Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

12 reasons Tim Duncan can be considered as the greatest of all time

Published on
December 12, 2016

The San Antonio Spurs broke the news via a press release, and the league will never be the same again. The backbone of the league, the calm at the center of the storm has finally stepped away. This isn't one of those annual 'Is this finally the year that Duncan retires' hoopla which we've been engaging in since half a decade. This time, he's gone for real.

In his wake, the legend from Wake Forest leaves a void which will never be filled. The Spurs drafted Tim Duncan in 1997, and they have been the gold standard of the league ever since. They've spawned a coaching tree which has taken root all across the league and the degree of success sustained and enjoyed by the Spurs during this 19 year period is unmatched in American sports. It all started with drafting Timothy Theodore Duncan.

For 19 years, Duncan has been the prototype of what a superstar franchise player should be. Tim Duncan will not eulogize himself in any way, shape or form. As coach, mentor and friend Gregg Popovic said recently addressing his retirement, "I'm trying to wrap my head around why I'm standing here and he's not. We all know why, because it’s not Tim Duncan to bring any attention to himself."

It isn't indeed. And that is the criminal reason why he's sometimes been overlooked. Above the myriad maelstrom of stunning YouTube highlights and viral vines and witty Twitter hashtags, elevated above it all there has loomed a silent, stolid presence. Something which can't be quantified in likes, shares, or mentions, and is expressed solely in wins. 

Players have announced their retirement in varied and flamboyant ways. Some choose to orchestrate a gold plated, pimped out, King Solomon level of extravaganza starting with a poem and culminating in a near season-long farewell tour. Tim Duncan announced his retirement with a 548-word press release .

With his quiet exit, Tim Duncan made a statement louder than any "Vince Carter juggling a cat and dunking over a topless model dancing to Gangnam style" video would. 

It is a travesty that Tim Duncan is just being lauded as being the greatest Power Forward to play the game. His low-key demeanor coupled with a game bereft of loud showmanship has made it easy for us to overlook what he's been doing all these years. Digging a little deeper, it becomes apparent that Tim Duncan might just be the greatest player of all time, and here are 11 reasons supporting that:

1) Biggest winner in basketball

Maintaining consistency in the NBA is a very slippery slope. Players realise that winning can be a fleeting feeling. A few injuries, some wrong trades, bad draft management, it only takes one domino to fall to upturn the entire train. Tim Duncan retires as the only player to ever win 1,000 games with one franchise. It is really unheard of to maintain a 71% win percentage for 19 seasons. 

For his career, Duncan scored 26,496 points, grabbed 15,091 rebounds, and blocked 3,020 shots while playing 47,638 minutes. On the all-time table, he finished 14th in points, 6th in rebounds, and 5th in blocks. 

Unlike some superstars, Duncan never had any problem with sharing or ceding the reins of the franchise. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili together set the NBA record for most wins by a trio, 575 wins in the regular season and 126 wins in the playoffs. 

The Spurs made it to the playoffs every single season that Duncan played. He won the regular season MVP award twice, in 2002 and 2003, and the Finals MVP three times in 1999, 2003 and 2005. 

No other player has won so many games with his winning percentage in the history of the league.

2) Tim Duncan vs Bill Russell

When we talk of the greatest winner in sports, Bill Russell's name comes up. It's become almost sacrilegious to question Bill Russell's place as the greatest winner of all time. Before going further, it would be prudent to acknowledge that Russell did more than most to change the game than most.

His cultural impact paved the way for African-American athletes to thrive in the sport. He was a born winner, and his incisive approach to the game can teach anyone in any field volumes about acquiring a winning habit. The man introduced the concept of blocking shots and playing with an unflappable dignity and poise. 

That being said, Tim Duncan has a stronger claim of being the biggest winner in basketball. He is the only player to ever reach 1,000 wins with one team, and his team posted a record 71% winning percentage, which is above Russell's record. Russell shot 44% from the field and won 11 titles in a 13-year career from 1956 to 1969. On an average, the league had 10 teams at that time. These facts dilute his wins a bit. During his tenure, the Celtics averaged an extrapolated 58-24 regular season record. 

