When Michael Jordan retired — hell, even before Michael Jordan retired — the NBA and its fans spent countless hours trying to identify and pledge allegiance to an heir. It has to be somebody’s league, the thought process went. When the dust settled, and candidates named Penny, and Grant, and Vinsanity, and A.I. faded into the background, we were essentially left with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Both were worthy. Both were deserving of the throne, so to speak.
Shaq won three titles with Kobe, one without him, was All-NBA 1st Team eight times, and was the most dominant presence in the game. Kobe, of course, won those three rings with Shaq, two without him, was All-NBA 1st Team 11 times, and was the best post-MJ wing in the game. Ultimately, the greater basketball universe just kind of collectively shrugged and agreed Kobe was the one, and the “best players of their era” cannon was then complete: Bird and Magic, then M.J., then Kobe (and now LeBron).
Alas, we were wrong. Kobe wasn’t the one. And neither was Shaq. It was Tim Duncan.
It was always Tim Duncan.
I can’t remember where I was when I first laid eyes on Duncan — I’m sure it was some mid-week ACC tilt on ESPN — but I do remember where I was when he first crushed my soul. It was the eighth grade, and I’d just shed my bowlcut for a buzzcut to beat the summer heat. The game was a late-season matchup between the Knicks and Spurs, and despite Allan Houston’s silky smooth, jumper-laden 31 points, New York got steamrolled, 95-78. San Antonio was paced by some rookie center who put up 25 points (on 10-of-16 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
It wasn’t the amount of points, however, that was so devastating. It was the manner in which Duncan surgically disposed of my team. He was ruthless, operating with an unabashed efficiency of motion. It was pragmatic brutality. The Knicks didn’t have an answer for him. They would never have an answer for him. Even though it was still a year away from Duncan flushing New York out of the 1999 Finals, it was obvious that this team — this guy — would be better than my team — my guys — for the foreseeable future. I didn’t think that would mean “until I’m 30,” but here we are, and Tim Duncan is still better than my guys.
But this is not about Tim Duncan ruining my childhood. This is about the fact that from the start of the Shaq era to the end of Kobe era, we were actually living in the Tim Duncan era.
The stats and the statues prove it. O’Neal won four championships to Kobe and Duncan’s five, but Duncan has more regular-season MVPs and more Finals MVPs then either of them. He’s also won a championship in three different decades, which has never been done before.
But one-on-one comparisons become largely irrelevant when we acknowledge that Duncan hasn’t just been better than any one of his elite contemporaries; he’s been better than all of them.
Consider Duncan’s sheer impact on the San Antonio Spurs as an organization, which was an also-ran franchise before his arrival. The detractors tell you he had David Robinson to lean on (veteran leadership!), and then Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (draft steals!), and now Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw (front office magic!). And, of course, Pop! Don’t forget Pop!
Let’s get one thing perfectly straight: the modern San Antonio Spurs don’t exist without Tim Duncan. Hell, one could make a compelling argument — sorry, Admiral and Iceman! — that the Spurs didn’t even really exist before the pride of the US Virgin Islands rolled into town. No disrespect to Robinson (just one pre-Duncan visit to the Conference Finals) or George Gervin (he’s the reason the Spurs were brought into the NBA), but come on. The B.D. Spurs (Before Duncan) were just some team in some city that no one cared about. Now, San Antonio is a team-basketball aficionado’s wet dream. A shining example of strength-in-numbers, the antithesis of that certain iso-happy Association that drives people mad.
In the modern NBA, only three players have won a championship as the lone star on their team: Dream, Duncan, and Dirk. That’s the list. (Yay, Texas!) When the Spurs won their first title with Duncan, Robinson was still a very good player, but the three top contributors after them were 33-year-old Avery Johnson, 35-year-old Mario Elie, and 30-year-old Sean Elliot. Steve Kerr, for Pete’s sake, was playing significant minutes. When the Spurs won in 2003, Manu was a reserve wing (playing behind Stephen Jackson), and Parker was getting benched in late game situations for Speedy Claxton. Robinson was 37, two years removed from his last All-Star season. In retrospect, it was Duncan’s steady presence that extended Robinson’s career, and allowed Parker and Ginobili to grow into their roles, while the team still competed for championships.
And that’s the other thing about the A.D. (after Duncan) Spurs. They always competed for championships because they always made the playoffs. This is not an exaggeration. The Spurs drafted “Death & Taxes” in 1997 and have not missed the playoffs, since. Can you say that about Kobe? No. Can you say that about LeBron? No. Shaq? No. Hakeem? Jordan? No. No.
But Timmy hasn’t just been there, he’s arguably the NBA’s greatest playoff performer of all time. Most playoff double-doubles with 158. Most playoff blocks with 516. His three Finals MVPs are second only to you-know-who and tied with the aforementioned Shaq.
And Duncan is a model of consistency, too. The only element of his game that has dropped off during the latter stage of his career are his minutes played. If you look at his per-36 numbers, though, he’s remained remarkably consistent. Across his first three years: 20 points, 11 rebounds per 36 minutes played. Across his 8th through 10th years: 21 points, 11 rebounds per 36 minutes played. Across his last three years: 20 points, 12 rebounds per 36 minutes played. Incredible.
Michael Jordan made us fall in love with wing players. We wanted scoring and high-flying dunks. We became smitten with players capable of both defying gravity and burying 30-foot fadeaways. The league told us to love it, Nike told us to buy it, and Sports Center told us to watch it. And so we did.
Little by little, though, we allowed everything we loved about the game to be replaced by the sexy highlight. We fell in love with unjustifiable long jumpers and negligent spacing. We ignored what win-shares told us. We started calling two or three-year title runs “dynasties.” We were so desperate to name someone, anyone, the “Air Apparent,” we let pretenders and wannabes sit on the throne.
But we were wrong.
Thankfully, Tim Duncan didn’t mind. He just kept doing what he does — dropping 20 and 10 on the opposition, night after night — and we should consider ourselves lucky to have “witnessed” it.