San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan, a five-time NBA champion, two-time Most Valuable Player and three-time NBA Finals MVP regarded by many as the greatest power forward of all time (despite the fact that he played center for a lot of years, but that’s a story for another time), announced Monday morning that he is retiring after 19 seasons in which he defined consistent brilliance and served as the cornerstone of the Spurs’ rise into the model NBA franchise.
Well, technically, he didn’t announce anything. The news came down, quietly, in a Spurs press release trumpeting the team’s sterling record since Duncan’s arrival out of Wake Forest with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA draft: a 1,072-438 regular-season record, a .710 winning percentage, the best 19-year run in NBA history, the highest-such mark in any of the four major American professional sports over the duration of Duncan’s career. The release features no quotes from Duncan himself, which would be the most Tim Duncan thing of all time if not for this kicker:
Spurs have called a press conference Tuesday to address Tim Duncan's retirement. Tim Duncan will not be present. This is somehow perfect.
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) July 11, 2016
The 40-year-old made 15 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA teams (including 10 appearances on the First Team) and 15 All-Defensive Teams (eight First Team) in his illustrious career; the All-NBA and All-Defensive berths are the most in league history. He is the Spurs’ record book, topping San Antonio’s franchise history in virtually every significant category.
He retires in the top 10 in NBA history in regular-season games and minutes played, offensive, defensive and total rebounds, and blocked shots, and 14th on the all-time scoring list with 26,496 points. The list of players to total 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocks is two names long: Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Duncan is one of just three players in NBA history to spend at least 19 seasons with one team, joining John Stockton of the Utah Jazz and Kobe Bryant, who also retired this season after 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Spurs made the playoffs in every one of Duncan’s 19 seasons, the longest stretch of postseason appearances in the league, and won 50 or more games in 18 of the 19 campaigns, including the last 17 in a row. The lone exception? The 1998-99 season, which was shortened by a lockout to just 50 games. The Spurs went 37-13 — a 61-win pace over a full 82-game slate — and won the championship.
“Tim Duncan is one of the most dominant players in NBA history,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a Monday statement. “His devotion to excellence and mastery of the game led to five NBA championships, two regular-season MVP awards and a place among the all-time greats, while his underrated selflessness made him the ultimate teammate.”
For the bulk of his career, Duncan shared the court, the burden and the glory in San Antonio with point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili, two fellow future Hall of Famers whose playmaking daring and on-court passion played beautifully off Duncan’s metronomic consistency and quiet fire to give the Spurs one of the most balanced and explosive attacks in the league. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili hold the NBA record for most wins by a trio in both the regular season (575) and postseason (126), cementing their shared legacy as arguably the greatest troika the game’s ever seen.
Even tho I knew it was coming, I'm still moved by the news. What a HUGE honor to have played with him for 14 seasons! #ThankYouTD
— Manu Ginobili (@manuginobili) July 11, 2016
No player and coach in league history have won more games together than Duncan and Gregg Popovich, who totaled 1,001 victories in their unparalleled run together. Popovich, a three-time NBA Coach of the Year and a very smart man, never once made any bones about which member of that partnership deserved more of the credit for all those Ws and for those five championship celebrations.
“Every time I walk around the house, once a month, I tell my wife, ‘Say thank you, Tim,’” Popovich said a few years ago, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone in this organization for anything that’s been accomplished, remember it all starts and goes through Timmy.”
This is a true statement: There are grown adults in SA who have never known a Spurs team without Tim Duncan. He might as well be the Alamo.
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) July 11, 2016
The Spurs had been a top-tier NBA team before Duncan’s arrival, making the postseason in 17 of their 21 NBA seasons and standing as a Western Conference power in the mid-’90s thanks to the presence of All-Star center David Robinson, selected with the top overall pick back in 1987. But a broken foot sidelined Robinson for the bulk of the 1996-97 season, sending the snakebitten Spurs spiraling to a 20-62 record, the league’s third-worst mark and third-best odds of landing the top pick and a shot at Duncan, a two-time consensus All-American and ACC Player of the Year at Wake Forest who had averaged 20.8 points, 14.7 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and 3.2 assists per game during his senior season with the Demon Deacons.
“Whoever has a chance to draft him, they’ll be a contender – immediately,” said Larry Brown, then the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
While the Vancouver Grizzlies and Boston Celtics entered the draft lottery with a better chance at the top spot, the ping-pong balls favored San Antonio, bringing Duncan to the Riverwalk to pair with a now-healthy Robinson in a Twin Towers frontcourt look that promised to instantly return the Spurs to the ranks of NBA contenders.
