Is Tim Duncan the most consistent player of all time?

Mike Ehrmann

Just how solid has Tim Duncan been? Probably the most consistent ever, and I have the data to prove it.

Tim Duncan has always been my favorite player. There was a brief stretch when Manu Ginobili might've stolen my heart, but that was mostly because in the mid-00's, Manu was so electric while Tim was always the same-ol' consistent Tim.

And it's his consistency -- his unwavering high level of play through the years which has defined Duncan's career statistically -- that I'll lay out for you today.

But first, a brief trip back to April 2011.

1. A period of doubt

Two-and-a-half years ago, the league-wide consensus was that number 21 for the Spurs was done, at least when it came to being a top-tier big man. Here's a look at some quotes from around that time.

LZ Granderson of ESPN had this to say about Tim:

Regardless of what happens in this series with Memphis, it is clear the window's closing for these Spurs. If my hunch is right, when Duncan's contract expires in summer 2012, he will not re-sign. He will retire.

Adam Gray wrote this:

A former great has deteriorated in front of our eyes.  Tim Duncan isn't-and never again will be-the same player he was five years ago.  He is no longer the defensive cog who could rip down every board when he wanted to; he no longer possesses the ability to score in the post at will, and  he can't carry the Spurs on his back for long periods of time.

FanNation had this to say:

A number of factors have undone the Spurs in this postseason, including, somewhat sadly, a decline in Tim Duncan's game. It'll be Duncan's 35th birthday on Monday...But when will it be OK to state the obvious: Is Duncan no longer one of the premier players in the game?

A blogger wrote this:

The greatest power forward in the history of the game is wilting before our very eyes.This is always one of sports' saddest scenes; that of a beloved figure succumbing to the limits of body and age paired with time.  To be submitted to the Not Yet Retired but Unfortunately No Longer Enjoyable and Actually Downright Sad to Watch Wither Away shrine this year is Tim Duncan.

These writers were expressing the sentiment shared by most of the basketball community during and immediately after the first round loss to the Grizzlies: Tim Duncan was in decline, never to be the same, and as a result his team was done as well.

Were they wrong? Yes, but it wasn't entirely their fault.

Each of these writers expressed great respect for Tim's career in the rest of their pieces. The general feeling from that time was that of sadness for the decline of one of the all-time greats. I felt it a little, though I was probably still clinging to the thought that Tim could go for 20-10 on call. I'm very optimistic by nature.

Basketball players don't age well -- not as bad as football players, but worse than baseball players. By the time the early 30's hits for a basketball  player it is almost a certainty that a significant decline in production is coming if it hasn't already started.

No one thought that after the way that the 2010-2011 season ended, that Tim and the Spurs would be back to contend again. I never thought that Tim was done, but I certainly didn't see the resurgence continued excellence we have seen in the past two seasons coming. Players decline. It made sense then to write the story of Duncan's decline. He was 35 and at an all-time low in production.

Still, the writers were wrong. Tim didn't retire or continue his decline; he simply changed his game.

Duncan lost 15 pounds going into the 2011-2012 season, and has perhaps lost another 10 since. He started working on that elbow jumper, learned to hit his free throws (a career high last season), and worked on the things he could still do at an elite level. He stopped banging in the post, and acclimated himself to the new running Spurs-routinely beating players 10 years younger than him down the court in transition. He focused even more on his already-elite defensive rebounding, grabbing 29% of available defensive rebounds last season compared to his career average of 26.5%. He also let Tony co-lead the team.

Tim adjusted, and proved all his doubters wrong by giving himself, the team, and us by extension, his all.

2. We (sports fans in general) took Tim for granted

Timmy has rarely wowed casual fans of the game. When a player of such consistency and excellence is always the same, it becomes harder to appreciate the predictable production during the grind of the regular season. Manu was/is always just a second away from some mind-blowing highlight, while Tim can go 22-12 without us even noticing. It was strange if he didn't have a 20-10. It's easier now to appreciate the consistency and rarity of a 10 year 20-10 per game production run.

If a player always goes 20-10 and his team always wins 55 games, it's hard to find an angle for a story. When you factor in the fact that Tim has no interest in opening up his personal life to us, I kind of understand how the media managed to kind of ignore the greatest player of his generation. There simply isn't anything to write about. Consistency, in a day-to-day media sense, is boring.

Rarely celebrated, maligned only for being "boring", and a thorn in the side of the media's predictions: that is how Tim spent most of his life in the national media.

It's disappointing that the national pundits are writing the Spurs off in general at the beginning of this season. I finally can share the feeling that many fans have had for years that the media doesn't give "us" our due. I'm not looking for a bunch of coverage or people picking the Spurs to win the West, but I thought that there was a ridiculous amount of people overlooking them when they are coming off of an unlucky (according to LeBron and Mike Miller) loss. What do they have to do exactly to earn the benefit of the doubt from Charles Barkley, who said they were middle of the pack in the West and that the contenders were LAC, Houston, Golden State, and OKC?

3. The comparison

I've spent entirely too much time looking at Tim's per-36-minute stats in my life. When I do, I always think to myself, there is no way anyone can compete with his consistency. So I decided to actually do the work to see if my conclusion had merit, or if I was just an overly excited fanboy.

I searched the internet to see if anyone had compared players consistency. The only thing I found was an article comparing a players one season scoring average to the players per-game scoring in individual games for that season. While this is very interesting for a current season, it does nothing for historical context. I decided to undertake the task of comparing Hall of Famers' career averages across all stats to that of their individual season averages.

I started with players' per-36 minute averages. When Tim came out on top of this I started to think how that could be biased. Pop has saved Tim for when it counts for awhile now. Perhaps that was clouding the question because he was benefiting from playing less minutes compared to others that had to play all the time. Conversely, perhaps his per-game averages suffer from the Spurs having the luxury of not having to ride their big man for minutes.

