JRW sent me the link to this C.A. Clark piece on the year Kobe Bryant is having. It's a must read. In it, Clark makes a pretty great case for how Kobe is having an unbelievable season offensively, perhaps the best ever for a guy his age, but is ruining it and hurting his legacy in the process by being a total liability on defense. It's the kind of thing a casual fan wouldn't notice -- his scoring outputs blinds us from other less obvious parts of the game like off ball defense -- but it's exactly what hurts a team in the long run, especially when it comes from its leader. If you want an example, just look at the game-winning shot Danny Green hit on Kobe because of his tendency to float around.
It all got me thinking of Tim Duncan and the season he is having.
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A couple of years ago, it seemed Duncan was seriously slowing down. In 2010/11 he put up career low numbers in points and rebounds per game, PER and Win Shares per 48 minutes, among others. Duncan was still a per minute beast but was showing signs of decline both on offense and especially on defense. The Spurs suffered two disappointing playoff series losses (against the Suns in 09/10 and the Grizzlies in 10/11) in which Duncan was targeted by Nash on pick and rolls and couldn't cool down Zach Randolph or battle Marc Gasol.
The following year Duncan bounced back and put up better scoring numbers in the lockout shortened season but his transformation into jump shooter was complete and his days of domination seemed over. This was evident in the playoffs, his worst ever, in which he was easily contained by the Thunder. On the other end, Duncan was still great but his diminished speed allowed OKC to score at will via unguarded mid range jumpers. He was still the best big on the floor but the gap between him and someone like, say, Serge Ibaka seemed reduced. People noticed and Duncan was not considered elite anymore.
Then we come to this season. At age 36 Duncan is putting up per game numbers that only one other guy his age has ever matched, with the caveat that Hakeem did it in just 50 games in a lockout shortened season while playing almost six more minutes a game. Duncan's per 36 minutes numbers of 20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.2 blocks are unprecedented for a 36-year old. Only Abdul Jabbar and Olajuwon have put up similar numbers after 30.
Those figures not only stand out when placed against former players. This season only Duncan has per game numbers that exceed 17 points, nine rebounds, 2 assist and 2 blocks. His defensive rebounding is elite, he's second in total blocked shots, and he has the best individual defensive rating in the league, according to Basketball-Reference. His defensive RAPM ranks him third in the league below only Kevin Garnett and defensive specialist Omer Asik. On offense he's still hitting the mid range jumper at a high rate (42.8%) while also maintaining his efficiency at the rim (66.2%) and finding the balance between the two spots. He and Parker are one of the most devastating pick and pop combos in the league and Duncan can still punish defenders in the post.
He's doing all of that on a team that has the third best record in the league and the third best defense, according to defensive rating. There are very, very few big men in the league right now with as complete a game, on both sides of the ball, as Duncan and he's the biggest reason for the Spurs' success. After two good but not dominant seasons, Duncan is having a monster year and there's a very, very strong case to be made that at age 36, he is the best big man in the league right now.
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With Clark's article in mind, I did not start this piece with the intention of making yet another comparison between Kobe and Duncan (that's been done) but trying to see if I was, like the mainstream media, missing something about Duncan's dominant play that would make it less impressive and less worthy of coverage. Maybe Duncan had a glaring weakness that made his seemingly impressive play fool's gold. I'm not the most impartial of observers but I couldn't find any. So why wasn't I more aware of the fact that Duncan was having such a historic season? Ironically, it's all the fault of the Spurs and Duncan.
While the Lakers' losses are making us overlook Kobe's amazing offensive performance this season and the wins masked his many defensive flaws before it, the Spurs steadiness makes it seem like the type of ridiculous year Duncan is having is somewhat inevitable. The team concept is pushed so hard by everyone within the Spurs organization that it's almost as if Duncan wasn't carrying the team, someone else would; which serves to make his performance almost unnecessary. Of course that's ridiculous when you consider that what the man is doing is virtually unprecedented. But you wouldn't know it if you only listened to Pop, his teammates or even him. There's also the fact that we've been told repeatedly that these regular season wins don't matter; it's all about the playoffs. The post-season success Duncan and the team have enjoyed makes anything that happens before then seem bland in comparison, even if it unexpectedly includes perhaps the best performance ever by a big man over 35.
As I mentioned, it's not only the team, but Duncan himself who aims for as low a profile as possible. Early on, he chose to deflect the spotlight that sought him out, and point it towards the team. He has never given the media any reason -- personal drama, real or imagined character issues, tangles with other players, teammates or coaches -- to fill pages with. Every story about Duncan is a story about the Spurs, because Duncan decided early in his career that's how things were going to be. Most of the league's stars have had evolving narratives but Duncan has stayed the same: a ridiculously talented, team-oriented guy that avoided controversy whenever possible and was successful every step of the way. No redemption arcs, no villainy (no matter what Suns fans might say), no barking at people, no off court problems, no tossing of teammates under the bus. Compare that to Kobe's tumultuous career and personal life or Kevin Garnett's descent into douchebaggery. Can you blame the media for going with those stories about older players and their legacies instead of another one on Duncan just being really, really good at basketball?
That's the double edged sword of the Spurs' boring-by-design, no drama, team-oriented approach: we don't usually have to worry about off court stuff or indefensible on-court demeanor, but it might also result in us missing out on enjoying Tim Duncan's masterpiece. Duncan won't point out how great a season he's having and neither will the Spurs. It would go against the philosophy that allows the organization to ask everyone who joins it to "get over themselves." It's all about the team, not individual accolades. It's about the end result, not individual statistics. And I love that about the Spurs. But sometimes I wish they were just a little bit like other teams and made everyone aware of the greatness they are witnessing because, make no mistake, what Duncan is doing is nothing short of incredible.
Other than "historic,"transcendent" and "once in a lifetime" the words I would use to describe the season Duncan is having would be "overlooked" and "underrated." Not coincidentally, those same words could describe the entire career of the greatest power forward of all time. And I think he might be OK with that.
Stats via NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference