By Matt Nestor
There has not been a better basketball career than the one Tim Duncan is having.
That is not to say he is the best player ever. He is pretty high up that list, and anyone who says he is not — at worst — a top-10 all-time player does not follow basketball much.
But the career he has put together is something at which to marvel. The length of time he has been a great player, helped his team contend for titles, and won those titles is as impressive as it gets.
There are many people you can look at. All sorts of players have had wonderful careers.
Michael Jordan won six titles, one more than Duncan. At his peak, Jordan was arguably the greatest player ever. You can even easily argue that had he not retired in between three-peats, that the Chicago Bulls would have won eight-straight titles.
But many forget now that before the first title, Jordan was viewed as a one-dimensional star who didn’t have what it took to win a title. A great peak, and a lot of hard work — but it is eight years that really defined his career.
LeBron James has had a great career and is currently trying to challenge Jordan for the title of the greatest player ever. He has made four-straight NBA Finals, won two, and has been to five altogether in 11 years in the NBA.
Again, however, James spent eight years searching for that first title. This year proved that being great by yourself does not win you a title, and there is talk he may look elsewhere again to find those rings.
Robert Horry won seven NBA titles, more than anyone else who wasn’t involved with the Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. That is great, and Horry had enough big moments to be called “Big Shot Rob.” But he was never the centerpiece of the team.
The best comparison is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He won six titles. He won them 17 years apart. He is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. That is a pretty compelling case.
The argument against is that Kareem forced a trade to switch teams, so he didn’t do it in one place, as Duncan has. You could also argue that Magic Johnson was a much bigger force for five of those titles, and that Kareem was the third-best player on his team for the last two titles.
The fact of the matter is, since Duncan entered the league in 1997, his team, the San Antonio Spurs, has won 50 games in every season but one. And that season (1998-99) was shortened by a lockout of the players. They won 74 percent of their games, only lost two games in the playoffs, and won the NBA title.
Duncan has done it with one team. He has been the centerpiece of that team from day one. Yes, Kawhi Leonard was the breakout star. Tony Parker made the team go. Many guys contributed to the team. But Duncan is still averaging double figures in points and rebounds. Only Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor have had more Finals appearances, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
This is a totally different team from the first title of Duncan’s career to the fifth. The first time, there were David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliot. All three watched him and his young teammates from the stand this time.
These Finals continued an amazing run of basketball for the league. The Heat have had an amazing four-year stretch. The Western Conference has been so tough from top to bottom. For the league as a whole, this is about as good as it gets.
But for the last 17 years, the career Duncan has had is about as good as it gets.
When asked after the game about how it felt to be a 22-year-old Finals MVP in 1999 and be 37 and watching the 22-year-old Leonard be named MVP, Duncan responded with, “It happens.”
Sometime sooner, rather than later, the end of his career will happen. Abdul-Jabbar is often the forgotten great player in NBA history. One would hope that as Duncan’s career (though not at its peak) surpasses that of Kareem, people will take time to appreciate the greatness before he rides off into the Hall of Fame.
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From the June 18-24, 2014, issue