This is Part Two of The Eras of Tim Duncan, an examination of the way Tim’s game changed through the years as his body and the needs of the team evolved. The Introduction and Part One can be found here.
Just a year removed from winning their first NBA title, the promise of a Spurs dynasty seemed to waver when Tim Duncan, following an injury-shortened season, considered taking his talents to Disneyworld to team up with Grant Hill and Doc Rivers. But after a visit to South Florida, which included viewing homes in the area and missing a scheduled flight home to have another dinner with Magic brass, Duncan re-signed with San Antonio, leaving a more lucrative offer from Orlando on the table.
"It was probably a lot closer of a decision than people even think or even know,” he said some years later, citing as reasons why he stayed: his close ties to the city, David Robinson and Coach Popovich. The decision was almost certainly the right one, but it’s still worth looking at the team’s situation at the time to wonder why he may have left—especially considering their parallels with today’s squad.
The 2000-01 Spurs, much like the 2017-18 team, projected to lean heavily on their lone superstar, and Duncan would’ve been aware of the obstacles in their path to repeating as champs. The rest of the core was past its prime, the cap situation was murky, and new pieces were slowly accrued in the seasons to come. Tony Parker was drafted in 2001, Manu Ginobili came over the year after that, and the team’s second-best player, Robinson, had turned 35 that summer (also, this serves as a reminder of how good the Admiral was, even in his twilight years). The days of a two-pronged Twin Towers, attack were fading away, and the Big Three Era hadn’t even been glimpsed. This was the period where Duncan asserted himself the most.
In the four seasons that followed, no teammate of Duncan’s averaged more than 15.5 points per game, and only one other player (Robinson) posted a PER above 18.5. In two of those seasons, he was also the second-highest assist man, on top of being the featured scoring option and defensive anchor. He hit career-highs in nearly every category, including minutes, averaging as many as 40.6 per game in the 2001-02 season.
Duncan and Kawhi Leonard’s career arcs aren’t exactly analogous, but there are similarities in how Gregg Popovich saw their ability to contribute on both ends of the floor as they neared their primes. At 24, Duncan’s workload continued to grow, both because the team needed him to and because he could handle it, and Pop’s approach at the time lines up with how he’s spoken about Kawhi Leonard when asked if his new superstar was shouldering too many responsibilities:
“The bottom line is that he’s getting paid to do both. So get your ass out there and do both, if you want to know the truth. If you don’t want to do both then we’ll pay you $4 million.”
Duncan carried the entire load, dominating offensive possessions while spearheading the league’s best defense (twice taking the top spot, the other two years in the top three) through the next four seasons. There was little Duncan didn’t accomplish in this era, as he led the Spurs to a second championship and collected two MVP awards along the way. He was the face of the franchise when he re-signed in the summer of 2000; but by 2004 he’d elevated that franchise to an elite class of yearly contenders, a space they occupied for the rest of his career.
The Most Valuable Era (2000-2004)
There are a few statistics that suggest the lingering effects of Duncan’s knee injury were felt through the 2000-01 season. His scoring average dropped one point from the year before, while his free-throw percentage, which had steadily improved in his first three seasons, sank from 76% to 62%. Also, his total dunks (a stat unavailable on Basketball Reference from 1997 to 2000) were notably lower in 2000-01 than they were in the next two seasons.
But it was a temporary swoon, and Duncan’s numbers (22.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks) in his fourth NBA season were still good enough for First Team All NBA honors as the Spurs secured the league’s best record.
The team’s bread and butter through this period, and for years to come, would be feeding Duncan on the block (usually on the left side) and clearing out to let him work. Sometimes this would be as straightforward as him calling for it, receiving the ball, and the help defender either arriving too late or deciding not to come at all. Like so:
But opponents would adjust to the play that the Spurs called 4 Down, and that forced the San Antonio to develop wrinkles to deflect those disruptions. This meant different sets and off-ball actions would precede getting Duncan the ball on the block, and a series of cuts and passes were made once the defense collapsed on him.
Duncan, also developed as he became a greater focal point of the offense. Whether passing, dribbling or simply pivoting away from double teams, he became much better at seeing these plays develop before they did. As a result, his higher volume of touches didn’t come at the expense of efficiency, and he also hit career-highs in assists, averaging 3.9 in the 02-03 season.
Here he spins into a fadeway in response to the defense expecting him to dig into a post-up.
Turning and feeding a cutter who is wide open after his man left to double Tim.
Receiving the ball from Parker and giving it right back to him when Jason Kidd stays to pressure Duncan.
On defense, Robinson’s decline meant Duncan’s role had to grow, shifting to spending more time at center once the Admiral retired in 2003. (It remains one of the NBA’s comically inexplicable omissions that, in 15 seasons of making All-Defensive Teams, he never won a DPOY award) Just appreciate all the little things he does here to impact where and how the ball moves before finally blocking the shot.
Part of what made this era fun is that Duncan was the fulcrum of the defense on every possession and still poised to run it back the other way as soon as the ball came off the rim. The Spurs of the early 2000s didn’t play at quite the slogging pace of later teams, and Duncan himself could often be seen taking things from one end to another.
Duncan’s typically restrained game was let loose for this stretch, and his postseason performances are a microcosm of that. Consider his playoff numbers in the 2002 playoffs over nine games: 27.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 4.3 blocks (to just 2.4 fouls), and 5.0 assists per game, to go with a 33.5 usage rate and a 31.8 PER, both playoff-career highs. Or watch the near-quadruple-double (which may or may not have been an actual quadruple double) he posted to close out the 2003 NBA Finals over the Nets:
An interesting thing happened toward the end of the 2003-04 season. Duncan, the defending MVP who’d been nursing a sore left knee, returned from a three-game absence by coming off the bench against Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves. It was the first non-start of his career.
"It was a choice I made to limit the minutes... I couldn't play a week ago against the Clippers. I obviously wasn't ready. So it was about getting into live action and seeing how (the knee reacts)."
In 27 minutes of play, it was still Duncan who keyed the Spurs’ 20-point win over the conference-leading T-Wolves with 22 points and 10 boards, with Parker (16) and Ginobili (15) the team’s second- and third-leading scorers. But the latter two had already made big strides in their own games by that point (and earned more of Pop’s trust along the way), seeming less like complementary players and more the part of a core that had grown around San Antonio’s centerpiece.
The continued ascendance of Ginobili and Parker contributed to the realization that the Spurs could win even if Duncan’s game was more restrained, which helped shape the next era as San Antonio’s dynasty continued.