It's 2013. Tim Duncan watches, not quite believing, as the Miami Heat take what would have been his fifth title - improbably winning Game 6 after a series of Spurs late game miscues, and then snatching Game 7 in a 4th quarter surge behind the greatness of Lebron James, while exploiting the fragility of Tony Parker's hamstring, and winning over the shooting gods that fled Danny Green as quickly as they had blessed him.
Duncan, 37 years old, in typical big-game fashion, averaged 27 points per game and 14.5 rebounds in the two potential close out games while clocking 42 minutes per. He showed flashes of his old brilliance, but also the fallibility of age, failing to finish a couple of late, key possessions at the rim. A post-game commentator wonders if Duncan might have done more and I find myself laughing out loud, only because I can see the obvious.
Duncan gave everything.
It's 1996. The San Antonio Spurs, saddled with a bad roster and an early season-ending injury to David Robinson, allow a then unpopular GM named Gregg Popovich to fire head coach Bob Hill, hire himself in his stead, and to systematically tank the rest of the season in order to improve their chances of landing the college player they most coveted, Wake Forest big man Tim Duncan. The Spurs went 20-62 that year. A 37 year old Dominique Wilkins - plucked from Greek professional basketball - was their leading scorer.
It was not pretty.
While Duncan had experienced a stellar four year career at Wake Forest and was the consensus #1 pick in an extremely weak 1997 draft class, there was a palpable undercurrent of opinion - now denied, forgotten, or swept under the rug - that the stoic Duncan lacked NBA athleticism, might not be tough enough, and didn't appear to have the aggression required to face a murderer's row of NBA power forwards like Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, and Dennis Rodman, much less Juwan Howard, Dale Davis, Vin Baker, or young phenom Kevin Garnett. This was the NBA's Golden Age of Big Men - both 4s and 5s. The weak needed not apply.
Besides, what was the upside of a four year college player? High school-to-NBA superstars - like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady - were all the rage, early entry the mark of real talent.
I vividly recall arguing with friends, some of them NBA and college basketball junkies, who asserted that Duncan would be a disappointment. Too slow, too phlegmatic, too lacking fast twitch. He's going to take on Shaq? Really? Shaq! Duncan, they suspected, was soft. How can a big man devoid of emotion or a powerful game built on speed or power survive in a man's league? Why didn't his Wake Forest teams ever do anything in the NCAA tournament? He wasn't a winner.
I wish that my counter-arguments, such as they were, weren't equally embarrassing. Duncan, I patiently explained, was not great, but he was skilled, a tougher guy than they imagined, and would be a very good, but obviously not great, NBA player. A better defending version of Brad Daugherty. He'd play a decade, average 17-10, make some All-Star games, and have a nice career. A nice complement to David Robinson. Now, what the Spurs really needed to get to the next level was a guard, say, Jason Kidd at point, or Ray Allen at shooting guard...
Duncan's career laughed at my Brad Daugherty comp like it was a Joey Crawford blocking call.
Duncan's NBA greatness was immediately apparent. And everyone suddenly decided that he was inevitable all along. He was too skilled and cerebral for the athletic guys, too subtle for the power guys, and more athletic than anyone had imagined. Lacked emotion? No. Just unflappable. The rookie Duncan averaged 21-12 in the middle of the greatest Big Man Era in NBA History, the Spurs improved by 36 wins, and the individual hardware poured in: Rookie of The Year, 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-Defense.
A decade and half long Spurs Dynasty was born.
Duncan's career numbers - averaging 20-11 over 16 seasons - but 22-11 over 211 playoff games spanning three decades (the uncharacteristic play-off increase is Duncan in a nutshell), a 14x NBA All-Defensive Team member with 4 titles - speak for themselves, but his true greatness is obscured by the almost dutiful, even grudging, acknowledgement of his consistent excellence and constancy of play by the media and fans, oddly bereft of the sheer wonder and awe that should accompany the mention of one of the greatest dozen players to ever step on a basketball court.
Why is that?
1. Economy, consistency, and efficiency are undervalued.
Perhaps Duncan's style of play - skillful, purposeful, patient, inevitable - doesn't fire the imagination the way that many of his lesser peers of the same era could. See Allen Iverson. Perhaps we don't know what good really looks like when it's stripped bare of glitter. Maybe people don't appreciate that 7 footers aren't supposed to move this easily.
Humans are bored and biased by low variability excellence. If your game is consistently good and paired with an economy of motion, it's taken for granted. A game prone to erratic highs and lows, even at the expense of constant production, makes a player more beguiling.
Potential makes us drunk. Consistent achievement makes us yawn.
2. Defense is undervalued.
And by undervalued, I mean ignored. Or wildly misunderstood. The activity that all basketball players spend 50% of their time on the court doing tends to be assessed at a fraction of its actual value. At age 37, Tim Duncan is still a very good defender (Pounding The Rock contends he had a strong case for DPOY this year), but for most of his career he was an elite, dominating one. And a paint defender can impose his will on an entire offense, not just his man. When that same rim protector can cover the entire paint, disrupt the pick and roll, kill the boards, and turn blocks into clean outlets, you have the luxury of stocking your roster with all sorts of misfit toys who couldn't guard a lamp post - I'm looking at you, so-many-Spurs-through-history not named Bruce Bowen or David Robinson.
The short answer for WHY the Spurs could be a great system team of specialized role players over a decade and a half isn't found in the system at all. It's Tim Duncan. He hid the ugly. On both ends of the court.
3. The San Antonio market.
To a large extent, media market size is reputational destiny.
