The Surprisingly Compelling GOAT Case for Tim Duncan

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMay 15, 2021

FILE - In this June 15, 2014, file photo, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) celebrates after Game 5 of the NBA basketball finals in San Antonio. Duncan announced his retirement on Monday, July 11, 2016, after 19 seasons, five championships, two MVP awards and 15 All-Star appearances. It marks the end of an era for the Spurs and the NBA.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Excluding Shaquille O'Neal's brief stint with Boston, the Celtics boast two candidates for the greatest basketball player of all time: Bill Russell and Larry Bird. That list would have been three had the 1997 NBA draft lottery gone as expected.

After a 15-67 season, the Celtics were seemingly fated to land their next franchise player in Hall of Fame inductee Tim Duncan.

"You could practically hear the entire Celtics organization groan as it was announced that Boston hadn't won the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, even though it had had the best odds of any team (36 percent) to win the right to select Wake Forest center Tim Duncan, the best player in college basketball," Michael Holley of the Boston Globe wrote May 19, 1997.

Instead, the San Antonio Spurs (20-62) had the fortune of drafting first and selecting Duncan. The team had been a disaster in 1996-97, with then-seven-time All-Star David Robinson missing all but six games with a back injury. But by the luck of the lottery, the Spurs landed their cornerstone piece, and they knew it immediately.

"The only way I could see us trading Tim Duncan is if someone offered us Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird]," coach (and then-general manager) Gregg Popovich said, per Holley.

Almost 20 years later, after Duncan announced his retirement in 2016, Popovich acknowledged (h/t ESPN's Michael C. Wright): "I would not be standing here if it wasn't for Tim Duncan. I'd be in the Budweiser league someplace in America, fat, and still trying to play basketball or coach basketball. But he's why I'm standing. He's made livings for hundreds of us, staff and coaches, over the years and never said a word, just came to work every day."

In many ways, that summarizes Duncan's career. He had an understated, stoic personality. He didn't have Jordan's signature tongue wag. He didn't regularly dish impossible no-look passes like Johnson. He didn't hold his finger in the air on a game-winning shot in the Three-Point Contest before the ball even splashed in the hoop a la Bird.

Duncan can't claim to have popularized a struggling NBA as Johnson and Bird did through the 1980s. He didn't turn the NBA into a global phenomenon as Jordan did in the 1990s. But the topic is the greatest player of all time, and if style, flash and cultural impact are deciders, then Duncan will drop on the list.

At its core, basketball is a team sport, but winning championships in the NBA requires individual players with elite talent. Wilt Chamberlain was a far more dominant scorer than Russell, but his brilliance in the form of highlights pales next to Russell's ring collection.

That's what Duncan did: win—both regularly and almost immediately after joining the league. None of the GOAT contenders (Johnson, Jordan, Bird, Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) can boast titles in three decades.

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Duncan checks all the boxes. He logged 19 seasons, placing him behind two candidates in Abdul-Jabbar (21) and Bryant (20).

Spending his entire career with the Spurs, Duncan won five titles in six trips to the NBA Finals (losing to James with the Miami Heat). His steady dominance led to titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Only Abdul-Jabbar can claim a greater span from his first to last championship (1971, 1988).

Duncan lags behind only Russell, Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar in rings. His five match Johnson, and Bryant—ahead of James (four) and Bird (three).

If there's a knock on Duncan, it's that he advanced to the Finals in "only" six of his 19 seasons. But Jordan had the same number of appearances (albeit over 15 years). Duncan had a more difficult path through fellow GOAT contenders than Jordan.

Jordan's run in the 1990s was superlative, but outside of beating Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991, his most notable rival was Isiah Thomas, who isn’t in the GOAT conversation with just two titles and a 12-6 career playoff record against Jordan.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

That's not to diminish Jordan, but Duncan faced significant GOAT competition, notably against the Lakers' Bryant and O'Neal. In a span of 16 seasons, the Spurs or Lakers represented the Western Conference in 13 NBA Finals (81.3 percent).

When the Spurs got there with Duncan, they almost always won (5-1, 83.3 percent). It took a Ray Allen miracle shot from the Heat in 2013 to push past San Antonio, giving Duncan the 2-1 edge over James.

Duncan finished as a 15-time All-Star who won two Most Valuable Player awards and earned 10 All-NBA first-team nods and eight All-Defensive first-team spots. He scored 26,496 points (18th all time) and grabbed 15,091 rebounds (seventh).

Those marks provide context, but Duncan stands as one of the most outstanding winners in NBA history. He can knock out several GOAT contenders—including Bird, Johnson and O'Neal, who didn't have the healthy longevity of Duncan and didn't match him in titles.

James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have the benefit of active careers. Their legacies aren't final, but they're still chasing Duncan's ring count.

Russell finished with more titles but played in a vastly different era with fewer teams, shorter playoff rounds and smaller talent pools. Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar were not far removed from Duncan's early years and offer substantial candidacies for GOAT, but for the most part, they had each other. Duncan didn’t play with a guy like Johnson (as great as Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard were in San Antonio).

Consensus on a singular greatest player of all time may never come, but as Duncan is welcomed into the Hall of Fame, he must be taken seriously as a contender.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.