The San Antonio Spurs are amazing; since Tim Duncan was drafted first overall in 1997 they have been to the Finals six times in 17 seasons, as well as the Western Conference Finals nine times, won at least 50 games every year (or have been on pace to in lockout years) and after Sunday hoisted their fifth championship in the Duncan/Gregg Popovich era.
And the last one might have been the sweetest, getting their revenge after a brutal loss last year against the Miami Heat, the two-time champions and behemoth of the NBA, who were supposed to be unbeatable with the world’s best player, LeBron James.
The continuous excellence of the Spurs is incredible, unlikely to happen again and the closest thing we have had to a dynasty in the NBA since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls.
Other great teams and champions have come-and-gone; The Detroit Pistons with Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace that won the 2004 title and made the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row. The Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers that three-peated, The Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett Celtics, Dirk Nowitzki‘s Mavericks, LeBron’s Cavaliers, (and perhaps even LeBron’s big three in Miami).
The Spurs have outlasted and outperformed them all. They have been the best team in the NBA over the past 20 years by such a wide margin it’s hilarious.
I’m usually not a fan of comparing the career arcs of great players, but between LeBron and Jordan there is this period of time that’s really interesting and the title of the best player is up for grabs. Most people seem to think it was Kobe, for a while it was probably Shaq, but overall I would have to go with Duncan.
But let’s do this exercise anyway.
When you go through all the players there’s actually a pretty cool club of great players who, starting from the ’90s, played in three different decades, making it easy to find who would be eligible for such an honor. This includes seven MVP’s: Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant.
There are also other future Hall of Famers such as Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Manu Ginobili, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady (Vince and T-Mac are pretty much a lock to make it. Vince has 23,190 points already, which basically guarantees a spot. T-Mac is a seven-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion, it’s technically possible with those credentials to miss it but highly unlikely. Manu doesn’t really have the NBA counting stats but his international play and role with the Spurs should push him to Springfield.)
That’s a fantastic batch of iconic players to choose from. The ones who haven’t retired yet only have a couple of years left at the most, which is kind of disheartening. We all love these guys and the NBA won’t be the same without them.
Out of the seven MVP’s, five rank in the top 15 in win shares in NBA history, which is an incredible stat. They are Duncan (sixth), KG (eighth), Dirk (ninth), Shaq (10th) and Kobe (14th). (LeBron is already 15th by the way, and should reach the No. 1 spot before all is said and done. Nash was 33rd and Iverson only 76th).
The counting stats are just amazing with these five guys, and put all of them in a pantheon beyond everyone else.
Ok, so we have narrowed it down to a top five statistically. I actually started making graphs on Player Efficiency Rating’s and stuff like that for these guys but before realizing that it’s completely useless. You’ll just get a jumble of lines that don’t tell you anything. The point is they are all amazing and have their own statistical cases to be made (literally based on individual statistics you could come out of this pointing to KG as the best player in a generation).
Championships are the next obvious point of cutoff. Duncan and Kobe have five. Shaq has four and Garnett and Dirk only have one each. In addition, Garnett wasn’t even Finals MVP.
This unfortunately excludes Dirk and KG from the “greatest player of a generation” discussion. Here is where situation matters, both Nowitzki and KG are incredible players, and maybe this discussion would look different with a couple of more championships which they could have gotten to with had better luck or infrastructure.
Garnett especially really suffered from Minnesota’s inability to put a championship caliber team around him and left way too late. That guy was and is a tremendous competitor and one of the most versatile two-way players ever in NBA history. He’s perennially underrated and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the very best.
Dirk, on the other hand, is just an offense unto himself and the most effectively unique player on that end ever to play the game. If you have Dirk, you are instantly one of the best offensive teams in the league.
Shaq’s career is, in a sense, the most interesting out of him, Bryant and Duncan.
In his prime he was by far the statistically the best player in the league multiple years in a row, with a PER of better than 30 for a span of five seasons from 1997-98 to 2001-02. Over the past five years LeBron James barely hit that mark!
But he never won the the rebounding title despite being such a dominant presence and had a tendency to show up to training camp in poor condition and would play himself into shape. Shaq wasn’t the type of player who would kill himself for his teammates and lead by example.
People always give Kobe a hard time about how hard it’s to play with him, but that guy would kill himself running through a wall if it gave him the chance to win just one more game. The running joke is that Shaq played for three teams and ate for three, which is true if you look at his production.
In his last season in Miami and then later in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston he wasn’t the same player anymore. Shaq slowed down in year 14 while Kobe and Duncan have both sustained their production all the way to year 17. (This is true, since last season when Kobe played only six games, but he was in year 18).
The difference between Duncan and Kobe in their championship years is that Duncan has been the best player on at least four of his five championships (the year Parker won Finals MVP, Duncan was still the team’s best player by far. You could make the case he’s still pretty close, even though Leonard took home a deserved Finals MVP trophy), while Kobe was the best player on only two. That’s a huge difference.
In addition Bryant missed the playoffs once and has had four sub-50 win seasons after Shaq was traded to the Heat. Kobe has one more All-NBA First Team and All-NBA Defensive First Team selection than Duncan.
The defensive team selections are pretty much a joke. Bryant was a great defender earlier in his career but in his last few seasons he pretty much mailed it in on that end while Duncan is still perhaps the most impactful defensive player in the NBA on a per minute basis.
Statistically it’s pretty much a tie, but the steady team success of the Spurs puts Duncan over Kobe. As I mentioned earlier situation and fit is everything in the NBA, and Timmy has been lucky to be a part of the best organization in pro sports that has revamped itself over and over again through the year to give the Spurs a chance to be playing in June.
But in any case that guy is just the perfect basketball player and teammate, inspiring everyone around him.
The bad part about comparing player’s like this is having to find flaws great players like Kobe to differentiate between careers. Kobe Bryant is amazing and has nothing to apologize for. He’s one of the ten greatest players in the history of the NBA.
Tim Duncan even at age of 38 is just better. He’s just a better basketball player. And always has been. Just go back and look at Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals.
In the second quarter, Duncan just destroys five Heat possessions in a row by rotating over and contesting shots at the rim. He doesn’t get a single box score mark but impacts the game more than anyone else.
Watch how Duncan plays off the ball on offense, how he looks for angles has perfect timing on his screens and flips them so that the guy defending the ball handler just rams into him. How he’s always in perfect position for bounce passes and always know two moves ahead what he’ll do.
Or how Duncan turns over his right shoulder in the post and drops in that pretty right handed hook/push shot thing.
All of it is so beautiful.
But it’s the defense, intangibles and unwavering demeanor year after year that makes Tim Duncan the best of his generation. Better than Shaq, Kobe, Nowitzki, Garnett. Better than anyone.