There is a reason we give an edge to nostalgia when it comes to evaluating the place of players in history. But it would be hearsay to not put Duncan on the same level as Bill Russell, if not above.

3) A complete basketball player on both ends

In the glory of 3 pointers and slam dunks, one basic fact is often forgotten, viz. basketball is played on both ends of the floor. For a player to truly have an impact on the outcome of a game, he needs to be effective on both ends. No other player has ever been as effective across the court as Tim Duncan.

Tim Duncan is the only player to amass over 100 offensive and defensive win shares, leading the league five times in the latter. He had 100 offensive win shares and 106.3 defensive win shares in total.

Among the players with over 130 win shares combined on offence and defence, Duncan is the only one to approach 100 defensive win shares. 

On offence, Duncan was dependable and dominant. He played an unselfish game and picked his opponents apart with surgical precision. On defence, his footwork, anticipation, and timing were impeccable. Offensive numbers can vary, but defense can be consistent night in and night out. Simply put, no other player in NBA history has even come close to dominating the game on both ends to the extent that #21 did.

4) Won championships in 3 decades

Greatness can be fleeting, like capturing lightning in a bottle. Michael Jordan's Bulls won six championships in three-peats. Kobe Bryant's Lakers won three and two in a row. In most cases, success is seen as a peak with a climb and decline, and if one is lucky, there are multiple peaks.

Tim Duncan's Spurs eschewed that notion in totality. He is the only player to win a championship in three different decades, and the gap between his first and last championship is the second longest in the league. It speaks to his longevity and adaptability that he was able to be so consistently productive over such a long period of time.

Duncan won the championship in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Duncan came into the league in 1997 ready to play at the highest level, and he took care of his game to keep producing at a high level regardless of his age. He would have one more ring if it wasn’t for an errant rebound in 2013.

5) Tim Duncan vs Dirk Nowitzki

Duncan wasn't as athletic or imposing as Shaq. He wasn't as good a shooter as Dirk Nowitzki. Kevin Garnett was more athletic and had a more well-rounded offensive game. Dwight Howard was a bigger monster on defence and athletically ate everyone's lunch and dinner. These are four of the best big men that Duncan went up against. 

And you know what, he outplayed them all. Competition brings out the best or worst in us. In Tim Duncan's case, when he went up against fellow Hall of Fame players in his and their prime and beyond, Tim Duncan dueled the best in the business and came out on top. 

Let's start with Dirk Nowitzki, who when it’s all said and done will have one of the most iconic careers of all time. Duncan and Nowitzki faced off 57 times in the regular season. Duncan won 35-22 and averaged 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 blocks per game in those contests. While Dirk put up 20.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 0.9 blocks per game.

“We all know we’re on the back end of our careers,” Duncan was quoted about battling Nowitzki late in their careers. “It’s good to see those guys not only still there, but playing a role and playing it well,” he added.

In the playoffs, Duncan and Nowitzki enjoyed 33 battles with Duncan narrowly edging out 18-15. Duncan outplayed Nowitzki in the playoffs as well by averaging 24.1 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.9 blocks per game in those contests. Nowitzki, in contrast, averaged 23.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.7 blocks per game.

Advantage: Duncan.

6) Tim Duncan vs Shaquille O'Neal

When we think of the most dominant players of all time, Shaq's name gets inevitably announced early in the conversation. He dominated the league like few others on offence. But he did meet his foil in Tim Duncan.

The two Goliaths faced off 32 times in the regular season, with Duncan winning 18-14. Duncan averaged 22 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 blocks per game to Shaq's 21.7 points, 10.6 boards, 1.7 assists and 2.7 blocks per game.

