[Editor's Note: With appreciation for Jonathan Swift - jrw]
It is a melancholy object to those who call themselves Spurs fans, when they see the games, the coverage, and the highlights crowded with images that show us a Tim Duncan that is not very effective anymore. Sure, he still can play somewhat, but it's obvious that he's nowhere near the top tier of NBA big men any more. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs look no further than the details released from a panel of experts from ESPN, which considered him the 27th best player in the league and the 12th best big man after Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum, Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol. It should go without saying that the panel is correct, and that there is no reason whatsoever to doubt their expertise. I'm sure that each and every one of them watched a lot of Spurs games (probably a majority, possibly every single one) and checked out every stat available before casting their vote. It should, in fact, go without saying. Even if, for some purely illogical reason, you are somewhat opposed to taking the panel's view as gospel, you would have to grant that the "Duncan is not that good anymore" narrative has been part of the news cycle for a couple of years now.
I think it is agreed by all parties that we as Spurs fans must fall in line with what those in the know have told us repeatedly: Tim Duncan is pretty much done. With that in mind, I'll have to be a little harsher than usual in my assessment for the YCDB post on Tim. And so, for each dimension of Duncan's game I analyze, I will choose one of the players that the panel ranked above him to be considered his mentor in that part of the game. That way, in case the supposed future Hall of Famer is actually committed to improving his play, he'll have someone to look to as an example. So, let's examine Tim's rebounding, offense and defense.
Tim Duncan would do well to rebound the ball better (otherwise the Spurs should never have waived Eddy Curry) as the numbers clearly show that he's not a good producer in this category -- he placed only 3rd in defensive rebound percentage in the league, behind Howard and Marcus Camby. And did no better than 9th overall in total rebound percentage. Per 36 minutes, he ranked no higher than 8th in the league in total rebounds with 11.5. Elite players should certainly rank higher. For any who argue that these numbers are impressive for any player, regardless of age. They must note that he ranks low in securing offensive boards, and those are the ones that count. That's why guys that are near the top in that category, like Tristan Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins have led their teams to such success and acclaim.
How can he improve?
What Timmy has to do: don't get back on D like Pop wants; stay behind gambling for those sexy offensive rebounds.
Mentor: Dirk Nowitzki (11.3 TRB% on 2011/12; 12.9% for his career). If you want to learn how to affect the game with rebounding, you go to the Big German.
Tim Duncan used to be one of the best scoring big men in the league, but now he struggles mightily. Did you see his field goal percentage? It was the lowest it had been since the 1999-2000 season, back when he was scoring 23 points per game, and not the measly 15 points he contributed last season. Think about that: just 15 points per game. If that doesn't prove Tim's offense has slipped, I don't know what does. Some are sure to point to his per 36 minutes total of 20 points, and explain how that number is consistent with his career numbers. But those are the same people who argue that the biggest factor in his declining numbers is minutes. To that I say that Pop has been judged the best coach in the league. If Tim was a better option, he'd certainly be on the court more often.
Per Synergy Sports, Duncan's field goal percentage for his shots at the rim is a below average number 63, and he ranks just 71st in post ups. Which means that in his old age, he's being forced by his slipping skills to become a jump shooter. Once the greatest post player of his generation, Duncan has decided to avoid the high quality post possessions to take jumpers like a soft, vintage-Euro big. What a waste. While his shooting percentage on jumpers is considered enviable by some, there are better shooting bigs. In fact 6 centers shoot better from 10-15 feet and their average is 1.9 shots a game to Tim's 1.7. The numbers speak for themselves. From further out, Tim ranked behind three other players (yes, he was only 4th) from 16-23 feet among centers, but he also shot far more often than anyone in the top ten, so that's likely what accounts for it. If you give weight to the propaganda that Duncan has cooperated with his entire career and classify him as a power forward, you will see that a full seven players performed better from 16-23 feet and four bested him from 10-15. So Duncan isn't the best shooting big man in the league. To argue otherwise would be to oppose the facts themselves.
How can he improve?
He could take more shots close to the basket and get his FG% up, since that's what it's all about, surely. Some would point out that he's the best jump shooting big the Spurs have and their only pick and pop threat, but quibbles like that don't even deserve a response. If all fails, he must to convince Gregg Popovich to play him more minutes.
Mentor: A workout with Tyson Chandler (4.7 attempts per game at the rim, 0.9 FGA from everywhere else, combined; 12.2 points per 36 minutes) could help Tim return to his previous versatility on offense.
I consider the following to be self-evident: Duncan is slow. He has slimmed down, can't defend the post, and is not nearly the defensive paragon he was in his youth. Some concede the point that he's not as good as he used to be, only to profess that Duncan appears to have slipped so much only because he was just so, so good in the past. They claim that Timmy can still anchor a good defense. Make no mistake: those people are wrong. Perhaps the Spurs allowed 5.42 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, but that's probably a fluke. You can make number say anything you want to, you know. In the playoffs, that differential went to 17.28 points, but that's likely just because the bench was so bad.
I am compelled to admit that Duncan only allowed opposing centers a below average 14.1 PER while he had a 22.8 PER himself, which is good for a 8.7 differential. Also he looks great out there, often providing a game-changing defensive presence. But let's not let numbers, on court impact or how he looks when he's on the floor get in the way of a good narrative. Tim just ain't what he used to be, and there's no getting around it.
How can he improve?
Timmeh needs to get mean, like Garnett. Pound his chest and bark at people to show his defensive intensity. Don't stay in perfect position to contest and rebound; just go for the block. That's what Marcus Camby used to do and it won him a DPOY award. It's hard to argue with success of that kind.
Mentor: Chris Bosh (0.99 on/off defensive rating differential, 1.77 defensive plays [steals+block+charges drawn] per game to Duncan's 2.31) could teach Tim a thing or two about defensive impact.
Let me be blunt: Duncan needs to improve on everything. Some might say he's still one of the most versatile players ever, or that he's good in every facet of the game. I'm here to tell you that's just an illusion; he's simply not a complete center (or power forward, for that matter) and that is what separates him from the men the esteemed panel ranked above him. I mean, it's not like his numbers in steal percentage, block percentage, assist percentage and rebound percentage put him in rarefied company, or anything.
An argument could be made that Duncan is still elite. Some of these numbers and how he played last season could possibly suggest that he might be. But a large portion of the media is claiming otherwise and I find it impossible to disagree with them. After all, the media always gave Tim the respect and admiration he deserved in the past, almost to a fault. If we're being fair, it should be said that the press over-hyped him every chance they got, while ignoring more worthy players like Vince Carter and giving Tim too much publicity. So now it's Duncan's time to finally be overlooked. Let some other guys get the legacy talk and redemption story arcs while he is relegated as being just another big man. I'm sure he deserves nothing more.