clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Does Tim Duncan deserve the top-5 ranking SI gave him?

New, comments

Sports Illustrated recently ranked Tim Duncan as the fifth best player in the NBA for the 2015 season. That seems about right.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this decade, no one is counting out the Spurs before the season starts. Even going into last season, after coming oh-so-close to a championship and bringing most of the rotation back, the odds of them winning the championship in Vegas were just 14-1, which implied that they had a 6.67% chance of being the last team standing. Most of the time Spurs fans can complain that their team is overlooked and underappreciated, especially in the preseason predictions, but it's different this year.

There's a widely held, but not universal, belief that they are the favorites to win the title in 2015. The boring label that was placed on the team for the past 15 years has disappeared for all but the most casual of fans and the "too old to win" idea has been trashed with a championship and the injection of youth that the Spurs have quietly added over the last three seasons.

Public appreciation for Duncan and the Spurs is at an all-time high and Dennis Lindsey even went so far as to call the Spurs winning the championship the best thing to happen to the NBA in 10 years.  It's a good time to proclaim Duncan as one of the top-5 players in the league.

Even the once slightly derogatory "robot" description of Tim has turned into something of a compliment as it's changed from meaning mechanical, boring and devoid of emotion into something more along the lines of - are we sure he's human?! We've never seen this, is it time to send back Arnold?

When I heard that Sports Illustrated ranked Tim Duncan fifth in their player rankings for the 2014-15 season my initial thought was that it was a little high. I mean, I'm as big a fan of Duncan as they come and something about a 38-year old being tossed into the league's current elite seemed a little far fetched even if it's something that I've said. I'm a biased homer and I'm okay with reaching a little, but I'm not sure that even I truly believed it. Having watched 95% of the games he's played during his NBA career and seeing how his game has evolved has been a treat, but it also means that I vividly remember exactly how great he was 12 years ago. He was the best player in the league then and it just seems unreasonable to think that he's still good enough after all this time to warrant placement among the league's elite.

I've spent a lot of time looking at Big Fun's stats. To the right you'll see a stat heavy article where I think that I make a great case that Tim is the most consistent player to ever play in the NBA. It's full of interesting graphs of the NBA's all-time-greats production in terms of consistency from year to year over their careers. In per-minute production-consistency Tim stands alone. He also leads everyone in terms of per-game production and advanced stats consistency. Before last season, in every per-36 minute stat the average difference between his production per season and his career production is just 7.1%. For perspective, the second most consistent player in terms of per-minute production is John Stockton, who's average difference per season compared to his career is 10.6%. That's almost 50% less consistent than Duncan.

If that doesn't make sense, here are Tim and Stockton's graphs. The x-axis is the percent differential ( -50% to +50%) for the y-axis season played compared to their career averages (0.)

Duncan stockton

It doesn't include this past year for Duncan, but as we'll see, nothing has changed for the big man in terms of on-court production. He might not bang in the post like he used to and his teammates now assist him on 67% of his field goals, but somehow his production is still just same ol' Timmy.

The Spurs finished the 2013-14 regular season 62-20 which was the best record in the league. Tim Duncan wasn't chosen by the voting public or the league's coaches to take part in the All-Star Game and the media didn't vote him onto an All-NBA team, but he was, like he's been for the past 17 years, the best player for the Spurs.

Tony Parker was the selection from the Spurs to receive those honors and even Gregg Popovich has called Tony the best player on his squad. If there's a Spur that really enjoys individual honors, it's TP. There's nothing wrong with that. He's worked hard for his place in the league, absorbing all of those Popovich screamfests over the years, embracing them, and using them to become the best player that he can be.

Even though Parker's the Spur who wants the spotlight the most, he has always put the team ahead of himself. He says the right things, which isn't all that hard, but he's backed it up by taking a smaller salary than he could get on the open market to stay with the Spurs at least a couple of times. He's used Duncan as a model. There's no doubt that the Spurs are lucky to have Parker and that he's lucky to have found his way to San Antonio. It's a symbiotic relationship. He's evolved into a great player, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but it's still Tim's team.