Pure excellence will always be noted, but media is the great magnifier. See the sophisticated Knick Fan - who has not seen intelligent basketball played since 1973 (why does a group that hasn't seen what good likes in 4 decades get so much acumen credit and deference?) and has convinced NBA fans through the media that Carmelo Anthony is a Top Five player. If Tim Duncan had played out his career in a significant media market, he would be regarded as a nearly mystical Russellian figure, unassailable in any argument. Instead, you get a lot of, "Oh, Duncan is really good. I respect him. Don't get me wrong. But one of the true greats?"
4. Duncan's teams are frequently misunderstood, his supporting casts consistently overrated. And people really don't remember Tim Duncan in his prime.
Duncan's career is broken into two distinctive eras: The Twin Towers and The Big Three.
The very names create false equivalencies, suggesting equal partnerships. Let's be clear about who the managing partner was. Robinson crossed Duncan's career in steep descent; Parker and Ginobili joined Duncan in 2003, but were never quite equals until Parker grew up in 2007, and Duncan began his decline in 2009.
Duncan wasn't a Twin Tower for very long. In the sense of carrying an equal burden with Robinson. That happened in exactly one year. His first. Thereafter, Duncan was the Admiral, Robinson was manning the oars.
Duncan played with a David Robinson very different from the player that is one of the Top 50 players of all time. That player was in his clear prime mostly pre-Duncan between 1990-1998 (25 ppg, 11 rpg average), compared to 1999-2003 (14 ppg, 9 rpg average) when the Spurs won their first two titles. The pre-Duncan Robinson was a superstar, the post-Duncan Robinson was a nice NBA big, particularly in the first 1998-9 championship season where he became a defensive specialist and handed the offensive burden to Duncan.
That 1998-1999 Spurs team swept the prime Shaq/ young Kobe Lakers 4-0, swept the Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals, and then won easily over the Knicks in the Finals. Duncan completely dominated a physical Knick front line and was voted Finals MVP, while averaging 23.2 and 11.5 for the entire playoffs. The most skilled perimeter player on that Spurs squad was Sean Elliott who averaged 11 points per game on 41% shooting.
In 2003, the wisdom goes that Duncan and the Spurs won their next championship because Duncan and the plodding Spurs finally "got help" in the form of the athletic Ginobili and Parker. They immediately formed the Big 3 and terrorized the NBA!
No, they didn't.
Duncan threw another average team on his back and won another title.
Parker was an erratic 19 year old rookie point guard from France, still prone to crying in practice, indifferent to defense, and still working on a jump shot past 14 feet. If you don't remember him in the close-out game of the NBA Finals, that's because Pop benched him in the 2nd quarter for Speedy Claxton.
Ginobili was flashy and promising - and averaged 7 points a game, didn't defend, and was still trying to learn the NBA. That Manu was fun. And had hair. But let's leave it at that.
The 37 year old Robinson was in his final year, now just a shadow of his former self, averaging 8 ppg on 47% shooting. The team got by on Tim Duncan and heavy doses of NBA journeymen like Malik Rose, Stephen Jackson, and Bruce Bowen.
Tim Duncan took what would have otherwise been a 34-48 team without him and won the NBA championship, plowing through a stacked Western Conference. And in those playoffs, we have a reminder of what Tim Duncan, at the very peak of his powers, looked like.
Duncan averaged 24.7 points per game, 15.4 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists, 3.3 blocks on 53% shooting over the course of the entire playoffs. Victims included the in-their-primes Shaq & Kobe Lakers and the regular season 60 win Nowitzki-Nash-Finley Mavs. In the decisive Game 6 in Los Angeles, Duncan scored 37 points with 16 rebounds on 64% shooting. Against the Mavs, he averaged 28-18 over six games.
In the NBA Finals, against the New Jersey Nets and PF Kenyon Martin, Duncan set the tone in Game 1 with 32 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, and 7 blocks. In the close-out game five, Duncan went for 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks. In that 2003 playoffs, Duncan shot 53% from the field while the next top four scorers on the Spurs roster combined to shoot 40%. The first question Bill Walton asks on the Net series highlight is whether the Spurs have hit an outside shot all game. That question was asked frequently in those playoffs.
That's a 26 year old Tim Freaking Duncan. And he was a One Man Gang.
In 2005, Duncan took the Spurs to another NBA title (by now Parker and Manu are both very good, but still subordinate players), winning his 3rd NBA Finals MVP trophy (23.6 ppg, 12.4 rpg over that playoffs).
As for the Big Three, it's real, but wasn't truly born until Tony Parker's coming of age in 2007. When the Spurs had 3 of their 4 championships already in the bank. In that 2007 playoff run (ending with a merciless sweep of the Cavaliers), Duncan averaged 22.2 ppg and 11.5 rpg and played some of the best defense of his career.
At age 30, Tim Duncan had four NBA rings playing for a small market team with a salary cap that Jerry Buss could find in his couch cushions. What might have he done in a big market?
5. Lack of ego.
Imagine a NBA player, a perennial All-Star, that carried the franchise on his back to 4 NBA titles called into his head coach's office around age 32 and told:
"Hey, we're going to revamp how we play, devalue you in the offense with much more running and three point shooting, build the offense around Tony Parker - yeah, the same guy who used to cry in practice and that we tried to trade on several occasions. We need you to rebound and defend, and you'll score less because you'll be playing fewer minutes as part of our running strategy and to preserve your legs. You're going to be the second best player here now. You good with that?"
The superstar thinks. He considers the logic. He nods. Sure. Anything else?
A proper NBA star would have crucified the coach, manipulated the hometown media to stifle the new direction, and gotten the entire front office fired before forcing a trade from San Antonio, leaving a scorched blaze in his wake, decimating the small market team into rebuild hell.
Tim put his ego aside, saw the logic of it all, and did what was best for the team.
Perhaps by refusing to act like a NBA star, Duncan made us forget how big of one he actually was.