What can be said about the recently retired Tim Duncan that hasn’t already been said? The story is fairly clear. Duncan comes to Wake Forest from the Virgin Islands and immediately excels and has a storybook NBA career with the Spurs, albeit without much flair or memorable stories. Rather than retrace the whole story, the challenge is to find some stories hidden in the background that fans don’t remember. So, here are a few:
Did fear of sharks steer Duncan to the NBA?
This isn’t really too underneath the radar but, growing up in St. Croix, Duncan’s first sport was swimming and his sister Tricia was actually an Olympic swimmer (Duncan claimed he might’ve made the Olympics too). So what happened? In 1995, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times told the story about how Hurricane Hugo in 1989 destroyed the pools Duncan practiced. His swim team had to practice in the ocean but “somehow it wasn’t the same with all those sharks and no lane markers.” Hence the story that took hold was that the sharks convinced Duncan to play hoops, for the first time, as a ninth grader. But Duncan talked down this tale, as he told Dufresne that a move to basketball was likely inevitable: “Eventually. It just wouldn’t have been as sudden as it was. But slowly, I would have turned to basketball, I believe.”
Duncan at Wake Forest
Wake Forest was able to find Duncan in St. Croix because a Wake player, Chris King, happened to be on the island and saw Duncan play well against Alonzo Mourning. Coach Dave Odom flew to St. Croix to grab Duncan, who not hotly recruited. According to Dufresne, Duncan was Odom’s third most covered international recruit behind Makhtar N’Diaye (who would later play at North Carolina) and Ricardo Peral (a Spanish three-point shooter for Wake).
In the Sports Illustrated article in 1995, Seth Davis described Duncan as a unique player and person. Odom flew to St. Croix in an attempt to woo Duncan but TD only stared at a television and appeared to be ignoring him. Odom said the visit seemed ineffective: “He’s not taking in anything I’m saying. Then at the end of the visit, he began to ask me these questions that only someone who was totally focused could ask. I knew then this a different kind of person.”
Duncan was immediately a big player at Wake as a freshman and jumped to 16 ppg and 12 rpg as a sophomore in 1994-95. As of October 1995, Davis said that “[m]any executives have said Duncan would have been one of the first players drafted had he been eligible for [the 1994 draft].” Davis foreshadowed that “it’s only logical to assume the program won’t be so fortunate this time [in keeping Duncan in college].”
Duncan continued to ascend the draft projections. In December 1995, Sports Illustrated wrote up TD’s match up with one of his main rivals, Marcus Camby of UMass. SI quoted Chuck Douglas of the Washington Bullets comparing their NBA prospects and saying that “Duncan may have the edge when it comes to which gets drafted higher, because he’s only 19, and there’s a real scarcity of true centers in the NBA.”
The match up also was another illustration of how different Duncan was the from the typical NBA macho man. After the game he praised Camby and said that “Marcus played great defense, bothering me to a point where I let myself get frustrated and disappoint out there. He beat the crap out of me, but I learned a lot, and I think it was fun for both of us.” Camby offered more unvarnished comments: “Duncan’s soft. He’s scared of me. After the game was over, he said, ‘You got me.’”
Duncan ultimately stayed all fours of college, even though he was the projected as the top pick as early as the 1995-96 season (the Warriors ended up taking Joe Smith instead that year).
Duncan and tanking
Tanking existed long before people complained about the Sam Hinkie 76ers. The race for Duncan in 1996-97 was one of the prime tankfests. One of the key factors in tanking, which is often forgotten, is that the prize has to be worth the tank. If you tank and you get a Joe Smith, it probably wasn’t worth the pain. But Duncan (like Shaq and Lebron James) was one of those consensus stars that was so coveted that many teams found it was worth the risk of a terrible season to get him.
Accordingly, the Celtics strip-mined their roster and were the worst team in the NBA at 15-67. Philly, Denver, Dallas, and Vancouver weren’t exactly trying very hard either at the time.
The Spurs, however, entered the season not looking to tank. The Spurs were always good in the 1990s before Duncan because they had David Robinson. The Spurs entered 1996-97 with every intention of winning 50+ games and competing for the title. Robinson was 31 at the time and had played 80 games six of his first seven seasons (the only exception being when he broke his wrist near the end of the 1991-92 season). Robinson started 1996-97 with back issues and missed the first 18 games, in which the Spurs went an abysmal 3-15. Robinson returned for six games and then broke his foot and was out for the year by Christmas.
At 6-18 and no Robinson, the Spurs embraced the horridness. They let 37-year old Dominique Wilkins shoot often and Nique had his last good stat season (18.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 19.6 PER). Other advanced stats were not as kind to Wilkins (he had a -0.5 BPM). In either case, the Spurs were using a lineup of Avery Johnson, Vernon Maxwell, Dominique Wilkins, Carl Herrera, and Will Perdue put up a bad 20-62 record. It wasn’t a complete tank (Boston and Vancouver were worse and Philly, Denver, and Dallas were nearly as bad) but it was enough to put the Spurs in the lottery conversation.