In his book Shaq Uncut, the big fella said, "The Spurs won because of Tim Duncan, a guy I could never break. I could talk trash to Patrick Ewing, get in David Robinson’s face, get a rise out of Alonzo Mourning, but when I went at Tim he’d look at me like he was bored and then say, “Hey, Shaq, watch this shot right here off the glass.”

They are tied in playoffs with a 15-15 head to head record, but Duncan outplayed Shaq again. He averaged 25.6 points with 13 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.4 blocks against Shaq's 22.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.8 blocks.

Advantage: Duncan.

7) Tim Duncan vs Kevin Garnett

Kevin Garnett is the epitome of crazy in the NBA. Rarely have two superstars with such contrasting personalities clashed so often as Duncan and Garnett. The primeval yells attempted to weather the solid wall to no avail 44 times in the regular season, with Duncan winning 27-17.

Duncan averaged 19 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks in those contests, while Garnett put up 19.5 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.9 blocks. 

Of their matchup, Ron Artest, now Metta World Peace, recalled, "I remember one time Kevin Garnett was mushing him, and shoving him in the face; and Tim Duncan didn't do anything, he didn't react. He just kicked Kevin Garnett's a--, and won the damn championship. You know what I'm sayin'? That's gangsta. Everybody can show emotion, dunk on somebody, scream and be real cocky; but Tim Duncan is a ... he's a pimp."

Contrasting their styles, Tim Duncan was ejected once in 2002 in a game vs the Timberwolves when he responded to Kevin Garnett talking trash. But later the league rescinded his ejection. Duncan's only ejection over a 19-year career was for laughing on the bench, for which referee Joey Crawford was banned for the rest of the season and sent to anger management classes.

Go figure. Duncan gets ejected, and as a result, the referee earns a ban for the rest of the season and learns to process his own emotions better.

In the playoffs, Duncan battled Garnett 8 times and came up on top 6 times. Duncan averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.5 blocks per game, while Garnett put up 21.4 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.8 blocks per game.

Advantage: Duncan.

8) Offensive efficiency personified

Duncan played one of the most cerebral games of any legend to grace the hardwood. He knew he couldn't rely on his explosive athleticism for long, so he adapted his game with a litany of multi-layered moves with the technical nuances of a surgeon. No other power forward had his blend of subtle shimmies and shoulder fakes.

After the age of 25, he didn't average over 25 points per game. After turning 30, he never averaged over 20 points per game. What he did do was anchor the middle with remarkable efficiency.

For his career, Duncan averaged 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 50% from the field. Those are all-star numbers, but when you stretch them across 19 seasons it seems like a nigh impossibility to maintain such a high standard.

In the 2010-11 season, Duncan's numbers per game fell to 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. But two years later in 2012-13 season, Duncan raised his game and averaged 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds at the age of 36. 

I love Blake Griffin, but watching him bulldoze his way into trouble makes me wish he would take up some shimmy shakes from the master. Dirk's fadeaway is unstoppable, McHale would lure players in his torture chamber down low, but we need to give due deference to the inevitable manner in which Duncan picked his man apart on offence.

9) Defensive stalwart

Tim Duncan's work on the defensive end sets him apart from the rest of the pack. He's the only player to achieve 15 All-NBA team and 15 All-Defensive Team honours. He achieved both honours in the same 15 seasons and was able to hold his own even when his vertical leap all but deserted him.

Even towards the tail end of his career, Duncan was blocking shots by explosive players like Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins. It wasn’t just his blocks, Duncan had a penchant for not getting irked by any opponent. He would methodically pick his spots and reduce the efficiency of the best players on a nightly basis.

The Spurs were a full 9.8 points better than their opponents when Duncan was on the floor. His accolades speak for themselves, but you had to see him play to fully appreciate the understated way he held the fort down.

10) Tim Duncan vs Michael Jordan

In terms of pure skill, athleticism, and competitive fire, Michael Jordan remains peerless. But taking sentiment out of the equation, let’s see if Duncan has eclipsed his Airness with his solid career.

