Tim Duncan is the greatest player of his generation.
Greater than Shaquille O’Neal. Greater than Kobe Bryant.
Those are his contemporaries. If you want to add Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki to the mix, that’s fine, even though they clearly rank behind the top three.
It’s a three-horse race.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s be clear. This conversation is not about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Kevin Durant. That’s a different generation and a different conversation.
As Duncan’s Spurs prepare for a final push toward what would be a fifth world championship, the 10-time All-NBA first-teamer keeps chuggin’ along, kicking Father Time in the gut with every jumper. Already the greatest power forward to ever play the game — ahead of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Kevin McHale in my book — Duncan would add to his legacy with a fifth championship ring.
And he’s attempting it in typical Duncan fashion, the Big Fundamental quietly going ab0ut his business. Duncan craves the spotlight like Superman craves Kryptonite.
Until recently, reporters covering the Spurs typically gathered after games in the locker room, right outside the team shower to make sure they didn’t miss Duncan, who wasn’t above quietly slipping out while the media was interviewing a teammate. Problem was, all those bodies and TV cameras made it tougher for others to get from the shower to their stalls to get dressed.
Then Manu Ginobili got involved.
“Everyone, move over to the front of Timmy’s locker,” he said after Game 1 of the Golden State series. “This is where we will do interviews from now on.”
When Duncan emerged from the showers, he realized that years of playfully evading the media had come to an end, thanks to his buddy. Duncan may have have ducked out of some interviews during his storied career, but he has never avoided the spotlight at winning time.
No player in league history has accomplished so much and said so little. Down here, he’s just plain old Timmy, willing to play for less money to remain comfortable playing for a coach he trusts. Willing to sacrifice personal stats for wins. Willing to set aside his ego and do whatever is best for the group.
“Tim Duncan has been my favorite player since George Gervin retired,” Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving said on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” last week. “(I like) the way he goes about taking care of business night in and night out.”
In terms of championships, Kobe holds the edge with five while Duncan is tied with Shaq with four apiece. I would place Duncan and Shaq ahead of Kobe overall. Here’s why. They have three NBA Finals MVPs apiece while Kobe has just two. Plus, Bryant had the benefit of winning three of his titles without even being the best player on his own team. Duncan shared the court with David Robinson early on, but the sense here is he was always San Antonio’s best player.
Shaq was a beast, but he played out of shape at times and wasn’t always the most committed teammate, as his rap and movie careers took up up time he could have spent in the gym. Duncan’s work ethic set him apart from Shaq, the most physically dominant center since Wilt Chamberlain. And Duncan’s been the perfect teammate while that senseless Shaq-Kobe feud cost the Lakers two or three more titles.
Now in his golden years, Duncan has selflessly deferred to his younger teammate Tony Parker, just like Robinson once deferred to him. Even with that, Duncan had a great 2012-13 regular season, averaging 17.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks. He also is playing for just less than $10 million this season, which is less than half of what he made two years ago. The $11.5 million pay cut allowed the Spurs to re-sign Danny Green and keep Boris Diaw.
So what if he is more boring than an infomercial about paint drying? His career has been a blueprint for people of all ages and professions. Sinatra would have approved. Duncan did it his way.
And he isn’t finished. The author of 143 playoff double-doubles shed 30 pounds by swimming in the offseason and doesn’t resemble the player who limped through the 2012 playoffs with a gimpy knee.
Now with the news of his impending divorce making headlines, Duncan has remained what he has always been — a true pro in every sense of the word.
And the best player of his generation.
How Tim Duncan measures up …
By the numbers
Career playoff averages for Duncan and some of his most notable NBA contemporaries — Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.
Games;Min.;FG pct.;FT pct;Reb.;Assists;Steals;Blocks;Pts.
By championship rings
Bryant: 5 (Lakers, 1999-00, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10)
Duncan: 4 (Spurs, 1998-99, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07)
O’Neal: 4 (Lakers, 1999-00, 2000-01, 2001-02; Heat, 2005-06)
Pierce: 1 (Celtics, 2007-08)
Garnett: 1 (Celtics, 2007-08)
Nowitzki: 1 (Mavericks, 2010-11)