Ranking the 50 greatest NBA players of all time

The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
The Last Dance, Michael Jordan, LeBron James (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /
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Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images /

4. Tim Duncan

  • Resume: 19 seasons, 5 NBA championships, 3 NBA Finals MVP Awards, 2 regular season MVP Awards, 15-time All-NBA selection, 15-time NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, 15-time NBA All-Defensive Team, Rookie of the Year Award, San Antonio Spurs’ all-time leading scorer
  • Stats: 19.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.2 BPG, .506/—/.696 shooting splits, 24.2 career PER, 206.4 win shares

Plenty of NBA fans lament the fact that we never got a Kobe-LeBron matchup in the Finals. I would argue that Tim Duncan was a far better foil and adversary for LeBron after going head-to-head for a championship three times. While King James either had to carry his teams by himself or join forces with fellow superstars to win, Timmy represented the old-fashioned way of winning titles. Neither star’s approach was wrong, but it was something of a culture clash between two different generations.

The Spurs’ success over the course of their two decades with Duncan (and beyond) was exemplary. It was the product of terrific drafting, getting players to buy into the team concept and, of course, Gregg Popovich. But anyone who doesn’t list Duncan as the primary reason San Antonio won five titles and went to nine conference finals during his time there doesn’t know a thing about basketball.

At age 38, Duncan couldn’t quite lead the Spurs to a repeat for the first time in franchise history. But he was one of the league’s all-time winners, a selfless teammate who never cared about individual statistics. Personality-wise, Duncan was as boring as watching competitive shuffleboard (which is appropriate since he’s now retired and shuffleboard is now the recommended sport). But Duncan is, by all rights, the greatest power forward who ever lived (depending on how you classify him).

Duncan’s teams never won less than 60 percent of their games in a season. They never missed the playoffs. And if it weren’t for Ray Allen’s series-saving shot in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Duncan would have a perfect 6-0 record in the Finals. San Antonio has long been aware of this secret, but deep down, fans really do want the boring guy who gets his teammates involved and wins titles over the superstar who racks up highlights but not rings.

“RINGGZZ” isn’t the only measure by which Duncan is great, however. Back in his prime, the Big Fundamental put up monster numbers, like when he averaged 24.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 blocks per game in his back-to-back MVP seasons. His quiet, reserved personality masked the destroyer of worlds within. He ruined the lives of his opponents during the playoffs in the nicest, most straight-forward way possible.

For two decades, San Antonio ran on Duncan. Even with a spiritual successor in place with Kawhi Leonard, it was scary to think about the franchise’s future without him, and it was telling that people were worried about a team’s future because a 40-year-old was about to retire.

The Big Fundamental laid out a winning foundation and culture that left the Spurs in a secure place moving forward even after he hung it up, which is more than Kobe was able to say. Duncan, not Kobe, is the star of the last generation. Even if he was “boring” the whole time.