How History Will Judge Tim Duncan's Legacy as Best Power Forward Ever

Josh Cohen@@arealjoshcohenCorrespondent IIJune 19, 2013

By any metric conceivable, history will remember Tim Duncan as the best power forward to play the game.

Still playing at an All-NBA level in his 16th season, Duncan's claim to greatness will only strengthen over time.

His myth already has a firm foundation in the peak of his powers, the sustained success and the beloved fundamental soundness of his game. Between his personal and team accomplishments, Timmy is untouchable in this discussion.

Karl Malone's two MVP awards, 11 first-team All-NBA appearances and 14 All-Star nods do put him in line with Duncan's two MVPs, 10 first-teams and 14 All-Stars; no other power forward can match that. However, Malone's Utah Jazz lacked the championship pedigree Duncan's San Antonio Spurs have.

Duncan is one of only four players in NBA history to win three Finals MVP awards—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal are the only others. That hardware is a testament to his leadership role on the Spurs' four championship teams (just once, in 2007, was Duncan not the driving force behind San Antonio's NBA title).

Between his post scoring, defensive leadership and savvy passing, Duncan is the rare power forward who can also make his teammates better.

That was the key to the Spurs' championships in 1999, 2003 and 2005; by 2007, his presence in the paint was so imposing and attracted so much attention that Tony Parker could slash the lane with impunity.

In fact, look at his per-36-minute numbers, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, and you'll see how absurdly reliable Timmy's dominance has been.

He has averaged 20.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes for his career. Like clockwork, Duncan has put up nearly identical numbers every season for 16 years, playing as efficiently in 2013 as he did when he won his MVPs in 2002 and 2003.

That consistency and effectiveness at the ripe old age of 37 has finally hammered home a point for which Duncan supporters have spent his entire career grasping: Tim Duncan is fun to watch.

It is crucial to Duncan's legacy that he be regarded as entertaining as well as accomplished.

History is subjective that way. We inflate the memories of players we adore, sometimes at the expense of those we merely respect but don't have fond feelings for.

There was the risk that decades from now, Duncan's career would be viewed as a confluence of bank shots and staunch defense, each year blending into the others—clearly great, but not memorable. The precision of his game would pale against the raw power on Malone or Charles Barkley's highlight reels.

When the history of the NBA is written by people who didn't experience these legends while they were playing the game, the more exciting guy has better odds of being the more enthralling one. In that world, Duncan could be treated as the beneficiary of Gregg Popovich's genius, while Barkley and Malone are considered better talents on worse teams.

That unfair hindsight was a possibility when Duncan was in his prime, putting up double-doubles like it was nothing. However, as The Big Fundamental kept producing and his retirement drew ever nearer, it became clear that while we were bored with Duncan, he was never boring.

Fans in 2013 regard Duncan's game more reverentially today than they did 10 years ago—not only because he's not going to be around much longer, but because his game is going with him.

Most recently, Duncan abused the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh en route to 25 first-half points in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. In his illustrious postseason career, he has never scored more in the first half of a finals game.

Though fans became inured to Duncan's unparalleled array of hooks, spins and banks during his heyday, it's a true privilege to see them back in their old form today. Once they're gone, it's unclear if we'll see anything quite like them again.

Due to the proliferation of floor-spreading offensive philosophy and less emphasis on teaching post play to developing big men, Duncan is one of the last of a dying breed of back-to-the-basket scorers.

Even though he's past the point of overpowering defenders, his technical excellence allows him to put together a performance like the way he started Game 6. That makes Duncan's skill set invaluable for any veteran forward, and yet there is no obvious heir to his traditional post-up throne.

As offenses continue to stretch out beyond the arc, Duncan's game is becoming a relic of basketball history. Remnants will remain in a few players' arsenals, but we'll never see another Duncan.

That's what the 37-year-old's throwback game reminds us: There is beauty in the balletic nature of old-school post play, in the way it can make an aging vet play like a young man and the way it can help a great talent become an NBA legend.

That legend's lore will grow in the years after he retires. Absence will make Duncan seem that much more special, and no one will forget that he was the best to ever play his position.


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