In full disclosure there were two players that were slightly more consistent in per-game average differential than Tim: Paul Arizin and Bob Pettit. The two of them played in the 50's and early 60's. The NBA didn't keep very many stats back then, so it is hard to compare players from that era to those of a more modern era. Back then there were no three-pointers, and steals, blocks, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, and turnover stats weren't kept. Neither of the players played in 800 games or more than 11 seasons. Through 11 seasons Tim was more consistent than both. I feel it is reasonable to not include them and a couple other players (Bill Russell and Chet Walker) from a far away era.

I then compared HOFers' per-game averages to those for their career. Tim, again, comes out on top

I also compared all HOF players' careers and season advanced statistical averages. Tim comes out on top of this one as well.

4. The Remarkable Statistical Career of Timothy Theodore Duncan

If you don't want to read about my methodology, feel free to skip to the end of this section.

All data is from Basketball-Reference.com

I used all of the stats that are kept for a player: per-36 minute season averages, per-game season averages, and advanced season averages. I took the career average in every category and compared every player's single season stats to their career averages and found the percent differential. I only looked at Hall of Famers and guys who are locks to get in.

Instead of labeling the axes on the graph with what each axis is with a clunky title, I normalized all of the graphs. The X-axis always represents the season the player played. The Y-axis will always show the percentage differential for the X-axis season. The y-axis is labeled -0.5 to .05. This represents a -50% to 50% differential from their career average (0). For example, if a player averaged 20ppg for his career, a season with an 18ppg average would be exactly a 10% negative differential as a drop of 2ppg from a 20ppg average is exactly 10%.

While I found that looking at every graph was fascinating, I am only going to show the top-10 performers in the three categories, as well as some players I think are interesting. I have a database with all the data and would be happy to show any player graphs in any of the three categories if you guys want to see someones graph. If you address it in the comments I will do my best to graph anything you can think of and post it in the comments.

I left out three point differential for big men as the three-point stats for big men generally show wild inconsistency. I took that as meaning that when a player attempts less than 0.1 threes per game any stat isn't going to show you much. That stat will only show what a player took in desperation or necessity. For instance, Tim doesn't shoot from behind the 3-point arc unless the situation demands it. So, I left it out for big guys who don't shoot threes on a regular basis.

I thought about picking stats I thought were important, but decided that an un-weighted analysis was probably better. I just couldn't come up with numbers that I thought weren't biased. If someone with a statistical background has a better idea, I'd love to explore it.

So, I just averaged the 60+ categories of stats that are kept. Here is a link to Timmy's page if you want to look at them all.

Here are the top 10 most consistent players by average percent differential between single season per game averages and career per-game averages

Active players were included if they were at least 34 and have played at least 10 seasons through 2012-2013.

Top 10 per game diffs

Here are active players with at least nine seasons played that are more than likely going to the Hall of Fame.  Pau and Tony have played 12 seasons, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Melo have played 10, and Dwight and CP3 have played nine. For comparison I included Tim's 10 and 12 season average differential.

Current players reg season

Here are individual players graphs of their season per game percent differential in four stat areas. These include Minutes Played, Total Rebounds, Assists, and Points. Again, x-axis is the season year played, and the y-axis goes from negative 50% to postive 50% differential.

Click on the graphs for full-size images.

Tim Isiah per game
Kobe Bird per game
D-Rob Parish per game Diff

Shaq Hakeem per game
dirk malone per game
jordan magic per game
barkley ginobili per game

Top 10 most consistent players by per-36-minute average differential.

top 10 per 36

Active players with at least nine seasons per-36 minute average differential

current players per36

Graphs for the Top-Five and other notable players

I used Points, FG%, and either assists or rebounds for these graphs. For example, Duncan gets boards, and Stockton gets assists.

Duncan stockton
Malone Ewing

Kareem Kobe
bird ginobili
jordan lebron per36 % Diff
dirk kg
reggie gary


Top 10 most consistent players by advanced average differential.

Top 10 advandced diff

Again, active players.

current advanced

Again, graphs of the Top-Five and others I found interesting


This time PERTrue Shooting Percentage, and Win Shares per 48 minutes are included.

Tim Wes advanced
drob stockton advanced
manu pierce advanced
shaq hakeem advanced
nowitzki nash advanced
reggie mchale advanced
kidd jordan advanced
garnett drexler advanced

Final Thoughts

  • Manu is on all three lists no lower than sixth, which was completely unexpected. I love Manu.
  • I wasn't expecting Kobe to do as well as he did, but he is in the top 10 in all three lists.
  • The Admiral also performed well. A great showing for the Spurs.
  • I thought Kevin Garnett would have been more consistent. I thought he might be right there with Duncan. He clearly came into the league raw, and he started a decline about five years ago. I get the slow start, as he came in as an 18 year old, but his decline was greater than I had thought.
  • Just how much more consistent Duncan has been, compared to everyone else, was a bit of a surprise. I figured he would be the most consistent, but just how much more consistent he is compared to everyone else was remarkable. For example, John Stockton (second on the list) was 49% less consistent by per-36 minutes.

Perhaps the person who best understands how great Tim has been is the only player that has an outside shot to dethrone him as the NBA's king of consistency - LeBron - who had this to say before the Finals started last season:

"Probably one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball," he said of Duncan. "If I just look at the last 15 years, he's probably been the most consistent, most dominant player that we've had as far as 15 years all together. He's won four titles, multiple All Stars, MVP, and so on and so on.

"I think he doesn't get a lot of recognition because he's not flashy like a lot of guys are. He's not jumping over people and high flying and doing the things that attracts people to the game. But I think true basketball, true IQ people, players know how great he is. What else can you say?"


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