Posted by Jonah Gardner on July 14, 2016
The writing was on the wall for the San Antonio Spurs. At the end of the third quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, they trailed the Oklahoma City Thunder by 26 points. They had lost three of their last four games vs OKC and found themselves overwhelmed by the size and physicality of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and, most surprisingly, Enes Kanter.
On the San Antonio bench, Tim Duncan pulled Gregg Popovich aside for a quick conversation. After the conversation, Duncan played the entire fourth quarter. Even as the game entered clear garbage time and Andre Miller and Kyle Anderson replaced Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, Duncan stayed on the floor.
After the game, Popovich, with his trademark diplomacy, refused to divulge the topic of conversation with Duncan.
Shoot your shot Mr. Journalist, shoot your shot. https://t.co/1eM4x5B5mI
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 13, 2016
Well, now we know. For the first time since 1996, the Spurs will open an NBA season without Tim Duncan on the roster. There have been other all-time great players on the Spurs -- David Robinson, George Gervin, Boban Marjanovic -- but no one did more to shape the identity of the entire franchise than Duncan.
So, as a bookend to our pieces a few months ago about that other recently retired NBA legend, we wanted to celebrate Tim Duncan's singular career by pulling out some of our favorite stats and tidbits about #21.
Pounding the Rock
At some point on Monday, you probably saw this table:
Those are Tim Duncan's year-by-year per 36 minute stats. In other words, if you adjusted Tim Duncan's raw stats for the number of minutes played each year, he was basically the same guy at age 38 as he was at 21. Duncan's clock-like consistency was so amazing that, if anything, his per-36 table only scratches the surface of it.
Tim Duncan played at least 60 games in each of his 19 years in the NBA, with the exception of the two lockout shortened years, when he started 100% and 87.9% of the Spurs' games, respectively. All in all, he's tied with Karl Malone and Reggie Miller for the 4th most 60-game seasons in NBA history, and he'd almost certainly have 19 and sole ownership of 3rd if not for the lockouts. He's also one of eight players in NBA history to log 16 or more 2,000-minute seasons.
While showing up is important, there was much more to Tim Duncan's year-by-year steadiness than simply near-perfect attendance. As a rookie, Duncan's Offensive Rating was 108 and his Defensive Rating was 95. In 2015-16, those numbers were 107 and 96. In total, Duncan had the most seasons since 1973-74 with an ORtg over 105 (19, which you may also recognize as the number of seasons he was in the NBA) and the most with a DRtg of 95 or under (9).
Putting it together, Duncan had 9 105-ORtg, 95-DRtg seasons, the most since 73-74. But that's not the cool part. Only six other NBA players had more than one 105-ORtg, 95-DRtg seasons. The player with the second most was David Robinson, who had seven. But of those seven seasons, six came as Duncan's teammate. Excluding him, the next highest is Kevin Garnett with four, meaning no one else even had half as many of these seasons as Duncan, without being his teammate.
But wait, there's more. If you set a minimum of 1,000 MP, there have been 42 105-ORtg, 95-DRtg seasons since 1973. 17 of those 42 seasons, or 40.5%, have come from Duncan or one of Duncan's San Antonio teammates.
That metronomic consistency will be what we remember Tim Duncan for, but it also sells his peak a little short. By Win Shares, Tim Duncan's MVP-winning 2001-02 season was the 39th best ever by an NBA player. Duncan had 17.8 WS that season; for reference, Stephen Curry had 17.9 this year. In the shot clock era, there are only 11 players who can say they had a better peak season than Duncan, by WS, and they have names like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Wilt Chamberlain.
While 2001-02 was Duncan's peak season by WS, Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating, and Value Over Replacement Player, what he did in 2002-03 was even more impressive. Not only was he close to all those marks again (his PER was just 0.1 lower and his BPM just 0.2 lower), but he also led the Spurs to their second title in dominant fashion.
In fact, by WS and VORP, Tim Duncan's 2003 NBA Playoff run was the single best playoff appearance ever (with the caveat that VORP starts in 1973-74). While part of that is because of the sheer number of games Duncan and the Spurs played that year, it's also a testament to the other-worldly level Duncan was operating on that year.
