I'm a dunk person. I enjoy dunks, I look for videos of dunks on YouTube and I even started a blog loosely related to them. Being a Spurs fan, I've had to look for my dunks fix elsewhere, because as I pointed out in a post written last May (seems like a decade ago, doesn't it?), the Spurs have been at the very bottom of the league in dunks per season for a few years now. And it wasn't even close.
Things have changed this year, to some degree: RJ used to be one of the most prolific dunkers in this league, and he's retained some of that athleticism to this day. Ratliff's Youngetivity has let him restore some of his once-legendary hops, and Blair and Hill often put their youth to good use and go "top shelf", as Sean Elliot likes to say. Hell, even Matt "Red-haired stepchild" Bonner dunked once this season.
Yet what caught me off guard was Tim Duncan. I watched him dunk a few times in the dozen games he's played so far, and I had a feeling he was doing it more often than in the previous years. What did that mean for Timmy? I wasn't sure, but we all know Tim's playing at a high level early in the season. So I thought it might be worth a second glance.
I decided to take advantage of my new-found appreciation for stats, check the numbers and try to confirm my suspicions. See the pretty curves I came up with, after the jump:
Now, it wasn't easy to find dunk stats. CBS's Dunk-o-Meter doesn't keep logs of previous years, as far as I could tell, and while 82 Games has probably counted them, they only released detailed shooting stats for the 2008-09 season. I searched through the Interwebs high and low and middleish and looked just about everywhere I could think of, but in the end I had to make do with 2 numbers from 82 Games (one measured before the season was over), one from the Dunk-o-Meter that was registered in a very interesting post at Roto Evil a couple of years ago, and one I found that was registered by Stats Grandaddy Harvey Pollack from the 2003-04 season. I marked them as red dots in the graph below.
(Pollack has published books for years that include the number of dunks per game, but I didn't have access to those.)
The blue curve represents estimates based on 82 Games' shooting selection percentages. The big difference in 2003-04 is probably caused by Pollack and 82 Games using different classification criteria. Take a look:
The numbers don't matter, but know that Duncan was ranked by Pollack as the 9th most productive dunker of the 2003-04 season with 110 dunks (Rage was 8th with 111 dunks). Last season he had only 24 dunks, good for 125th in the league. The drop-off is evident, and as we see in the graph, it's progressive.
The factors that influence Tim's reticence to finish strong at the rim seem obious: his age, his health and as Tim Varner wrote some time ago, the changes in Duncan's game during the regular season, meant to protect his body for the playoffs (I'm not quite sold on this one - more on that later). Duncan's decline was expected. As I wrote in that post (quoting yourself feels so odd):
It's not Timmy's fault. There are only 9 players of his approximate age who have outdunked him this year. He was never known for his athleticism, and as age catches up to him he will have to adjust further. Shaquille, on the other hand, is both an absolute physical marvel and completely dependent on his ability to dunk. His productivity and this stat will be closely tied in the following years. Duncan, however, can outgrow it.
According to my admittedly questionable calculations, Duncan's currently dunking at a rate that nearly matches his 2005-2006 performance, 4 years ago, and is on pace to match his dunks total of the 2006-07 season despite playing 2,2 fewer minutes per game. So, accepting our previous theory (Duncan's age and knee problems meant less dunks), what can we glean from the sudden dunks deluge?
Duncan's healthy, guys, and he's feeling better than he has for a very long time. Whether we can credit his weight loss, the extended rest because of our early playoffs exit or that new knee brace he's using, I think we can all agree that he's confident and comfortable enough to display some showmanship. The dunks aren't important by themselves (although they can energize a team and swing a game's momentum like no other play in basketball - but I digress) but they're a sure sign of health and youth. Duncan's willingness to jump that extra inch fills me with hope for this season's outcome, regardless of our early record.
And this is only one sign of many.
Duncan's true NBA legacy might just be his prolonged, steadfast, unfluctuating excellence. His per game averages have decreased as Popovich intelligently cut down his minutes as Tim grew older, but his per minute averages are a study in consistency. I doubt many players in the history of the league can claim to be considerably more efficient in their 13th season than in those that gave him MVP trophies. Because he is: per 36 minutes, Tim is averaging fewer turnovers, more assists and more rebounds than in any other season, and his percentages are among the top 3 in every category. Even his PER is at an all-time high, as we'll see later, which I'm sure has Hollinger scratching his head.
The following graphs shows the type of shots Duncan's taking, divided into jumpshots and inside shots (layups, tip-ins and dunks). Unfortunately I was only able to find this information since the 2002-03 season, because I would've loved to see how Duncan's rookie years matched with these. The dashed curves illustrate his efficiency with each type of shot.
The first thing I noticed is that the increase in the number of inside shots taken by Tim compared to last season is negligible. That means Duncan's simply exchanging layups for dunks, yet another sign of new-found confidence in his knees and sustained health. Duncan also seems to be shooting jumpers more during the season than in previous years, relying on his outside game more to save his legs for the postseason battles that will come. Tim Varner put it like this midway through the 2008-09 season:
In short, Tim Duncan is shooting much more often, and more effectively, from mid-range this season. Why does this matter to this discussion? These are not shot attempts that will win many foul calls or afford Duncan great position to corral rebounds.
