At age 36 most NBA players, especially big men, have slowed down to become role players whose primary job is to rebound, set screens, and play defense (see: Camby, Marcus; Thomas, Kurt; *insert New York Knicks player here*).
For most near seven-footers in their mid-30s, knees have begun to give way, they’ve lost some of their mid-range touch, rolls to the hoop become labored. However, Tim Duncan is not most big men. Duncan continues to make his case for being the “best power forward in NBA history” and is only strengthening his case in the latter stages of his career.
The past two season Duncan had seemed to slow down. Back and knee injuries limited his minutes and he was no longer the first option offensively. While averages of 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds and 15.4 points and 9.0 rebounds are better than most, they represented fairly severe drops considering he had never averaged less than 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds.
This year, Duncan has re-established himself as the top option for the Spurs with a 26.7 usage percentage (USG) and has his highest player efficiency rating (PER) (24.6) since the 2006-07 season. The question is, how has he done it?
Duncan is the focal point of the Spurs offense and they run three main plays for him. First, is a post-up clear-out on the left side of the floor. Tony Parker will feed Duncan and then make a quick dive cut (which gives the Spurs an easy lay-up on occasion when Parker’s man loses focus and helps down on Duncan) before letting Duncan go to work from his favorite spot, the left block. Duncan’s jump shot has not been particularly great this year (he’s shooting a relatively pedestrian 40 percent from outside the restricted area), but he still uses the glass better than anyone in the NBA and is dangerous enough to force contests on his shots, which opens up his quick pump and drive to the basket.
The second most frequent play for Duncan is a pick-and-roll with Parker. Parker’s quickness and knack for hitting floaters in the lane often forces defenders to hedge hard on him and try to keep him out of the lane. Duncan understands angles better than almost anyone in the NBA and also is great at slipping the screen at the perfect moment to create an easy bounce pass for Parker that leads to dunks or lay-ups. Duncan rolls the majority of the time when he’s on the right side of the floor, while on the left side, he has more of a tendency to pop. (See shot chart)
The third play is a variation on the first. When defenders front Duncan’s post-up, the Spurs will bring Boris Diaw or DeJuan Blair to the opposite elbow to take the ball and then Duncan will quickly slip to the basket for a lay-up. They run this play with Diaw especially because of his great passing ability. This tweak on their post play keeps opponents from fronting the post and allows Duncan to work more comfortably.
Duncan’s shot chart shows his comfort level on the left side of the floor compared to the right. Almost half of his 512 attempts have come from the restricted area or just outside of it (255). Despite his usage rate, Duncan remains efficient with a 50.4 shooting percentage, has a 50.6 effective field-goal percentage (eFG), and a 55.5 true shooting percentage (TS). All of these are right in line with his career averages, which is amazing considering the usage he’s getting at his age.
Not only is Duncan producing and playing efficiently on the offensive end, his defensive numbers have held strong as well. Duncan’s 2.6 defensive win shares have already almost equaled his 2.9 from last season in 21 fewer games. Duncan has been very good against post-ups (0.75 points per possession (PPP)) and isolation (0.62 PPP) this season. As one would expect with his prior knee and back issues, his biggest struggles are defending roll men (1.3 PPP), but that is still 44th in the NBA for those qualifying defending the roll man.
Probably the most amazing part of Duncan’s late career success is that he is doing it on championship-level teams. Duncan is the first option on one of the best teams in the NBA and his production is leading the team to victories rather than a team losing in spite of their aging stars performance (Yes, I’m talking about Kobe Bryant). Many people talk about the “Spurs model” and building a team in the European style (especially in Atlanta with Danny Ferry), but there are a few catches with that.
First, the Spurs have the two most successful “European style” players the NBA has ever seen in Parker and Manu Ginobili. Second, they have one of the best coaches in the NBA in Gregg Popovich. Finally, and most importantly, they have had the greatest power forward to ever play the game for the past 13 years, and he continues to amaze and astonish into his late 30s. I think it’s time we recognize what kind of greatness we’re watching, and the rarity of such a team and such a player. Ladies and gentlemen, “Mr. Fundamental” Tim Duncan … The Ageless Wonder.
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