San Antonio Spurs: Is Tim Duncan the Greatest Power Forward of All Time?

Andy HuSenior Writer IIFebruary 5, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 03:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs plays against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 3, 2013 in New York City. 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. The Knicks defeated the Spurs 100-83.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tim Duncan isn't the fanciest or flashiest player in the league and has never garnered the attention he rightfully deserves, even during the San Antonio Spurs' championship years. When Duncan fell off in the past couple of years and his team suffered playoff collapses, he was never even considered as one of the best power forwards in the league.

However, in the eyes of current players and former superstars alike, Duncan is recognized as the greatest power forward in NBA history.

Nobody is questioning Duncan's motivation and will to win—as evidenced by the four championships under his belt—but championships are team awards, not individual player awards. 

Let's take a detailed look at the career statistics of some of the most decorated power forwards in league history (all stats are from Basketball Reference).



Tim Duncan 20.2 11.2 3.1 2.2 24.8 .214
Karl Malone 25.0 10.1 3.6 0.8 23.9 .204
Charles Barkley 22.1 11.7 3.9 0.8 24.6 .216
Kevin Garnett 19.2 10.5 4.0 1.5 23.2 .189
Dirk Nowitzki 22.7 8.2 2.6 1.0 23.5 .210

If anyone takes a close look at the career statistics to find out who the best power forward is, he won't accomplish much.

But there's no better way to start an analysis of an individual player's career contributions than by studying the numbers.


Karl Malone leads all five power forwards on the list with an exceptional career 25.0 PPG. He is arguably the best scorer at his position because of his superb strength, control and finishing ability. In his prime, Malone was a physical specimen who brought the term "working out" in the NBA to a whole new level.

Even though Malone averaged the most points, Dirk Nowitzki is probably the most versatile scoring power forward in history. Nowitzki has unlimited range and can score from anywhere on the floor. His tremendous 7'0" embodiment and guard-like skills make him virtually impossible to guard.

In terms of scoring ability, Duncan possesses a wide array of interior post moves with exceptional footwork skills. He and Kevin Garnett are probably the most skilled power forwards down in the low post, while Malone and Charles Barkley relied primarily on toughness and sheer strength.


At a quick glance, Barkley holds a slight edge in career rebounds per game.

However, Duncan maintains the edge over Barkley in total rebounding rate (18.5 versus 18.2), which calculates the percentage of all rebounds a player grabs while he's on the floor. 

Duncan maintained his success as a great rebounder primarily because of his ability to position his body and his knack for maneuvering around opponents.

Barkley, on the other hand, was incredibly undersized for his position, so it's even more amazing that he was able to corral so many rebounds in his career. One can make the case that Barkley would be a much better rebounder than Duncan if he were nearly seven feet tall too, but it's subjective.


Garnett, Malone and Barkley were all better passers than Duncan, but it's not like it's a huge gap that makes those three better overall players. Duncan definitely has great court vision, but I wouldn't give up the ball either if I were that good in the low post.

Out of everyone on the list, Garnett is probably the best passer. He was even called upon to play point forward and be the team's primary ball-handler with the Minnesota Timberwolves when Sam Cassell suffered various injuries in the 2004-05 season.

Overall, Duncan is probably in the upper tier when it comes to great passing big men, but I wouldn't put him ahead of the three aforementioned power forwards whose passing ability made it hard for opposing teams to game plan against them.


Blocks and steals aren't a good way to determine a player's defensive prowess, but it should be noted that Duncan's blocks per game average is way beyond that of any other power forward up there.

In terms of post defense, Duncan is undoubtedly number one. 

However, Garnett's versatility on defense would probably label him as a better all-around defender than Duncan. His long arms and quickness, particularly during his prime, allowed him to frequently shut down quicker forwards and even guards.

But being the traditional power forward that Duncan is, his game never really extended too far beyond the paint. He's still a decent defender on the perimeter, but he is and was nowhere near as effective as Garnett.


Duncan is just as efficient as every other great power forward. In fact, his career 24.8 PER ranks him ahead of every power forward in NBA history.

He also happens to yield the second-most win shares per 48 minutes, trailing only the triumphant Barkley.

Duncan's efficient production while he's on the floor makes him the biggest game-changer out of everyone else. It never has been about volume scoring or careless play for the Big Fundamental. Granted, all of those premier power forwards register exceptional efficiency ratings as well.

Everyone on the list is rather efficient and is separated by less than two points, but Duncan's PER just trumps them all.


From what a common fan observes, Duncan is probably the quietest, most reserved superstar that the league has ever seen.

In inner circles, however, the team and coaches know that Duncan is a great leader and locker room presence. His leadership on the court isn't as fierce or melodramatic when compared to the likes of Malone, Garnett or Barkley, but he leads by example.

Duncan's not the most emotional player on the court, and he doesn't display the kind of intensity that would raise the playing level of his teammates or collect technical fouls. Funny enough, he received some of the more controversial technical fouls ever.

The Rings

I know, I've mentioned earlier that championships aren't necessarily individual achievements.

But the fact is, Duncan would not be considered the greatest power forward in history if he did not lead his team to any titles. Furthermore, he was also crowned Finals MVP for three of his four championships with the Spurs.

At the end of their careers, superstars are defined by how many championships they won. Had Malone or Barkley won three or four championships, would one of them be considered the greatest power forward of all time? If Nowitzki or Garnett never won their one title each, where would they rank among the top power forwards in history?

These are questions that can only be debated, with no clear-cut answer available.


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