The Spurs correctly realized there was no point competing without Robinson and were rewarded accordingly with Duncan for the one bad season they have had since 1988-89. While some would take the lesson that the Spurs’ result shows tanking is bad, I actually think it shows the opposite. The worst teams (Boston and the Vancouver) did not get Duncan and Boston fired their coach/GM M.L. Carr as a reward for executing the tank plan too well. Instead, tanking gives you a chance but no team can bank on losing enough to get its man in the draft.
Rookie of the Year: Duncan v. Keith Van Horn
Duncan was instantly a great player and his rookie numbers were dominant (21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, .549 FG%). The amazing part of his season is that he wasn’t the unanimous rookie of the year. He was close, taking 113 of the 116 votes. Somehow, three voters thought Van Horn (19.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, .426 FG%) had a better season. On its face, TD seemed like the much better player and the advanced stats are even stronger:
Duncan: 22.6 PER, 12.8 WS, 5.5 BPM, 6.0 VORP
Van Horn: 15.7 PER, 4.8 WS, -0.4 BPM, 0.9 VORP
Is there a cognizable argument for voting for KVH over TD? Of course not. I’m assuming a few New York or Utah voters were throwing a bone Van Horn’s way. Let’s go back in time and try to figure out how anyone could’ve possible justified voting for Van Horn.
Check out this article from February 1998, which tried to make the counter-argument by quoting Van Horn’s teammate Jayson Williams: “[Van Horn’s] the rookie of the year, no question. Look what he’s brought the franchise. We’ve never been in this type of situation before. Tim’s a great player, but this kid has brought this franchise to a whole new level. They’re winning over there, but they have David Robinson. This kid’s winning with nobody.”
Williams also told the New York Times: “’In my eyes, it is over. I respect Tim Duncan. I think Tim Duncan is an excellent player. But in my eyes, Keith Van Horn is the greatest since Michael Jordan, and there’s been a lot of good players since then. I see Tim and Keith as the future of the league. Both have different strengths, obviously. If Keith is hitting that 3-pointer tomorrow, forget about it. But it’s interesting. I love to see this. This is what it’s all about. I wish I could sit and watch it.”
Williams, as usual, got a little carried away but Van Horn had some buzz from his college fame and his helping the Nets improve, which drew a few voters his way. Van Horn is a story for another day but, for today, is a reminder that perceived value of players can fluctuate wildly.
Was Duncan the best power forward of All-Time?
No. But this is only because he was clearly not a power forward. Duncan sort of played this role when Robinson was still around and continued it a bit with Rasho Nesterovic but nothing about TD’s game seemed power forwardish. He played in the post on both ends commensurate with the big man spot and few forwards could block shots like Duncan (the only “true” forwards with more blocks in a single season are Elvin Hayes from 1973-74 and Larry Nance in 1991-92).
This argument is, ultimately, one of semantics. Let’s not get really hung up on his position. Duncan would’ve fit in either position and, if one believes that Duncan was a power forward (which is not unreasonable to believe), then he is number one in that slot.
What was Duncan’s signature play?
True to his nature, it’s hard to really pick a signature moment in his career. The one most remembered might be Joey Crawford freaking out and throwing Duncan out from the bench. Few remember a signature shot or block. Two shots, though, do jump to my mind.
The first came in Game 5 of the 2003-04 Western Conference Finals. A few tenths of a second before Derek Fisher made his crazy shot to beat the Spurs, Duncan hit a 22-foot fadeway over Shaquille O’Neal to seemingly clinch the game. TD had 21 points and 21 rebounds in the game, only to watch the game (and the series) slip away on that crazy Fisher runner. Though overshadowed by Fisher, Duncan’s shot was as great a shot as Duncan has ever made.
The other memorable shot was Duncan’s unlikely three-pointer to tie Game 1 of a first round series against the Suns in 2007-08. With the Spurs down three and 12.6 seconds on the clock, the Spurs called for an isolation for Manu Ginobili. Duncan picked for Manu at the top of the key and both Steve Nash and Shaq chased Ginobili, leaving Duncan wide open for an elbow three. Duncan cooly sank the shot and forced overtime. The Spurs ultimately won 117-115 in double-OT. Incidentally, Duncan made 30 threes in the regular season and was 5-35 for his career in the playoffs.
Duncan vs. Shaq
The big question of our generation has really been between Shaq and his physical dominance against Duncan’s consistency. Let’s review the numbers:
-Shaq: 1,207 games, 34.7 mpg, 23.7 ppg, .582 FG%, 10.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 181.7 WS, 5.0 BPM, 74.0 VORP
-Duncan: 1,392 games, 34.0 mpg, 19.0 ppg, .506 FG%, 10.8 rpg, 2.2 bpg, 206.4 WS, 5.5 BPM, 89.3 VORP
TD played nearly 200 more regular seasons than Shaq, so career value is clearly looking towards Duncan. Coincidentally, Duncan and Shaq are nearly dead even in WS per 48 minutes (.208). Shaq’s absolute peak (1999-2003) does look slightly better than TD’s but is trounced in overall career value because Duncan’s decline was so slight.
