There would be no flashy and self-aggrandizing tour of the NBA to say goodbye to him. We will not have any tearful or celebratory press conference with deep pontificating about what it all meant. He would just have the Spurs send a press release telling everyone it was over.
Tim Duncan’s retirement from the NBA after 19 years with the San Antonio Spurs perfectly epitomized everything about his public persona as well as his aura on the basketball court.
It was straightforward, simple, and perfect just as it is.
But while Duncan may be unconcerned, at least right now, with indulging in nostalgia or trying to place his career in historical context, those of us in the media will be happy to do just that.
Duncan – The Consistent Winner
It is no exaggeration to say that, other than Bill Russell, Tim Duncan might be the greatest winner in NBA history. Anyone who would deny him a place in that elite discussion simply hasn’t studied the history of the game.
Since Duncan was selected as the first overall pick by the Spurs in the 1997 NBA Draft, San Antonio won five championships: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. He was the only player to start and win titles in three different decades.
During the “Duncan era” Spurs posted an incredible 1,072-438 regular season record, giving the team a .710 winning percentage, which is the best 19-year stretch in NBA history and was the best in all of the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB over the last 19 years.
A closer look at the winning record reveals an even more astonishing level of consistency. The Spurs never missed the playoffs in any of those 19 years and posted at least a .600 winning percentage in each of Duncan’s 19 seasons, an all-time record for most consecutive seasons with a .600 win percentage in the four major U.S. sports. The Spurs also won 50 games every year except for the strike-shortened 1999 season.
The 40-year-old Duncan has retired coming off of a season in which he became just the third player in league history to reach 1,000 career wins (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish), as well as the only player to reach 1,000 wins with one team.
Duncan and Gregg Popovich have the most wins by a player-coach duo in NBA history (1,001) and the Spurs forward finishes his career in San Antonio as one of just three players in NBA history, along with John Stockton and Kobe Bryant, to spend 19 seasons with one franchise.
Along with teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Duncan is part of the NBA record for most wins by a trio in both the regular season (575) and postseason (126).
Duncan – The Elite Two-Way Player
Duncan’s method of greatness was often so subtle it was hard to appreciate. He blocked countless shots but didn’t fly-swat them out of bounds. Duncan could dominate inside but it never felt like he bullied players with his size. His half-hook and bank shot were pure efficiency but he didn’t possess any post move as beautiful as Kareem’s skyhook or Hakeem’s dream shake.
But real fans can separate style from substance. And the Big Fundamental was all substance.
The Wake Forest graduate is the Spurs all-time NBA leader in total points (26,496), rebounds (15,091), blocked shots (3,020), minutes (47,368) and games played (1,392), as well as third in assists (4,225). In NBA history, Duncan is fifth all-time in double-doubles (841) and blocks, sixth in rebounding and 14th in scoring.
In his NBA career, the 15-time All-Star appeared in a total of 1,392 games and averaged 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.17 blocks in 34.0 minutes. He shot .506 (10,285-20,334) from the floor and .696 (5,896-8,468) from the free throw line.
The 1998 Rookie of the Year was named NBA MVP twice (2002, 2003) and NBA Finals MVP three times (1999, 2003 and 2005). Duncan also totaled 15 All-NBA Team selections (tied for most all-time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant).
The Big Fundamental joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of only two players in NBA history to record at least 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocks in his career. (*All-too forgotten caveat: Wilt Chamberlain played before blocks were calculated and would surely be in this group as well.)
While it is surprising that he never won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award in any given season, it should hardly matter to those who can see beyond the politics of such awards. In any case his 15 NBA All-Defensive Team honors (most all-time) help tell a more accurate story.
Duncan – The Ultimate Teammate and Franchise Player
If you wanted to construct the perfect foundation player for a franchise, it would look a lot like Tim Duncan. The man played with as little ego as perhaps any NBA superstar ever has without losing an ounce of his competitiveness. It is as large a part of his legend as anything else.
Furthermore, his career arc is a dream for any team. All fans of other franchises should be jealous.
As the #1 pick of the Spurs in 1997, he allowed his game to flourish immediately without upsetting the existing system in San Antonio under aging star David Robinson. He was mature enough to play around Robinson and patiently allowed “The Admiral” to keep saying it was “his team” long after it was true. It hardly appeared to matter to Duncan who claimed credit for the success of the Spurs.
In his long prime, Duncan mentored the talented players that the Spurs drafted and made small-market San Antonio a desired destination for free agents everywhere. He was a “regular guy” in the locker room who took criticism beautifully and earned loyalty from everyone. How could any newcomer to the team complain when the great Duncan himself never seemed to expect special treatment?
Throughout his career, Duncan repeatedly adapted his game and even his salary to maximize the opportunity to win games. This even included taking massive pay cuts in order to keep other star players or to allow the franchise to make moves in free agency.
And when the Big Fundamental finally started to show signs of significant decline, he unhesitatingly accepted a reduced role. While some of his contemporaries regularly talked about their own individual competitiveness and personal desire to win, Duncan said little. He DID. With him, it really was always about winning.
Finally, the timing of his retirement was beautifully chosen. Duncan leaves a Spurs franchise still very much in the hunt for an NBA championship. They are in great shape to continue their winning ways without him, having just signed veteran PF/C Pau Gasol. Outside of somehow convincing Kevin Durant to join the team, what could have been a better way to exit?
Duncan – The Historical Legacy
Is Tim Duncan the greatest power forward of all time? It’s been a debate for some time.
To be clear, there is very little debate as to whether Duncan is the greatest player in NBA history to have played at the power forward position. He is almost universally placed above other greats, such as Charles Barkley. Karl Malone, and Kevin Garnett for example, on all-time lists.
The real question is whether the 7-foot (or very nearly 7-foot, depending on the measurement) Duncan was truly a power forward at all for most of his career. Despite the “power forward” label, he played center in all four years of college at Wake Forest and for much of his NBA career. In the last years of his career his own coach, Greg Popovich, joked about how Duncan had been the Spurs center for “the past 15 years.”
Certainly playing with established star center David Robinson when his career began, there was a practical reason to start him at power forward. But after Robinson’s retirement, Duncan never played with anyone who was even close to as talented a center as he was. In fact, some cynically suggested that Duncan’s insistence on being called a “power forward” allowed him to start All Star games by not competing against Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal for votes at the center spot.
But a more fair explanation has to do with the way the power forward and center positions have evolved over the course of Duncan’s career. In today’s NBA, almost every player who plays power forward is also asked to play the center position at times – and vice versa. Indeed, there are almost no “true centers” left in the league.
That being said, the only real reason it matters to anyone at all what Duncan is labeled has to do with finding his place in the pantheon of all-time greats in NBA history. Most consider Duncan a “Top 10” player in the history of the league or thereabouts.
Beyond that, the arguments to move him up or down the list will begin. While he clearly stands above all other power forwards in league history, the center position is crowded with greatness and thus comparisons become more problematic.
Was Duncan better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain? Even the most ardent fans of the legendary Spurs star would likely hesitate to assert that.
But was he better than Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, or Shaquille O’Neal?
I won’t begrudge any Spurs fans for arguing that he is. At least not this week.
After all, no reasonable person will dispute that if Tim Duncan had played his entire career in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, or Chicago that he would have been given infinitely more national attention and respect, despite the relatively low-key nature of his game and personality.
No, this week we just salute the quiet greatness of arguably the best player of his generation. And we thank him for doing it all his way.
By Manish Pandya
Co-Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com