We are back for the final time with the Spursiest moves and skills of all time. Simply put, these are the grittiest, most overlooked, and most singularly unflashy moves/skills in the San Antonio Canon. If you haven’t already, go back and check out our previous entries, listed at the bottom of this article.
In our final entry of this series, we have come full circle back to The Big Fundamental himself and are taking a look at perhaps his most fundamental of skills; one that remains a vital yet underappreciated role of big men to this day but is difficult to master, especially with the NBA setting stricter rules seemingly every year. Finally, we have:
Tim Duncan’s Screens:
Choosing any other player to head this list might have gotten me tarred and feathered, and rightfully so. As far as repetitious supremacy goes, Duncan was, and remains, the solid gold standard. If anything, singling out any one particular skill as the “Spursiest” from Duncan’s endlessly low-key repertoire is a bit like trying to pick the most audacious roundhouse kick out of all eight seasons of Walker, Texas Ranger. However, not unlike that double roundhouse special from S5 E16, this was never as much of a contest in my mind as it should have been.
In the two-and-a-half seasons since Big Fun’s retirement, it’s become even trendier to downplay his significance and skill-set than it was when he was actually playing. This is hardly shocking, Tim was never very popular outside of San Antonio, and much of the regard given to him outside of the city was begrudging at best. Never as vocal as Shaquille O’Neal, as athletic as Kevin Garnett, or as sexy a shooter as Dirk Nowitzki, his regular season MVP’s make regular appearances on all time-snub lists (usually in favor of some combination of Shaq, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, or Garnett), often on the basis of banality, and even his career averages of 19 points and 10 rebounds are frequently scoffed at in favor of gaudier ones authored by power forwards like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. But to reduce Duncan to his statistics is to dramatically underestimate the undiluted value of his on-court presence, which is no small task when discussing the versatility of the only player to record an “unofficial” quadruple-double in the NBA Finals.
Throughout the length of his career, Duncan showcased very few weaknesses outside of free-throw shooting (though it’s hard to call that a weakness when compared with players like Shaq, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Dwight Howard), three-point shooting (the Phoenix Suns beg to differ), and (for the last 5-7 years of his career) sprinting. But what always impressed me the most was the sheer totality of his attention to detail and technical dominance. Tuning into any given game, any given set, any given rotation, it was virtually assured that Duncan’s positioning, footwork, and strategic movement would almost choreographically exceed that of any other player to take the court for either team, and in no maneuver was this more evident than is his ability to set a pick.
Screening is one of the very first fundamental skills taught to youth basketball players, and yet it remains one of the most difficult to master; requiring a remarkable blend of awareness, subtlety, and force to employ it effectively without drawing unwanted attention from officials. Certainly there have been (and will likely to continue to be) NBA players who have fashioned careers out of upping said force and all but abandoning the subtler qualities, and this is all well and good (I like my sports with more than a dash of physicality, sue me), but true brilliance in this arena lies with those capable of setting pick after borderline (and not so borderline) illegal pick without drawing fouls, and in that regard I’ve never seen a player do it better than The Big Fundamental; moving towards his targets in those sure, steady steps of his, with such a remarkable mixture of focused yet feigned inattention. There’s a reason the man won a title in three separate decades, all-the-while remaining a net positive through his final season. Some skills never lose their luster.
“Tim Duncan? Setting illegal picks you say? Surely not!” Surely so. Rest assured that I’m not trying to muddy the legacy of our resident GOATPUFF, but rather enhance it (at least in my view). Consider for a moment that for the better part of nineteen seasons, Tim Duncan was arguably the best screener in the NBA. Duncan. Not some overly physical scrub (like Zaza Pachulia), or a somewhat limited specialist journeyman (like Marcin Gortat), not even the redonkulous human slab of meat that was Shaq (now more like a hunk of gristle).
For almost twenty years, the best screener in the NBA was also the guy most likely to drop twenty-and-ten on you any given night without seemingly breaking a sweat. That was the level of attention to minutia that he brought to virtually every aspect of his entire career. You wanna talk about “effectual gravity”? Tim Duncan was a whole damn planet.
I’ve often wondered if such stats had been kept, where would Tim sit on the career list for picks set? Pretty near the top (if not solidly in the pole position) would be my guess. But just as often I’ve wondered: how many points scored could be attributed to that same total? How many of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker’s points came at the behest of one of those ever-so-slightly-angled moving screens of his? How many lanes did he open or clear for his teammates that might otherwise have remained closed without those borderline hip-checks? I can certainly understand the confusion surrounding his value and standing among the pantheon of NBA greats; it’s hard to get a true measure of it when you could basically tally an assist for almost every screen set. What other skills of Duncan’s have evaded proper valuation, and how do we quantify them all?
So far we’ve settled for an assessment based on the number of championship trophies and Finals MVP’s won, and it’s hard to take issue with that. And maybe one day we’ll find a satisfactory unit of measurement to fully express the inherent value that Duncan brought to both his team and his city. But until then, we’ll simply have to treasure the memory of the ultimate “Spursy” practitioner plying his ultimate trade against the backdrop of an NBA landscape more captivated by the sound and fury of his peers. Gather your descendants around the old YouTube videos, lovingly maintain your well-worn championship DVDs, and watch closely as the premier big man of his era sneakily blindsides great player after great player. We shall never see his like again.
- Tim Duncan’s Outlet Passing
- Patty Mills’ Hustle
- Avery Johnson’s Attitude
- Sean Elliott’s Heart
- Bruce Bowen’s Corner Three
- Danny Green’s Transition Defense
- Boris Diaw’s Cream Shake
- David Robinson’s Box Out
- Manu Ginobili’s Inbound Defense
- Tony Parker’s Drive and Kick