“If we’re healthy, we should win 50-plus games and be in the playoffs,” Spurs owner Peter Holt said at the time. “And if Tim Duncan is all that we believe he is, you’ve got to believe he puts us in a league of our own.”
He did exactly that, instantly proving every ounce as excellent as advertised.
Duncan started all 82 games as a rookie, averaging 21.1 points on 54.9 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks in 39.1 minutes per game, earning Rookie of the Year honors, an All-Star berth, a spot on the All-NBA First Team and a top-five finish in MVP voting in his first pro season. He teamed with Robinson and first-year head coach Popovich to lead the Spurs to 56 wins and the second round of the playoffs.
The following season, with Duncan in the unquestioned primary role as San Antonio’s top offensive option and defensive stopper, the Spurs stampeded through the league en route to the first title of his career, and the first of two for Robinson, who proved both an ideal mentor for Duncan and the perfect model for how to move gracefully from No. 1 superstar to complementary player in order to continue competing at the highest level as one’s career progresses.
“If I shot more than 12 times a game, I could, yes [average 25 points a game],” Robinson said. “But that’s all about ego. Now it’s about winning. You’ve got to decide what’s going to make your team the best and then go for it.”
For many years, running everything through Duncan in a slow-paced, low-possession, defense-first meat-grinder of an approach was what made San Antonio the best. But as the years and minutes piled up on Duncan’s knees, and as the Spurs began to give ground in a brutal Western Conference, Popovich and company transitioned to a faster-moving, faster-paced, more pick-and-roll-heavy and perimeter-oriented attack fueled by the dribble penetration of Parker and Ginobili. The result was a late-period resurgence that saw the Spurs return to the league’s elite, returning to the Western Conference Finals in 2012, the NBA Finals in 2013, and the top of the mountain by toppling the Miami Heat in 2014 to exact revenge for their seven-game ’13 defeat and net the fifth title of the Duncan-Popovich pairing.
“I think I’ve explained to people that it’s like an evolution,” Duncan said in 2014, according to Lorne Chan of Spurs.com. “We all changed along the way, and we went through different periods, but no matter who was at their best or who was leading us, we found a way to still win and do it together.”
Duncan received fewer touches, played fewer minutes, sat out more often and played a reduced role as part of that evolution, with the Spurs first becoming Parker’s team before ascendant superstar Kawhi Leonard and free-agent prize LaMarcus Aldridge rose to the top of the marquee. Even as the Spurs reorganized their offense to plan for life after Duncan, though, he continued to contribute as a defensive tone-setter.
Last season, he ranked 14th among rotation big men in defensive field-goal percentage allowed on attempts at the rim, impacting opponents’ interior shots roughly as much as Draymond Green and Hassan Whiteside. By ESPN’s Real Plus Minus statistic, which purports to measure a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, Duncan trailed only Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut among game-changers per 100 defensive possessions. The Spurs led the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions; with Duncan manning the middle, that already league-best figure dropped to a microscopic 93.8 points-per-100 allowed. All this, at age 39, with more than 50,000 total regular- and postseason minutes on those creaky knees.
That defensive production, even as Duncan’s quickness and offensive game waned, kept him among the Spurs’ staples last season. Beyond that, though, what he continued to represent — not solely from a macro perspective, but on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute level — remained as vital to San Antonio in Year 19 as it was in Year 1, according to his longtime coach.
“What he still gives us is a base from which to operate,” Popovich told reporters earlier this season, according to Adi Joseph of The Sporting News. “He’s smart enough to try and do fundamental things, like rebound, block shots, change shots whenever he can, be in the right place on the court, help teammates understand what’s going on. He’s great for LaMarcus and David [West], helping them understand where to be on the court. He’s just not going to score the way he used to score. Everything else, he tries to do it as well as he possibly can. It’s still very effective and very important to our success.”
From the moment he entered the NBA, that was Duncan to a T: trying to do everything as well as he possibly could, doing it very effectively if not necessarily with a whole lot of flash and panache, and doing so in a fashion that was instrumental to the creation and continued sustenance of a basketball superpower. Since 1997, Tim Duncan has given the Spurs a base from which to operate, and more often than not, that base resided at the very top of the NBA; for 20 years, he was a fact, utterly inarguable in an era where seemingly everything is up for debate. We will not see his like again.
– – – – – – –