In so many ways, the 2014 NBA Finals are a symbol of total triumph for Tim Duncan.
In winning a title in a third different decade, Duncan’s fifth championship represents a span of dominance that has lasted longer than any other individual player’s reign since the ageless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In defeating LeBron James and the back-to-back champion Miami Heat, Duncan’s latest ring will signify a clobbering of the best team he’s ever defeated on the Finals stage. In securing the Larry O’Brien trophy for the fifth time after winning his first all the way back in 1999, Duncan’s Spurs have officially outlasted the likes of the Steve Nash Suns, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, the Core Four Pistons, prime Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, the Kevin Garnett Celtics and, dare I say, Miami’s Big Three.
And though 22-year old Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP, in contributing big shots and irreplaceable rim protection throughout the Finals, on top of his series-clinching stretch of post-ups against the Thunder that got his team to the Finals, Duncan put those that have been proclaiming his team’s and his personal demise for years to shame.
“We’re back,” Duncan said slyly, posing with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili after that decisive Game 5 on Sunday night.
“Not bad for a bunch of old guys.”
That’s about as snarky as you’ll ever hear Duncan. He doesn’t trade quips for laughs in the way that Gregg Popovich does. As we learned leading up the Finals, we really have to lower the standards of “trash talk” to define something Duncan says as such, but that terse line acted as a subtle acknowledgement of years worth of prognostications of his demise. As slight a jab as it is, that comment does give us the rarest of glimpses in sports: a brief trip inside the soul of San Antonio’s historic hermit.
For a stoic giant who never lets anyone see him vulnerable or ecstatic, Duncan has always had a quiet fire burning inside of him, a caged bit of rage that he channels into his play and off-season preparation while concealing it from the outside world. Those moments when Duncan’s raw emotions burst through the seams are always memorable. Whether it’s with a forceful fist pump or that “Still Got It” strut up the floor after making a big basket, Duncan occasionally breaks his silence and lets it known that he is one of the most driven athletes in sports.
We don’t hear about his killer instinct or his unbelievable will to win like we do about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, but the only difference in the competitiveness of these legends is that Duncan doesn’t shove it in your face. He calmly goes about his business, doesn’t get caught up in the moment and never shows up an opponent in an attempt to make his dominance obvious. Duncan is an isolated case of a professional athlete whose burning desire to win is masked by a docile personality, and it adds to the mystique of his legacy.
And the fact that his legacy isn’t complete is a testament to his indomitable will. No other player in league history has been as consistently great as Duncan has been over the past two decades, making the playoffs in every single one of his 17 seasons, never failing to win 50 games, holding steady at 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for his career and acting as the eternal backbone of everything the Spurs do on both ends of the floor.
You don’t sustain a historic level of success like that without being insanely competitive, and Duncan is exactly that. He doesn’t exude the kind of personality traits that we normally associate with maniacally competitive players, but that’s far from surprising. As it has always been for Duncan, he goes about things in an anomalous way, always maintaining his standing as basketball’s most anonymous legend.
What makes Duncan’s run so much more unbelievable is that he’s had to reconfigure his game several times over the years. Duncan’s dynamic dynamism has helped make the Spurs one of the most adaptable franchises in all of sports over the past 20 years, which is ironic for an organization whose core identity in terms of how they operate and carry themselves has never been altered. San Antonio’s never-changing demeanor and lack of openness to the media is what leaves a lot of people feeling like the Spurs are stale and stiff, not the style of basketball they’ve been playing of late.
The truth is that the Spurs have survived and thrived in several different eras, expertly developing new schemes, gameplans and on-court personalities over the years. They won their first championship way back in 1999 by playing plodding post basketball with Duncan and David Robinson camping out on the block and this season they won their fifth title thanks to a beautiful, spaced out offense, which is heavily influenced by Mike D’Antoni’s revolutionary fast-paced pick-and-roll style, that made Tony Parker the primary puppeteer.
The one thing that has never changed is that Duncan has been of primary importance on both sides of the ball since the day he was drafted.
Duncan’s offensive abilities haven’t deteriorated all that much. He’s still a very effective scorer in the post, he’s had an unprecedented late season surge with his free throw percentage and he’s still a tremendous cog in pick-and-rolls as a finisher, screener and passer. Duncan’s offense outside the paint has gone by the way side, but the Spurs are so good at generating efficient looks that Duncan shooting mid-range jumpers wouldn’t be a primary option even if he was an above average shooter.
And defensively, Duncan is coming off a quietly great series against the Heat in which he acted as an incredibly effective rim protector against the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. In the final three games, Duncan’s rotations on the backline, even when his primary task was guarding an outside shooter like Rashard Lewis, were pristine, as he rarely slipped up in his duties of getting to the edge of the paint and creating a wall that James and Wade could never get over.
Before their most recent shift in philosophy, defense has always been San Antonio’s best attribute, and with the Spurs achieving a top five defensive rating in the past two seasons on top of their machine-like offensive production, Duncan has now had a stretch of anchoring elite defenses in two different eras. It’s more impressive than it sounds because his responsibilities have changed drastically over time. Duncan’s gone from being a classic big man defender that worked hard to clean up the boards, bodied up post scorers and compiled blocks on the weakside into a more versatile, modern and mobile big man defender that contains quicker guards on pick-and-rolls and moves from a stationary position to slide across the paint and give more help on the strongside.