Michael Jordan played with the Chicago Bulls for 13 seasons, while taking a year off in 1993-94 season and much of 1994-95 season as well. He then took three seasons off and played two seasons with the Washington Wizards.

In total, Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA, including two seasons of 12 and 17 games each. His global impact dwarfs that of every other athlete. No other player has become a cultural icon to the extent that His Airness did. But we are talking about who had the better career as a basketball player on the floor.

Jordan played 1072 regular season games and 179 playoff games. Tim Duncan has 1,158 total regular season and postseason wins in total. Michael Jordan was the better player of the two, but Tim Duncan unquestionably had the better career.

Advantage: Duncan

11) Tim Duncan vs Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant has cemented his place among the top 10 greatest players of all time with his illustrious career with the Lakers. That being said, one can't discount the fact that he placed individual accomplishments above his team.

The objective of competing in basketball games is to win. Kobe Bryant put up gaudier numbers, but his warmest admirers would concede that he placed himself way above his team. 

Here's how a Laker legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put it: "I would say that Tim Duncan has had a better career just because they've been able to win more consistently, and they didn't have to rely on Tim all the time,"

He added, "Kobe has worn his body out. He's only like 36 years old and he's worn his body out. It's falling apart because of the stress that he had to do just taking on the load that he did, but he wanted to do it that way. That was that."

Speaking of the great Abdul-Jabbar, he's the only player who comes close to Tim Duncan's level of sustained excellence. And Duncan has surpassed his win-loss record of 588 games. Duncan and Kareem are the only two players in the 26,000 points, 15,000 boards, 3,000 blocks club.

12) The most unselfish superstar teammate of all time

Bill Simmons addressed the secret of winning in basketball in his Book of Basketball. Isiah Thomas imparted it to him, and he chronicled it thusly: "The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball." He was alluding to chemistry and unselfishness which allows a team to win. A winning culture can only be sustained for multiple decades when it is fortified by unselfish foundations.

In college, Duncan co-authored a paper in college titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism.” That ought to give one an idea of his stand on egoism.

To get an idea of Tim Duncan’s impact, check out what his co-workers had to say about him. Spurs GM RC Buford has said, "The truth is we all work for Timmy,". Sean Elliot, former forward with the Spurs concurs, "We're not dumb. We all know we wouldn't have any rings without Timmy. Everybody understands that. We all feel like we're working for Timmy." Another former player, Tim Thomas explains why Popovich can reach every player because of Duncan. "If you see the way he talks to Tim Duncan, you don't have a problem with him getting on your ass. If Tim can take it, you can take it. From the top guy all the way to the bottom of the totem pole, he treats them all the same." saidThomas.

Former Spurs Chairman Peter Holt commented on Duncan having to adapt to sustain his game. He said, "People don't realize he had to change the way he runs. How many people do you see with a metal brace on their leg that cocks their knee back? How many players are willing to do that, much less can do it?"

Dave Odom, Duncan's college coach has said, "He's fundamentally sound, a fearless, determined champion, someone who didn't feel like he already knew everything, who puts the team first -- those were throwback virtues and attributes. Those were things that made the old Celtic teams great, but today that's not true. Today's game is style over substance. He's the opposite. He's substance over style.”

Perhaps one of the greatest indicators of his unselfishness can be seen in the loss which hurt the most, the Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It could have been avoided. Towards the end, Gregg Popovich replaced Tim Duncan with Boris Diaw to match up with the small lineup of the Miami Heat. The Spurs lost, but Duncan never complained. 

When we ask about the greatest winner of all time, ask yourself these questions: Which player do you want to build a team around? Which player would other players love to play with? Which player is eminently approachable and coachable? Which player is considered as among the best teammates of all time? Which player will give you more years of excellence above everyone else?

The answer is one which the player himself would blush to utter, so we do it for him: Tim Duncan can be considered as the greatest basketball player of all time.

Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

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