In the 2003 Western Conference Finals and Semifinals that year, Duncan faced two of his three greatest rival big men: Shaquille O'Neal and Dirk Nowitzki (though Dirk would miss the last 3 games of the series with an injury). Against the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks that year, Duncan averaged 28.0 points per game, 14.3 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists per game, and 2.2 blocks per game. And he wasn't done. After making it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1999, Duncan proceeded to unleash what was, until Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the best performance in a Finals game that Basketball-Reference can give a Game Score to.
Game Score was invented by John Hollinger and, like its baseball counterpart, seeks to synthesize a player's entire box score to one number, measuring how well they played. 10 is an average performance, 20 is really good, 30 is excellent, and so on. Basketball-Reference can calculate Game Score for every player in every game going back to the 1983-84 season.
In Game 1 of the 2003 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan put 32 points, 20 rebounds, and 7 blocks, good for a Game Score of 40.8. Until LeBron bested him this year, Duncan's Game 1 was the only 40-GmSc performance in the NBA Finals since 1984. Oh, and that may not have even been his best game of that Finals.
With the title on the line in Game 6, Duncan had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks. Sure he was reliable and understated, but when he needed to, Timmy brought it.
All I Do Is Win
Beyond his individual performance, Duncan's career was also notable for his role in reshaping the entire Spurs franchise (not surprising, for a man with an interest in team dynamics and combatting egotism). In their first 20 years in the NBA, from the 1976-77 season to 1996-97, the Spurs had very respectable .542 winning percentage, putting them in a very respectable tie for 7th in that span. Then they drafted Duncan.
In their 19-year NBA second act, the Duncan-era, the Spurs have had a .710 winning percentage. That's a run of dominance that's virtually unprecedented in modern sports. In the shot clock era, there've been 100 team seasons with a winning percentage of .710 or better. Eight of them were by Duncan's Spurs, more than any other franchise except the Lakers and Boston Celtics.
It shows up on the court. In every year since 2000-01, the first that Basketball-Reference has play-by-play data, the Spurs have outscored opponents by at least four points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the floor. With the exception of 2008-09, when the team had a Net Rating of 4.3 when Duncan played, they've outscored teams by at least 6.7 points per 100 possessions. Except for a blip in 2013-14, the Spurs have had a higher Net Rating with Duncan on the floor than when he sits in every year since 2000-01, including this past one.
But really, what it all boils down to is this: between the regular season and playoffs, Tim Duncan won 1,158 games as a Spur. Since 1963, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only human being to win more NBA games than Tim Duncan.
How did he win so many games? Simply put, Tim Duncan was good at everything. Among players who had a .550 True Shooting Percentage, without ever really taking any 3s, only Kareem, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Moses Malone had more career points than Duncan. Despite never winning Defensive Player of the Year, Duncan led the NBA in Defensive Win Shares 5 times, led the NBA in Defensive Rating 4 times, and posted a Defensive BPM under 3.0 just one time.
While the Spurs' tactical choice to ignore offensive rebounds hurt Duncan's career Total Rebound Percentage, he's 9th since 1970-71 in Defensive Rebounding Percentage. He was also an excellent playmaker for his size; only 3 players, 6' 11" or taller, had a better career Assist Percentage since 1964-65 than Duncan (minimum 500 Games Played).
Duncan's jack-of-all-trades game may have obscured his greatness in the moment. Duncan wasn't the best scorer of his generation or the best rebounder; it's even arguable if he was the best defender. But he was great in every facet of the game, in ways that literally no other player has matched since at least the 1970s.
Timmy's game has never been the easiest to appreciate. He spent most of his career playing for a plodding team in a remote, glamour-less city. He seemed to single-handedly shred some of the most likeable, unique, or downright funky teams in the league. The Cinderella-Story Knicks, Dirk's Mavericks, Seven Seconds or Less, and LeBron's Cavs 1.0 are just some of the would-be champions to fall to a player who seemed to outsiders like the laconic robot at the center of basketball's most conservative team.
And yet, the advent of social media and the burden-easing that comes with age combined to peel back the curtain just enough to reveal the fascinating, glorious weirdo at the heart of this decade-plus' most dominant franchise. The fantasy nerd, the H.E.B. pitchman, the on-court advice-giver. His unimpeachable excellence and low-key personality were suddenly refreshing in an era where every player is ruthlessly picked apart and relentlessly brand-conscious.
In a league full of bombastic narratives and epic struggles, Tim Duncan was just a guy who played a game. It won't be the same without him.