Tim Duncan played four seasons at Wake Forest before joining the San Antonio Spurs as the #1 overall draft pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, so he has never called Indiana home, but he is an Indiana type of basketball player.
The eulogies for Duncan’s career came and went quickly yesterday after he announced his well-timed retirement from basketball. The highlights were scarce as Duncan’s excellence cannot be captured in a single moment of greatness.
Duncan’s lack of ego has defined the Spurs franchise through his tenure, but it fits perfectly the character of basketball played in Indiana. Hickory coach Norman Dale captured the Spurs philosophy of basketball very nicely in Hoosiers, “Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team – no one more important that the other.”
That was Tim Duncan and the Spurs.
Here are the top 10 reasons Duncan is one of the best 10 players/people in NBA history:
10 – In Duncan’s rookie season, the Spurs posted a 36-win improvement. Before Duncan, the Spurs were 20-62. In his rookie year, Duncan was a significant piece in a historic turnaround to 56-26. That was the second biggest positive pivot in NBA history (Boston Celtics in 2007-2008 won 42 more games than the season prior because of the acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett).
9 – Rather than indulging in histrionics, Duncan remains stoic. Go ahead and try to find a picture of Tim Duncan smiling when he is not holding an NBA championship trophy. Rarely upset and never satisfied, Duncan described the reason for his lack of emotions on the court, “If you show excitement, then you also may show disappointment or frustration. If your opponent picks up on this frustration, you are at a disadvantage.” Duncan is always trying to find a collective advantage while others seek brand building Sportscenter moments.
8 – Duncan never left the Spurs. San Antonio only has one major league team, and Duncan made it relevant. He could have bolted as Kevin Durant did to Oklahoma City last week, but Duncan stuck around, made San Antonio his home, and never wavered. Bright lights don’t suit Duncan and so fleeing for a major market where he could capitalize on his brand was never a priority. Duncan created a front-runner, rather than joining one.
7 – One of three players in NBA history to play on team that won 1,000+ games. In his final season, Duncan joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish in that very exclusive club. Winning is the ultimate measure of a player’s contribution to a team, and Duncan has always put winning first, second, and third. 1,000 wins represents more than 12 undefeated NBA seasons.
6 – The Spurs won 50 games during all of Duncan’s seasons, minus 1998-1999. The reason the Spurs failed to win 50 in 1999 is that a labor dispute shortened the season to 50 games. During that season, the Spurs were 37-13 and won their first NBA Championship. The Spurs finished first or second in their division during every season in Duncan’s career.
5 – Over his last three seasons, Duncan reduced salary to accommodate roster greatness. From 2014-2016, Duncan – the most iconic player in Spurs history – was paid a total of only $25,362,446 because he wanted the Spurs to remain competitive. During his final season, the wildly celebrated Kobe Bryant took $25M from the Lakers, who compiled a rancid 17-65 record. Over his last three seasons, Bryant’s Lakers finished 65-181 as he syphoned $79M out of the Lakers payroll. Duncan’s last three Spurs teams? 184-62.
4 – Duncan’s excellence in the playoffs is among top three all-time. According to Number Fire, “Among players with at least 14 career playoff games, Duncan ranks third all-time in win shares (37.8) behind LeBron James (41.6) and Michael Jordan (39.8). His 17.4 defensive win shares again rank second to only Bill Russell (21.8).” That’s rarified air that lodges Duncan inside the top five without question.
3 – Spurs made playoffs during all of Duncan’s 19 seasons. Our Sportscenter society embraces thrilling moments of grace, but the athletes who leave the greatest legacies are the grinders who continue to show up early, stay late, and bust their asses in between. Duncan is the NBA’s all-time grinder who shared his work ethic with coaches and teammates for 19 seasons of minute-by-minute focus on what’s important.
2 – Named to the All-NBA 1st or 2nd Defensive Team 15 times. Shooting excellence comes and goes, but defense can be brought to the court every night. That’s how the Spurs won five championships during Duncan’s 19 seasons, and Duncan was at the nexus of the Spurs defensive excellence. No NBA player other than Duncan has earned an all NBA defensive team nod more than 12 times. His dominance on the tough end of the floor is unmatched in NBA history.
1 – Duncan’s retirement was announced via Spurs press release. Duncan’s legacy was certainly worth a final tour of the NBA – an 82-game valedictory lap to honor his status as the best power forward to ever play. But Duncan does not require relentless external validation, so he told the Spurs he was done, and that was that. Duncan led the Spurs through 19 seasons of consistent excellence by focusing on what was good for the Spurs rather than what was good for the Tim Duncan brand. Self-aggrandizement does not fuel Duncan in the way it does Kobe Bryant and many others in the NBA.
Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-6p, and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.