No matter how many different directions the Spurs have gone with their schemes and systems over the years, Duncan has reliably managed the flow of the game on both ends of the floor in a methodical manner. Duncan’s ability to go from being a back-to-the-basket scorer that got the ball on the block on every possession to a pick-and-roll/high post hybrid big that has to sprint up and down the floor infinitely more times than he did 10 years ago, all while maintaining a ton of credibility as the defensive foundation, should be remembered as one of his crowning achievements.
But, of course, dealing with change, adjusting to new schemes and teammates and constantly redefining his role was a whole lot easier for Duncan with Gregg Popovich on the sidelines.
There has never been a better combination of player and coach than Duncan and Popovich. You can throw out some damn good nominees, but I’ll place the legacy that Timmy and Pop have built together above any and all other candidates. You can even put all of their success aside for a minute and just consider what an unbelievably rare and perfect combination of two personalities that their relationship represents and their tale still reigns supreme.
It’s poetic, really, the way that these two ended up together. A selfless, altruistic, humble and affable Air Force Academy graduate turned basketball coach just so happened to be paired up with the one superstar talent that prioritized those same values over fame, acclaim, bravado and notoriety. Their symbiotic chemistry trumps that of any other duo in sports and probably most married couples. The way the two interact and the way their relationship has gone way beyond basketball seems so much like a father and soon whose bond originated with games of catch in the yard and grew from there into an unbreakable friendship.
And it seems as if the two will be inseparable even upon retirement. Popovich has said on multiple occasions that the end of Duncan’s career will be end of his, too. But outside of having a storybook ending to the Duncan-Pop era, there’s really no reason for that to be the case. Though Duncan has certainly been the key to everything for the Spurs, Pop is being his self-effacing self when he says he owes it all to Timmy.
Though he doesn’t have a famous source of his philosophical beliefs like the Zen Master, Popovich has always been the best coach in the league at connecting with his players and getting the best out of them. Pop gets everyone to buy into the idea of sacrificing for the greater good and sticking to the process when things start to go wrong, and the result is the gorgeous display of basketball that we just witnessed in the Finals. Popovich is also an excellent tactician that has been rather innovative in his use of corner three-pointers, nuanced pick-and-roll techniques on both ends of the floor and his infamous minutes plan for his aging stars.
Popovich combines the leadership necessary to curate a team full of unselfish players with the system that extrapolates maximum production from their skillsets. Having Duncan at the helm setting the tone on the floor is a massive advantage, but I can count on one hand the players around the league whom I think Pop couldn’t convert into a charitable and efficient weapon.
I shudder to think what the NBA would look like now had the Celtics won the 1997 Draft Lottery or had the Spurs fired Popovich as they were considering back in 1999. Luckily for everyone who enjoys watching basketball, everything aligned perfectly to allow the Ducncan and Popovich duo to last as long as it has. Through 17 seasons, they’ve been the most dominant and successful pair in league history, and they aren’t done just yet.
Tim Duncan is a recluse. We know precious little about him and he’s never been interested in changing that. That’s what makes me fear how sudden and swift his departure from the game will be. David Robinson is still a mainstay at the AT&T Center, drawing a raucous ovation any time he’s shown on the big screen, but I don’t think Duncan will stick around in that manner. Maybe he’ll drop by the practice facility occasionally to check on Kawhi and Tony since his custom car shop is just down the street, but the Big Fundamental will have his hands full with Dungeons and Dragons battles during the week and paintball tournaments on the weekend.
Duncan’s fifth championship isn’t quite the culmination of his perpetual journey towards the top of the NBA mountain — he’s still got at least one more year left to give — but the end is near for Duncan, which makes this a prime time for reflection.
But that’s the thing with Duncan: He never lets up. He never gives us time to sit back and search for a clear understanding of what we are witnessing. Every year, we aren’t talking about everything he’s accomplished and examining his place in history. Instead, we’re talking about how he’s defying the odds and holding off Father Time to put together another extremely successful season without showing any signs of decline.
Duncan is not going to ease into retirement. When that fateful day finally comes, he’s going to rapidly drift off into the shadows for good, leaving behind perhaps the most storied career in all of basketball. In his wake will be incessant discussions of LeBron’s legacy, what Kevin Durant needs to do to win it all and other polarizing storylines about the game’s emerging stars, and precious little about his renowned career. Duncan’s farewell won’t be some massive celebration of a remarkable career in the same way that Kobe’s eventual retirement will. It will be a goodbye and nothing more.
That’s the way that Duncan would have it, of course. Grand adulation has never been what Duncan has pursued or even welcomed. He’s always loved being that kid in the back of the classroom that keeps to himself and aces all of the tests. But as much as Duncan has enjoyed ignoring the spotlight, I don’t think there’s ever been an athlete that has done a better job handling it, always remaining humble and self-aware no matter how successful he became.
Because of that, there’s no better athlete — or person — to remembered as the seminal sports figure of his generation. And that’s a pretty fitting legacy to leave behind.