We take most great athletes for granted. It’s just human nature. We excitedly watch them emerge on the scene, then become great, but once they’ve reached the highest level of their sport, it’s easy to forget just how lucky we are to witness them. Sure, Steph Curry might keep our attention because the moves and shots he pulls off are often literally unprecedented. A-Rod and a few other real or imagined villains attract constant negative attention for the rest of their careers. (And playing in the New York market certainly doesn’t hurt.) But quiet, constant excellence is just not an interesting story.
It was easy for the casual fan to lose interest in the history being made by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Years of brilliance by Mariano Rivera felt routine. Despite all the ESPN reports and internet haters keeping him on our minds, it took another championship run to really remind us that LeBron is an all time great player. But no athlete has been as underrated in their own time as Tim Duncan, and it’s a safe bet that nobody ever will be.
Tim Duncan could care less that we haven’t talked about him. For most of the past nineteen seasons, he has been one of the NBA’s very best players while doggedly avoiding the spotlight. A soft spoken Virgin Islander, he was content to win more than 1,000 games in San Antonio, the NBA’s fourth smallest media market. Highly athletic in his prime, he was a physically dominant player whose favorite move was a carefully aimed bank shot. He was an unapologetic geek who coauthored a chapter in a book called Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors, collected swords and played Dungeons and Dragons. He hasn’t sent out a tweet since 2013. Nobody outside of San Antonio owns his jersey. He was a tremendous competitor who played with a blank stare and a closed mouth.
Tim Duncan is one of the ten greatest players in NBA history. A fifteen-time All Star who made All-NBA First Team at age 37, he retires 14th all time in points, sixth in rebounds and fifth in blocks. In 251 playoff games, he averaged better numbers than he did during the regular season, and he became one of fifteen players not on the 1960s Celtics to win five championships. His extraordinarily unselfish attitude and his defensive presence in the middle anchored the Spurs to a tremendous run of dominance over almost two full decades.
For most of his late thirties, Duncan stayed unquestionably elite. Just last year, in the crunch time of a playoff matchup with the Clippers, 39-year-old Duncan defensively manhandled 26-year-old Blake Griffin when it mattered most. Even in his last NBA game, a playoff loss to the Thunder, Duncan scored 19 points.
Overall, though, this year was a notable step back for Duncan. He played fewer minutes, performed worse in just about every statistical category and for the first time had some games where be barely contributed at all. Some of that was due to the arrival of All Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs won 67 games this year; it’s not as if they needed much more from Duncan. Mostly, though, he was just old. Nobody plays forever. Even still, he had enough in the tank to rate as an elite defensive player by advanced stats and the twelfth best player in the league if you trust ESPN’s Real Plus Minus.
Over 19 years, we watched Tim Duncan mature from a shy, 22-year-old geek ready to dominate the NBA into a shy, 40-year-old geek with one of the best basketball resumes anyone has ever produced. It has been a unique experience to watch him. We witnessed a special kind of boring greatness the likes of which we will probably never see again. But make no mistake: it was greatness.
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