During his Spurs game calls, Sean Elliott has mentioned this as a deliberate strategy of Gregg Popovich. Before the season began, it was decided that the coaching staff would do more to preserve Duncan's body for the postseason, more than the careful management of his minutes as in the past. Duncan was asked to pitch a tent at his favorite mid-range spots, and he's so far he's obliged, even with injuries to the frontline.
Considering the entire season, this change in strategy wasn't so evident by looking at the stats, which leads me to believe that Duncan started playing close to the hoop in the second half of the 2008-09 season, as he prepared for the playoffs. That also bodes well for the Spurs, because Duncan is already matching last season's averages a mere 14 games into the season. I fully expect Duncan's percentage of inside shots to increase in the near future, getting closer to his 2006-07 numbers (the season he was most aggressive in, as the graph indicates).
When I read Tim Varner's post, for some reason I assumed that Duncan's decision to move further away from the hoop was a process that spanned his entire career: that he had favored his inside game as a rookie and then allowed himself to shoot more often as his range, his comfort zone, increased. The stats disagree. Even though I lack the necessary data, I imagine that Robinson's presence somehow affected Tim's shot selection, but even when Robinson left Tim favored his mid-range game, and his 2006-07 performance was the exception, not the norm.
Looking at the efficiency curves and their correlation with the shot selection curves, I also guess a search for efficiency on Duncan's part, the mark of a clever player. That is, when his outside shot isn't falling, he tries to score inside, and vice versa. This year his jumper is more efficient than at any point in his career since 2002, so it's logical that he leans on it so much. (And there's an overall slight decline in his inside game efficiency, as he's defended by younger and younger players that can sometimes use their strength to limit Duncan). Then again, the 2006-07 season crushes my theory, and the changes are so small that I might just be seeing ghosts. That's the danger of using stats instead of your eyes.
Most Efficient Ever
Yet as I said before, Duncan's not just shooting well. All aspects of his game have improved, proving that news of his incoming decline were greatly exaggerated - at least so far.
To show how dominating Duncan has been so far this season I chose to use 82 Games' ratings, and as I pointed out before the only have data from the 2002-03 season onwards. However, I also graphed several of Basketball Reference's advanced stats for his entire career: surprisingly, Tim's averaging career highs in PER, as I mentioned before, and also in assists percentage, offensive rebounds percentage, defensive rebounds percentage, total rebounds percentage, and a career low in turnovers percentage. In all the other categories he's not far from his career highs.
Since I don't want to run the brave folks reading this post down with even more squiggly colored lines, I decided to only post 82 Games' ratings. If you're interested in the Basketball Reference data, follow this link to see the graph in question. But anyway:
Once again, the conclusion doesn't change: Tim has drunk from the Youngetivity fountain, and his numbers are up across the board.
Tim Varner theorized that Duncan's tendency to shoot jumpers was the reason for his reduced rebounding rate last season, especially on the offensive end. If he camped at the elbow to practice his signature bank shots, then he wouldn't be in position to grab the offensive rebound. Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, he must have found a way to do just that, because this season he's still shooting lots of jumpers and yet he's grabbing offensive rebound at a near all-time pace. This is something that merits further analysis.
His block rating isn't near his numbers from 5 or 6 years ago, but it's still up from the last two seasons, and this is another stat heavily influenced by his athletic ability (timing isn't everything, despite what fans might claim). The one stat that shows a marked decline is the number of fouls drawn per game - I believe Duncan's simply doing his best to keep himself healthy by not pressing the issue on offense. This should change as the schedule gets tougher and he starts to shoulder a bigger portion of our offensive load, but for the moment I'm happy with the current state of affairs. (And in case he's fouled... did I mention his FT% is his all-time third best right now?)
If You Don't Feel Like Reading The Entire Post, Here's My Recap
You lazy bum. To recap, Duncan's obviously feeling well and he's as healthy as he can be at this point in his career. Combined with his ever-increasing basketball savvy, it has propelled his game to new peaks of efficiency. Duncan is playing some of the best basketball of his career at age 33, and somehow Joe Johnson and Brandon Roy are still higher than him in the MVP race. I honestly don't understand how even today, after so many bank shots and and awards and championships, we can underrate one of the best players of all time.
But it is what it is, and at least now you know. When you see Duncan face the Celtics tomorrow, keep in mind that you're watching him at his absolute best - appreciate him, because hardly anyone does.
(If you want to look at the numbers or write your own post using Timmy's stats, here's the Excel file I used. It might come in handy.)
Stats Are Fun
This has nothing to do with Tim Duncan or the Spurs, but while looking for dunk stats I came across this article published at USA Today called "Philly's Pollack has kept track of NBA from the start". I recommend it - it has some neat insight into the story of a true pioneer in the field of NBA stats. Here's an incredible anecdote he the writer shares with us:
AP photographer Paul Vathis, who attended the game as a fan, rushed to a car for his equipment. Pollack said he squashed an idea of posing Chamberlain with the ball and wanted something more unique to preserve the moment.
"Why don't we do something to show the 100 points," Pollack said.
So Pollack wrote "100" on a piece of paper and gave it to Chamberlain to hold for the classic black-and-white snapshot.
And here's another one, to show just how huge Harvey is:
Erving's arrival in Philadelphia started Pollack's fascination with dunk stats, and Magic Johnson's amazing games made Pollack realize he needed a catchy title for double digits in points, rebounds and assists.
The triple-double was born.
Now that's priceless.