Ball Don't Lie - NBA



For the past few weeks, various outlets have been putting together player of the decade tallies, with Tim Duncan(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes) bouncing in and out of the top two spots. These lists are so ridiculously pointless, that we did one too, last summer.

And while either decision left scads of people apoplectic ("I don't understand how you can overlook defense, which is half the game!" "Kobe should be on top because ... because he's Kobe!"), that's not really what counts, is it?

What counts is that, as we enter 2010, these two are still dominating on a level that should leave us bowing before our TVs every night. It's 2010, LeBron might be up to his tricks and Dwight Howard's(notes) bound to figure it out sooner or later, but this is still Kobe and TD's league. Somehow.

And that's just a ridiculous notion, this late in the game.

Kobe Bryant was drafted in 1996. He was playing preseason games around the same time Bill Clinton was debating Bob Dole. And I don't care that he came out of high school - this guy's been playing past the first round in every year of his career save for three campaigns, and he was in the first round (and playing ungodly minutes having to carry a terrible team) in two of those years.

And here he is, 42,690 minutes (including playoffs) later, still this good. Still this great. Still this potent.

His PER is around 26 right now, the fourth-best mark of his career if it holds up. That's with a broken finger. That's with a significant player in his starting lineup not fully understanding the offense, which takes away scoring opportunities for Kobe. Takes away assists. Takes time.

And yet, he's taken the time to drop 30 a game, including a spate of game-winners, while his team "figures it out" at the top of the standings. He's on pace to set a career high in shooting percentage with four working fingers on his shooting hand. Or, nine working fingers on his shooting hands, as Bryant has proven quite good on left-handed shots due to his tireless work ethic and unmatched drive.

Unmatched. He was handed this frame, and this pedigree, but so have lots of players of his (NBA-level) average height and build. Kobe did something with it.

The other night, against Dallas? Bryant could have had 50. Surveying the scene with a high dribble and all sorts of screens and defenders and possibilities in front of him, you could tell that this had a chance to be one of his nights. When the only shots that spin out are the ones that aren't supposed to spin out. When even the misses are makes.

He didn't drop 50. Didn't even drop his typical 30. He managed 15, eight assists. Four turnovers, too. The game was a rout, and Bryant was just toying with it, after a while, trying to disappear within the offense he loves so much, doing the thing he values above all. Winning, that is.

That's important to me, sure, but what do you know what should be surprising to us? At age 31, with all this wear and tear, this is a guy who still has the look of a 50-point scorer in his prime. 31's not exactly pension-time, I get that, but this is someone who entered the league having just turned 18, playing that deep into the playoffs so many times, with that level of intensity? Bodies and minds just aren't supposed to hold up this long.

Kobe's body hasn't, actually. His knees are shot. He can't make it through a season without turning one of his fingers into dust.

So what are we left with? That mind. The mind that tells you take it to the post. The one that now realizes that your chances to get the ball in scoring position are usually right in line with how willing you are to give it up before getting close to scoring position. The brain that loves the game as much as you.

I don't know what Tim Duncan loves, beyond his family and swords and such.

I do know that, at age 33, he's putting up a career high in numbers, per-minute.

His PER is around 28, and has been for most of the year. This was in a career with a 25 PER average, and 27 (a few times) as a high. After some step-slows to begin the year, he's been terrific defensively, as his mish-mashed Spurs unit has been slowly getting better, game by game.

Through all the accolades, through a decade that saw him win as the go-to guy on a championship team three different times, while burdened with the heavy load of having to guard all comers (because they did come past Tony Parker(notes), with relative ease sometimes) while working high efficiency magic on the other end, Duncan's about to turn in a career year at age 33.

Career year, kids.

Sure, he may have scored more or rebounded more per game over the course of his career, but pound for pound, minute by minute? This man has never played better.

The guy rarely turns it over. His rebound percentages rival his 24-year old version. He's hitting his free throws, he's passing the ball, and he's scoring, scoring, scoring. Dwight Howard can slap the top of the backboard and leave his man to pile up those blocks, but Tim Duncan is the best big man working in this game today.

Honestly, it's not close.

And he's 33.

He's got miles, too. 40,460 minutes on the career, and he spent those 18-21 years working in the ACC. And then a full rookie season forced to play second fiddle to David Robinson, even though everyone (right down to Robinson, Duncan, and the coaching staff) knew that this should be Duncan's team. Straightaway.

People talk about Gregg Popovich tanking the 1996-97 season, but nobody remembers how he essentially tanked all of 1997-98, as well. Sure, the Spurs won 56 games, but in this era's finest example of teaching a man to fish instead of handing him the trout, Popovich essentially punted Duncan's rookie year to teach him to learn how to play off the ball, to defend all angles, to work within a system, and to see the game through the eyes of someone besides the studly, all-world type.

Why? Because Coach Pop knew that Duncan was a studly, all-world-type. From the get-go. But he also knew, as it was with David Robinson for years, that Duncan would be paired with lesser lights, for whatever reason. That he'd see triple teams, and have to learn how to work away from the ball in order to contribute. And that defense was going to have to be his calling, even while being asked to drop 23 a night.

Popovich essentially wasted an entire season to teach a lesson, but look at this payoff! And how secure a man must Duncan be, at age 21, to go through that understudy program without a peep?

And here we are, 12 years later, watching Popovich and Duncan enjoy the fruits of that season in NBA purgatory. TD adapts to whatever rotation rolls in, whatever four surrounds him. He comes off the bench. He goes a quarter without shooting. He covers for his teammates. He gives up the ball early to get it back late. He's still destroying opponents defensively, and he still doesn't get credit for it while flashier guards that pile up the points sing to the website comment kids.

And it's 2010! These two weren't supposed to have faded away by now, but they sure as hell shouldn't be this brilliant — this MVP-level — at this point in their careers. How is it that everyone else hits their peak at age 28, and these guys are allowed to keep getting better?

Oh, yeah. It's because they actually care. It's because they know the game, way better than us. Not because of some insight handed down from on high (though Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are pretty far up there), but because they wanted to learn. They wanted to get better.

It's because they're not done, yet. Lucky us.

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