There's been a narrative going around that LaMarcus Aldridge, the second he steps on the floor in a Spurs jersey for a meaningful game, will instantly be the best teammate that Tim Duncan's ever played with. The pragmatic among us will reserve judgment, pledging to wait a year or two before comparing him to peak Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker, or the ever ascendant Kawhi Leonard.
Of course, all of this is folly. The best teammate Tim ever had and ever will have is David Maurice Robinson, and it's not close.
I bring this up because Robinson, whom Avery Johnson always liked to address as "Five-Oh," for his iconic uniform number, turned the big "Five-Oh" recently. If this development didn't make you feel a bit old and wistful yourself, well then I feel sorry for you because you're probably a millennial whose sole memories of "The Admiral," are of him moving around stiffly, trying his best to contain the behemoth Shaquille O'Neal and basically serving as a rich man's Tiago Splitter while Duncan carried the Spurs to championships.
Oh yeah, David Robinson, I've heard of him. He was on that team with Tim and a young Tony and Manu and Stephen Jackson and Steve Kerr. Good role player.
If you never saw him play a full game in his youth, you have no idea what a monster David Robinson was. It seems blasphemous to suggest this when on a nightly basis we watch a seven-footer like Kevin Durant effortlessly cross people up and LeBron James combines Karl Malone's physique with Michael Jordan's skill set; where Russell Westbrook assaults the rim like it owes him money and Anthony Davis swats would-be three-pointers into the eighth row. I still believe with every fiber of my being that the Robinson who entered the NBA in 1989 was the single most freakish athlete the league has ever seen or ever will.
There were plenty of agile, graceful, explosive people back then, Jordan and Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins certainly, but also bigs like Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing.
It didn't matter. Robinson was like an asteroid hurtling toward the blissfully unaware lumbering giants below. The detonation was instant and nothing would ever be the same.
No YouTube clip better exemplifies what a young Robinson was like than this one.
Look at that acceleration on that steal. Marvel at the speed on the full-court dribble. Gasp at how high he got at his apex to block Jordan. Put him in today's game, in the wide open "pace and space" era, and it wouldn't even be fair. Robinson was a damn superhero.
Here you can find further evidence of Robinson once being able to soar to the heavens to bring down wayward alley-oop lobs and planting fools who tested him on their kiesters on the other end.
A telling clip of just what kind of superfreak we're talking about here can be seen in this early 90's game against the Nuggets. Here's Dikembe Mutombo, who would go on to win four Defensive Player of the Year awards and to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He has zero hope of stopping Robinson from doing whatever the heck he wants.
There were two great tragedies, if we can call them that, in Robinson's career. First, like a certain other Spurs southpaw I'm fond of, he entered the league much older than the typical rookie, even accounting for the fact that it was commonplace for top prospects to stay in school three or four years back then. Because of a two-year commitment to the Naval Academy (which could've been five if they really wanted to be hardliners about it), Robinson didn't make his debut until he was 24, two years after the Spurs drafted drafted him first overall in the 1987 draft. With all due respect to the worthwhile duties he served as a Naval officer for the United States, the world was needlessly denied the gifts of a one-of-a-kind athletic prodigy.
As a consequence, we only got to witness David Robinson The Alien for three or four years. After that, with his physical abilities diminished a few degrees from ludicrous to merely obscene, we had to settle for David Robinson The Superstar Who Learned How To Score. That was still a thrill, but in a different way, kind of like the difference between 2005 Ginobili and 2008 Ginobili.
There was the quadruple-double against the Pistons...
And the Sunday afternoon where he out-dueled Shaq and Penny...
And the night he dominated Olajuwon and the Rockets...
And the 71 points he scored against the Clippers to lock up the scoring title in 1994...
It all culminated in an MVP award in 1994-95. Robinson had games where he thoroughly outplayed Charles Barkley and destroyed Shawn Kemp. He once scored 45 on Ewing and the Knicks. In the end none of it mattered though because he could never lead the Spurs to glory, and that was the sole prism through which his critics viewed him.
Which brings us to the second tragedy of Robinson's career. His prime was wasted playing with a bunch of... well "bums" is too strong of a word, and I dare not use "trash," which so many of my blogging brethren resort to, but, well, if Sean Elliott --who on his best day wasn't ever as good as Leonard was by his third (age 22) season-- is your second banana, you're in trouble. Seriously, Elliott's career PER is 13.9 and his peak season was 16.3. Leonard's PER as a rookie was 16.6 and it's only improved from there. (And PER doesn't even account for defense.)
The third guy on the supposedly "championship caliber" Spurs team during Robinson's peak was Johnson, who Parker had to restrain himself from openly ridiculing on the "Champions Revealed" special the "Big Three" and Gregg Popovich participated in after winning the 2014 title. At one point, before he decided to sabotage the team, Dennis Rodman was being seriously discussed as an MVP candidate. Vinny Del Negro was prominently involved. You didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
And then, providence, in the form of Duncan, and the rest was history.
Unfortunately, while "The Big Fundamental" supplanted Robinson as the Spurs first option and helped him capture two championships, history would diminish Robinson's accomplishments, especially to the 1999 team where by most objective measures he was still the better overall player.
I mean, have you ever really looked at Robinson's basketball-reference page, like really scrutinized it? His career PER of 26.2 is merely fourth all-time, behind Jordan, LeBron James and O'Neal. Duncan's single-season career-high in PER was 27.1, in 2003-04. Robinson topped that SEVEN separate times.
Robinson was in the top five in Win Shares each of his first nine full seasons in the league, leading offensively twice, defensively thrice and overall twice. In his MVP season he led the league in both Offensive (10.7) and Defensive (7.2) Win Shares, and still ranks 12th all-time, with 178.7. By contrast, Duncan led the league in Offensive Win Shares once, in 2001-02, but has never finished in the top five otherwise. Duncan has been in the top five in overall Win Shares eight times, and has also led the league twice, just like Robinson.
Where "The Admiral" distanced himself from Duncan was in efficiency. In terms of Win Shares per 48 minutes, he's second all-time at .250. He finished in the top-five ELEVEN times here, and his low-water mark before his final season was a sixth-place finish in 1992-93 where it was .197. Duncan's "only" had five top-five finishes, and has never led. Robinson topped Duncan in this metric their first four seasons together (and their first two years together in PER).
Then there's VORP (or Value Over Replacement Player), where Robinson had eight top-five finishes, including three consecutive years where he led the league from 1993-1996. His career mark of 80.9 still ranks eighth overall even though he played just 14 --well, 13 really-- seasons. Duncan had six top-five finishes, led once, in 2001-02, and his career mark stands at 86.9, despite playing nearly 350 more games than Robinson.
The more you look at it, the more you realize for all of Duncan's brilliance and all the deserved platitudes to his greatness, the biggest difference between he and Robinson is that one got to play with Pop, Ginobili, Parker and now Leonard and the other mostly didn't.
The numbers and highlight clips will never do Robinson complete justice. There was an elegance to him, a style and charisma that was all his own. You set eyes on him for the first time, watched him play for a few minutes, and you were hooked for life. He inspired thousands, if not millions of people to be Spurs fans for life, even pudgy 11-year-olds living in California. He singlehandedly saved basketball in San Antonio and the dignity with which he carried himself every day was the example and foundation for everything that followed.
LaMarcus Aldridge (20.3 PER, 69.4 Win Shares, .145 WS/48 and 18.5 VORP, with zero top-fives in anything) is a nice player. No, that's not fair. He's a star.
But he's never going to be David Robinson and we need to show more appreciation, forever, for "five-oh."