Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) over at CBSSports.com had an interesting post on his Facebook page recently wondering whether Tim Duncan deserves a spot above Larry Bird on the all-time pantheon. From there, my fellow Pounders Chris Itz and J.R. Wilco raised the question of whether a case could be made for Duncan as the second-best player of all-time. I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring and offer my thoughts.
Basically, it comes down to your personal criteria. What's more important to you, longevity and consistency or short-term transcendence? In baseball would you prefer pitchers who were brilliant for a few years, like Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez? Or guys who were a notch below in their peaks, but very good for much longer, like Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux? In football would you prefer Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith? Joe Montana or Brett Favre?
Obviously Michael Jordan is number one. There can be no argument about that. After that, I think some deference has to be paid to the three old-school big men who were great, timeless, ageless, and helped make the NBA what it is today. That's Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I know the arguments against all of them. Chamberlain didn't win enough and put up empty calorie numbers against relative Lilliputians. Russell was surrounded by Hall-of-Famers and still had mediocre offensive numbers, and a ghastly field goal percentage. Abdul-Jabbar played the first half of his career in a watered-down league where half the talent was in the ABA, and completely stopped rebounding and playing defense over the second half of his career, with the "Showtime" Lakers. I know all this and I don't care. At some point respect has to be paid to the legends. Babe Ruth never saw a slider or got to play against black or Latin players, but he's still Babe Ruth. So the top four, to me, the so-called "Mount Rushmore," is out of the question.
A better argument can be made for whether Duncan deserves to leapfrog Bird or Magic Johnson, the two people who helped save the NBA in the early 80's, back when the league was having its Finals broadcast on tape delay. Just that fact alone should hint at my answer, I suspect. At their absolute peaks both Bird and Johnson were better than Duncan, I believe, though they both got to play with a number of Hall-of-Fame supporting casts. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are Hall-of-Famers-to-be of course, but they're not of the caliber of Kevin McHale or Kareem. Though Duncan has been able to sustain his greatness much longer than Bird or Magic could, he never quite reached their lofty heights and was never the ambassador to the game that they were. The NBA would be very different indeed without Bird and Magic, and they deserve their proper due. So, no fifth or sixth on my all-time list for Duncan.
From there, he's as good as anybody. I would round out the top-12 with Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and LeBron James in some order. Others may argue for Jerry West, Bob Pettit, John Stockton, Julius Erving, John Havlicek or even Kobe Bryant. They all have worthy cases. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other, as it were.
Where Duncan loses points with me is that he was never quite transcendent. He had incredible games here and there, of course, sometimes even in the playoffs in closeout games over the Lakers and the Nets but for example his career-high in points scored for a season was 25.5. He never averaged 13 rebounds in any season. He was just very, very, very good, year after year after year.
I'm in the distinct minority on this, but I don't think Duncan ever reached David Robinson's peak. Some Spurs fans are too young to have watched Robinson play and others only remember the broken down "second-banana" version with the bad back, but from 1989-1995, "The Admiral" was something else. The early version was an athletic freak who slammed everything and swatted Jordan at the rim and stole the ball from behind like a 7'1" Chris Paul. Then, by 1993, he learned how to shoot and pass and was truly unstoppable. He has the reputation for being soft and a playoff choker, but he was playing with a worse supporting cast than Anthony Davis has and dragging them to 55 wins.
If the debate is about "the best teammate" or "the best leader," then I'm right there with you for Duncan, as subjective and unquantifiable as those concepts are. As far as all-time greats go, I think Duncan barely cracks my top-10, which obviously is no shameful thing.
If you want to sneak Duncan into a "top-five," the way to do it is positionally, as in "all-time starting five." There's no question in my mind that he's the best power forward to have ever played, though I've seen Bill Simmons try to wedge James in as a four to keep Bird in the starting five. The Bird/James debate is for another day, but they're small forwards to me. Give me Kareem, Duncan, Bird, Jordan and Magic and I'll take on all comers.