Someone smart probably once said that greatness transcends time. I agree with whoever probably might have said something to that affect.
Tim Duncan transcends time as a basketball player (not to diminish his video game skills, but I have no knowledge of their quality). He is great.
I recently received one of the best Christmas gifts anyone who has any appreciation for anything worth appreciating can ever receive—a DVD collection of all of the Spurs’ Finals victories. The DVDs simply consist of the game footage of all sixteen victories of the Spurs’ four NBA Finals series victories.
I have only managed to watch the first two games of the collection, games 1 and 2 of the 1999 NBA Finals, but nonetheless I was struck by how differently the game was played back then.
NBA historians might come to regard the 1998-1999 season as the worst season in NBA history. First of all there was the lockout. To make a long story short (pun intended!) the season ended up being shortened to only 50 games. This was also the Michael Jordan hangover year. Jordan had retired after winning his sixth championship the previous year. Not only this but the basketball was…well…pretty terrible to watch.
Here’s basically how those two finals games went. The Spurs would walk the ball up the court and post Tim Duncan on one block and David Robinson on the other. Then they would feed one of them and let them go one on one while the other four guys just stood around and watched. Duncan or Robinson would inevitably score, get fouled, or kick it out. But this wasn’t Ginobili and Parker that they were kicking out to—no—it was Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, Sean Elliot, and Jaren Jackson. Decent players in their own right, but on the opposite end of the creativity spectrum from Ginobili and Parker. After this incredibly entertaining possession by the Spurs, the Knicks would walk the ball up the court and go into their “offense.” This offense basically consisted of setting one or two screens for Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, or Larry Johnson to get them the ball. Then they would try to go one on one and score or get fouled. Again, nothing against Sprewell, Houston, and Johnson—they were good players—but I can’t say their single-minded forays into the paint were very entertaining.
This slow, grind-it-out, muscle over mind style would in the least make many of today’s players uncomfortable. The game was much more physical. Open driving lanes that today are available on nearly every play were almost nonexistent in these Knicks-Spurs games. Size over speed. Brawn over brains. Beef over balance. Mayo over mustard1. The game was different, but there was one constant from that era to this one. Tim Duncan is great. Tim Duncan was great.
As a 22-year-old second year pro, Tim Duncan was an emerging superstar. Using his size and diverse set of finely tuned skills, he was a force in the post. Feed him the ball in the post and good things happened. He scored. He got fouled. He scored and got fouled. He passed out of double teams. He scored and got fouled and passed out of double teams2. On the defensive end he used his height, awareness, and restraint3 to team with Robinson in completely shutting down the opponent’s hope of scoring within 8 feet of the basket. In short, he was a great player.
Cut to January 2011.
Almost 12 years later.
Duncan is 34.
He is averaging a career low in almost every statistical category—minutes played, field goals, field goal attempts, free throws, free throw attempts, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, and points. He is only averaging 29.3 minutes per game and 13.8 points per game. Luke Ridnour, Raja Bell, and Ryan Gomes are averaging more minutes. Beno Udrih, Dorell Wright, and DeMar DeRozan are averaging more points.
The stark difference in Duncan’s game is just as apparent in watching him play as it is in the numbers. Once a dominant scorer in the post, at times Duncan now looks almost pathetic when he gets the ball on the block. Sure, he’ll still score every once and while. And yes he can still draw a foul. But so can Chris Kaman, so can Brendan Haywood, so can Kendrick Perkins.
And have you seen Timmy trying to defend a pick and roll lately? Well you don’t want to. It’s ugly. It’s like the process of trying to come up with a good analogy for what it’s like when Tim Duncan tries to defend a pick and roll—long and grueling.
So is that all Tim Duncan is now? Is he just a run of the mill center on a run of the mill team?
And yet the Spurs are 35-6. Best record in the league. Second best efficiency differential in the league.
So how is this happening?
How can a team who has long been built on the abilities of an offensively and defensively dominant inside player who is no longer either of these things off to the best start in franchise history?
In short, because the Spurs are a team.
Now, as anyone who has followed the Spurs success over the last dozen years knows, the Spurs have always been as good of an example of a true team as there is in professional sports. So why is it significant that they are still a team this year? They have the same best three players that they’ve had since 2004. Why is this year different?
Because their best player and leader are no longer the same person. Tim Duncan is no longer their best player. To be honest I’m not sure if their best player is Ginobili or Parker, but so far this year Tim Duncan has not been their best player.
All too often we see aging superstars who are unable to keep their teams relevant as they slowly descend into mortality.
But Tim Duncan? He’s different.
He has transitioned from being a dominating all-time great to a team-oriented role player like almost no other has4. He has given the on-court reigns of the team to Ginobili and Parker. He has adjusted to a style which practically didn’t exist when he first entered the league. He has become a high post distributor, a screener, a passer. If there was some way to measure rhythm added to an offense I’m sure Tim Duncan would be leading the league. He may run like Erick Dampier5 and have to resort to using old man tricks on defense, but Timmy D is still a defensive factor too.
He is the rare player whose assessment of his abilities has decreased at the same rate as his abilities. He knows what he can and cannot do. Sometimes perfect knowledge of one’s self and one’s role in the team is more valuable to a team than elite talent. When you watch the Spurs this year, you are likely seeing a team that is completely in tune with who they are individually and as a team. Tim Duncan is at the center of that.
He is the perfect mentor, the closest we may ever get to a player-coach again. He isn’t so much the main cog in a powerful machine anymore, but rather the oil that keeps the machine running. He has evolved with his team and the league.
Duncan’s play on the court transcends teammates6 and opponents, styles and strategies. His skills and abilities are multilaterally transferable. He can evolve. He can succeed. He transcends time7. He is great.
1 Completely random, just to see if you’re paying attention.
2 I know it’s not possible to do all three of those things at once, but hey, I was on a roll.
3 Not sure if he has a choice here. Compared to many NBA players he is pretty limited athletically.
4 His predecessor David Robinson being a prime example
5 Can’t miss an opportunity to take a shot at current or former Mavs
6 He is the only player on that 1999 championship team who is still on the team. He, Ginobili, and Parker are the only three players from the 2003 or 2005 title teams that are still on this team. He, Ginobili, Parker, and Matt Bonner are the only four players from the 2007 title team that are still on this team.
7 Not metaphysically, stupid.