team. But at seven feet tall, Duncan can see over the defenders, and find the open man on the perimeter.
** This is why a “stretch 4” – a power forward who can consistently shoot three-pointers – is so valuable next to a low-post scorer. With four guys stationed along the three-point line, it’s really easy for the center to see where the double team is coming from. Robert Horry won seven championships playing that role for Hakeem, Shaq and Duncan. **
But for all his offensive production – with career averages of 20.5 points / 11.5 rebounds / 3.2 assists on 51% shooting and a PER of 24.9 – Duncan’s real value was on the defensive end. He had the strength to defend low-post scorers, the quickness to hedge on the pick and roll, and most importantly, the basketball IQ to “quarterback” the defense from the paint.
** Duncan has the eighth highest career PER of all time. While not as awesome a statistic as ESPN's John Hollinger (who invented the formula) pretends, PER does have its uses. By adjusting for the pace a player's team was on (since a guy who played for Mike D'Antoni his entire career would have more points than one who played for Jeff Van Gundy) and his contributions relative to the rest of the league (the '00's were a much higher scoring decade than the 90's because the NBA eliminated defenders ability to hand-check in the middle of the decade), it's a better way of comparing players across eras than raw stats. **
A basketball team with Tim Duncan is like a football team having both Peyton Manning and Ed Reed. Duncan was one of the rare players who dominated the game on both sides of the ball.
** The two current players who come the closest to matching Duncan’s impact are LeBron James (when he’s playing the power forward position) and Dwight Howard (who is far from a finished product offensively). It’s no surprise that James' and Howard’s teams have gotten out of the first round each of the last three years. **
Defense is more a matter of physical ability than offense, so as they age, players lose their defensive abilities first. There are a lot of 34-year old QB’s; there aren’t many 34-year old safeties. While Duncan can still score, pass and rebound, the days of him blocking high flyers at the rim and switching on the pick-and-roll have come and gone.
It’s not a coincidence that the Spurs have become better offensively and worse defensively as Duncan has gotten older. Duncan, at 34, is more Dirk Nowitzki than Dwight Howard these days. And just like Dirk, he needs an athletic big man to have his back.
The addition of Tyson Chandler, a 7’1 235 center with springs for legs, has made Dallas a legitimate threat to the Lakers’ unprecedented run of dominance in the West. The Spurs will need to make a similar move if they want to return to the NBA Finals.
They are on pace to win 64 games, the most in the NBA. But just as the ’07 Spurs weren’t concerned about the ’07 Mavs 67-win regular season, teams like Dallas, LA and Boston, with athletic seven-footers who can anchor their defense, aren’t that concerned with San Antonio’s ability to out-score the Golden State’s and the Minnesota’s of the world.
The good news for San Antonio is that great big men can be effective well into their late 30's, and Duncan is still in excellent shape: Rasheed Wallace he is not. Shaq is the oldest player in the NBA, despite playing at a weight far over his listed 325 pounds. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Karl Malone each averaged about 15 points a game for NBA Finals teams at the age of 40.
Duncan will be able to play as long as he wants too, and as long as the Spurs have one of the ten greatest players in the history of the NBA, they will be a team to be reckoned with.