Tony may be where most of the offense starts and he's the engine for 30 minutes a night, but the team has become something unique in the league, with a squad that wins with their unparalleled depth and teamwork on the offensive end. Down the floor, Duncan's the unquestioned anchor of one of the league's best defenses.

R.C. Buford has certainly surrounded him with help -- Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are probably the league's best defensive duo on the perimeter and Tiago Splitter's growth allows Tim stay close to the paint -- that being the area where Tim's most effective at this point in his career. It took a couple of years for the two bigs to figure out how to share the floor and not hurt the offense, but they've solved that puzzle and when the other team presents a matchup issue there is always Boris Diaw, who presents mismatches of his own. Kawhi might be almost as important for the Spurs as Duncan defensively, but the defense wants to funnel the opposition to Tim at the rim if they can't force a contested, or not so contested, mid-range jumper. He's the last line of defense.

Tim's the most important Spur on their end and even though that isn't the case on the offensive side, he's still wildly effective on that end. Let's look at his production for the Spurs in 2013-14.

In the regular season Tim led the Spurs in minutes played, rebounds, blocks, starts, twos, free-throw attempts, PER, defensive rating, defensive win shares and unofficially - head taps.

He was also second on the team in points - just 15 less than Tony for the entire season, field goals - eight less than Parker, win shares - 7.4 to Kawhi's 7.7, usage and dunks.

He wasn't just amazing in the regular season. When the competition got tougher in the playoffs, Timmy just did his thing.

In the postseason he led the Spurs in minutes played, rebounds, blocks, free-throw attempts, PER, offensive win shares, win shares, and again, unofficially - arms around a teammate's shoulders.

He was second in points, field goals, field-goal percentage, twos, defensive win shares and win shares per 48 minutes.

I wrote about Tim's consistency earlier and this past season he just kept on rolling. Duncan's per-minute contribution during the season ended with him producing, compared to his career averages, 9% fewer points, 4.3% more rebounds, 16% more assists and exactly his career average in blocks. It was his 17th season in the NBA. That's totally absurd.

The Spurs are an anomaly in the league and their players don't, or don't get to, care about or pad individual stats. Not a single player averaged even 30 minutes a game for the team, and the team's traditional production stats are pretty spread around throughout the team. That said, consider this fact -- there were no players in the league that matched Tim's per-game numbers of 15.1 points, 9.7 boards, 3.0 assists and 1.9 blocks. Not one.

Big men are still the most important piece, if your team doesn't employ LeBron or KD, in this league that has changed dramatically over Duncan's career. Even with those changes, he's still the most balanced big in the NBA.

Here's a fun historical reference to what the GOATPUFF accomplished this past season: No player besides Timmy has ever put those per-game numbers up after the age of 36 on February 1st during the season. That's the date basketball-reference uses for their age during the season. Duncan was 37. Hakeem Olajuwon is the only other player to do it at 35 or older.

In the SI rankings Ben Golliver noted that no player in the league this past season matched Duncan's per-36 minute production of 18.7 points, 12 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 blocks.

Not only did no player match that this last season, but the last time that line was produced in the NBA was in 1978 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton both accomplished that particular feat. It's so rare that the league has seen it accomplished just eight times,Duncan included, and the eighth is only if you count Bill Walton in 1980 where he played only 14 games. That's why I wrote 1978. Only four players have done it (Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Duncan and Bill Lanier). To put it another way, Duncan is the only player to achieve those numbers since the league drew a big arc on team's floors and decided to award any shot made from outside of it three points. Timmy did it at 37 years old. I'd like to really encourage you to think about that.

Duncan no longer commands a double-team, and he isn't on the floor as long as he used to be, but somehow, that timeless veteran is still the Spurs' best player, the league's best big, and he's deserving of SI's top-5 designation. A designation that isn't just about his career accomplishments, but is an accurate placement in the NBA today.

The NBA won't ever see another player like him and every fan of the sport should take some time this coming season to appreciate him. One of these years it really will be his last.

All stats from basketball-reference.com