In terms of head-to-head match ups, the Spurs swept the Lakers in 1998-99 and the Lakers returned the favor in 2000-01. They then split in 2002-03 (Spurs win 4-2) and 2003-04 (Lakers win 4-2 on the Fisher shot). Duncan would win the tie-breaker in 2007-08 when Shaq was on the Suns. By that time, however, Shaq was way past his prime as a player (15.2 ppg. 9.2 rpg against TD in that seres) and Duncan was still MVP-level (24.8 ppg, 13.8 rpg). This encapsulates the differences between them. Close but Duncan outlasts him in the end.
If forced to pick between them, I would take Duncan. He wasn’t quite as great at the peak but his longevity and the fact that he was probably the easiest superstar to ever coach gives him the edges over Shaq.
Kevin Garnett v. Tim Duncan
This rivalry is more interesting than the Shaq v. Duncan because TD and Garnett seemed to have some real animus between them. It all started with their personalities. Duncan was usually stoic and above the fray and KG was/is a manic and ferocious player on the court. Their demeanors were so different that Nazr Mohammed wrote a fun article about this fact: “Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were really the yin and yang of my era in the NBA. In some ways, Kevin almost seemed like Tim Duncan’s evil twin. They were so similar, yet so different.”
The juxtaposition of personalities created some issues. In 2012, Chris Ballard at Sports Illustrated wrote that: “Duncan hates Kevin Garnett….The information comes from very reliable sources, who talk about how KG has made a career of trying to punk Duncan, baiting him and slapping him and whispering really weird smack into his ear. They talk about how funny this is, because the worst thing you can do as an opponent is piss off Duncan….Duncan is diplomatic about the topic. Asked if perhaps all those years battling Garnett have softened his feelings for the man, led to a Magic-Larry type of kinship, Duncan leans back on the couch in his hotel room and grins. There is a pause. A longer pause. Finally he says, ‘Define kinship’.”
The rivalry was well-known in the NBA and in 2006, Ron Artest recalled to Pat Forde his own observations: “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.”
On Garnett’s end, he treated Duncan like everybody else he played against…very poorly (the list of KG haters is quite long). It does not appear Garnett is too mad at Duncan now. In 2014, KG told the New York Daily News that “[o]bviously [Duncan] has a bowl full of rings and a bowl full of experience. Your hat has to go off to him. At this point, it’s all love.” Not sure the feeling is quite mutual.
Stat-wise, Garnett is really close. He actually has a few more win shares and, like Shaq, a slightly higher peak, though Duncan also was better per-minute. There is a credible argument that Garnett was the better player. How do you choose in such a case? Title wins can be a lazy way to compare players but, with two players so close on the stats, I think it is fair to use Duncan’s titles as a tie breaker in this instance.
The All-Duncan Teammate Line Up
As great as Duncan has been, he was fortunate to be paired with some really good players. First, he had late model David Robinson (who was still really good). Then, came Tony Parker, Manu Ginobil, and Kawhi Leonard. Here’s the best individual seasons by position around Duncan (including TD’s best season):
-PG,Tony Parker, 2008-09: 22.0 ppg, .506 FG%, 6.9 apg, 23.4 PER, 3.1 BPM, 3.2 VORP
-SG, Manu Ginobili, 2007-08: 19.5 ppg, .460 FG%, 4.5 apg, 24.3 PER, 8.1 BPM, 5.9 VORP
-SF, Kawhi Leonard, 2015-16: 21.2 ppg, .506 FG%, 6.8 rpg, 26.0 PER, 8.3 BPM, 6.2 VORP
-PF, Tim Duncan, 2001-02: 25.5 ppg, .508 FG%, 12.7 rpg, 27.0 PER, 7.6 BPM, 8.1 VORP
-C, David Robinson, 1997-98: 21.6 ppg, .511 FG%, 10.6 rpg, 27.8 PER, 7.8 BPM, 3.7 VORP
Wow. A Hall of Fame-level player at every position.
TD’s Career Epitaph
The articles and stats show that Duncan was both an unbelievable player and a really unique and interesting person. This is not to knock the hyper-competitive driven players like Garnett but Duncan was just different in so many ways. TD worked hard and wanted to win but the NBA was clearly not his life. He chose to have fun in college over money and he chose to stay in San Antonio when other teams could’ve offered more exotic situations.
Duncan was clearly fully formed and decent human being at an early age. You can find no better evidence of this than Duncan’s own words in 1997, when asked by Sports Illustrated about what his potential greatness meant to him personally: “I guess it’s possible that someday people will look back at what I did this season and mention my name alongside guys like Walton and Ewing. I don’t really like to live in the past, but maybe when I’m 50, I’ll sit on a Jet Ski alone in the ocean off St. Croix and reminisce for a moment or two about all I did this year—and then I’ll ride off looking for another wave to jump.”