The recent news of Kobe Bryant deciding to retire was bittersweet for this San Antonio Spurs fan. You see, he and Tim Duncan are the two most accomplished basketball players since Michael Jordan retired for the second time in 1999. Kobe’s injuries and poor play over the past three seasons, and now his impending retirement, have me thinking about the possibility that Duncan, whose decline from his prime has been minuscule compared to Kobe’s, might be widely remembered as the greater player of the two.
But then I remember how the Spurs do things.
I doubt they care about silly “who’s greater” arguments between two individuals. They’re about the team, and they’re all about respecting their opponents. And even though I love to hate Kobe, he’s always been an entertaining player to watch. I’ll miss that.
That said, the Duncan vs. Kobe debate is one that will inevitably rage on for many years to come. Whatever side of it you fall on, it’s an undeniable fact that Duncan has aged much more gracefully than his Los Angeles Lakers counterpart in the past few seasons.
But why? Let’s look at how the Big Fundamental has adjusted both physically and mentally to remain an excellent player at age 39.
Duncan came into the league out of Wake Forest as an explosive and mobile big man.
Many people forget this because he’s so far from that now — every dunk looks like a chore, and every block is below the rim — but the 6’11” big man was a versatile weapon who could handle the ball on the perimeter and hold his own against guards on defense.
A third reason the 39-year-old Duncan’s physical tools have declined so much is a torn lateral meniscus back in the spring of 2000, which took San Antonio’s then 23-year-old franchise cornerstone out for the playoffs, eliminating the Spurs’ chances at a repeat championship.
Although he had surgery to repair the cartilage, 15-plus seasons with playoff runs in each go-round since then has taken its toll on Duncan’s left knee. According to the San Antonio Express-News‘ Nick Moyle mentioned, Timmy can’t even fully straighten the joint anymore.
Most players with Duncan’s current combination of mileage, advanced age and injury history in his would have retired by now, or at least they would’ve stopped being a meaningful contributor. Not him, though.
Granted, the Big Fundamental has always had a rock-solid fundamental basis to his game (hence the nickname), but he’s also made three key physical adjustments to his play in the second half of his career to stay effective.
The first is minutes management. Gregg Popovich is known for being conservative with his key guys’ playing time, often resting them on back-to-backs, but that wasn’t true for prime Duncan.
Timmy never played fewer than 39 minutes per game during the first six seasons of his career. In three of those campaigns, he played all 82 games, and he appeared in 81 contests in another. Duncan’s first playoff run in which he played fewer than 40 minutes per contest didn’t come until his eighth season.
Somewhere between the 2001-02 and 2004-05 seasons, Coach Pop, being the hipster that he is, started thinking toward the future with his young superstar. In an era where superstars played nearly the whole game, and even run-of-the-mill starters got around 35 minutes, Duncan was averaging just 33.4 minutes per contest in 2004-05.
That number ranked him 64th league-wide. Despite being one of the top three players in the association at that point, Rafer Alston, David Wesley, Jeff McInnis, Chucky Atkins and Kurt Thomas were all playing more than he was.
His minutes have just kept declining since then, and he’s now been at 30.1 or lower in each of the past six seasons, which is far below the playing time someone of his effectiveness would command. But take a look at the steady fall that took place between 2001-02 and 2010-11, which was key.
Without a doubt, this has benefitted both Timmy and the Spurs, as San Antonio has kept winning and making noise in the playoffs.
Duncan’s chugging along just fine right now, but there were real worries both 10 seasons ago and about five years ago that his effectiveness was about to drop off a cliff, which brings us to the two other reasons Duncan has aged so well physically: the addition of a mid-range game and the weight he’s lost and kept off in recent seasons.
In the 2005-06 season, 13.5 percent of Duncan’s field-goal attempts were from 16 feet to the three-point line. He made 33.1 percent of those shots. The mid-range jump shot wasn’t enough of a threat for opposing teams to respect it, and he couldn’t leverage it as a set-up for drives to the rim. If he had to keep getting all of his points close to the basket, he was going to wear down from all that banging down low, and his chances at injury were higher.
Timmy made the gradual improvement on that shot, and by 2011-12, 28.2 percent of his shots came from that 16 feet-to-three-point-line distance and he was making an excellent 47.8 percent of them.
In the past few seasons, he’s lost a bit of confidence in those type of attempts and often doesn’t have the legs to get a decent arc on them but has compensated by developing a deadly little push shot in the lane that keeps him from having to take a significant physical pounding.
The play starting at the 24-second mark in the below video is what I’m talking about here.
The touch has affected his free-throw shooting positively, as he’s consistently in the neighborhood of 75 percent these days, after struggling to reach the upper 60s during most of his prime.
Additionally, Duncan made a concerted effort starting in the summer of 2011 to keep a stricter diet and do more cardio work, as opposed to weight training. He dropped from 260 to 235 pounds, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. It appears as if he’s kept the weight off, and that’s helped him stay fresh and helped keep extra weight off of his bad knee.
These physical changes have been important to Duncan maintaining such a high level of play, but his mental adjustments are what really set him apart.
It’s obvious Timmy realizes he’s no longer the best offensive player on the Spurs (you could safely put Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge ahead of him, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw also in the discussion) and he plays accordingly. As past-their-prime superstars like Kobe and Derrick Rose have proved, we can’t take that self-awareness for granted.
In the past four years, Duncan’s usage rate has fallen. He’s used his declining scoring role to become slightly more efficient when he does get the ball, often as a roll man in the pick-and-roll or a post passer. He gets isolated in the post a good amount still, but it’s often just a decoy to force a double team and facilitate ball movement.
However, offense is, by far, Duncan’s weaker end of the floor these days. The 39-year-old can allocate his pent-up energy from a smaller offensive role to the defensive side of the ball. And, after more than 18 seasons of experience, he’s become the smartest defender in the league despite playing at an athletic disadvantage every night.
Timmy doesn’t fare well when he’s switched onto guards, but both his help defense and one-on-one man marking remain top-notch. He always slides his long 6’11” body in perfect position between the offensive player and the basket, which discourages leapers from trying to go over him in fears of an offensive foul call or worse, an injury. His excellent anticipatory footwork also forces awkward hook shots and tough fadeaways galore.
When offensive players do try to go straight at Duncan, he times his block attempts so he can get a piece of the ball right after his opponent leaves the floor, making his 20-inch max vertical (totally a ballpark estimate) a non-issue.
He’s consistently one of the league leaders in blocks per foul, a simple statistic that does a surprisingly good job of measuring effective rim protection.
All of this results in a defensive real plus-minus that is currently the best in the NBA by a wide margin. In fact, he’s been in the top five in each of the statistic’s three years of existence, a feat no one else has achieved.
Quite simply, TD still can ball on both ends of the court, but especially on defense. We haven’t touched on his leadership or self-sacrifice, but it’s an absolute given that the legend continues to positively impact his teammates with his basketball knowledge, humility, even-keeled temperament and even just his friendship.
So what can we learn from all of this? This isn’t a “Duncan is better than Kobe” treatise, but rather a reminder that Duncan is a certified boss. Although he’s not currently playing at a level comparable to his prime years, the 39-year-old warhorse remains one of the most effective players in the NBA and a positive influence on the Spurs organization.
If you still have Kobe above him on your all-time list, that’s fine. But you at least need to respect all that Timmy has done in the entirety of his 19-season career.