In addition to leading the 1996 Wake Forest Demon Deacons to the Elite Eight, tying their best finish since 1962, inspiring the most successful tank job of all-time, winning the 1997 Wooden Award and making the All-American first team twice, Tim Duncan spent his time in college co-writing a paper that would be published in a clinical psychology book called "Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors". It was titled "Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism" and discusses human ego and why we dislike it.
Has there ever been anything more fitting in human history? A Google search gives no evidence of Tim Duncan getting into trouble, having his work done for him or skipping out on classes at Wake Forest. Instead, it turns up a paper on the perils of a bloated ego. And for 19 seasons, nobody adhered to that paper better than its author.
Over 1,392 regular season games, more than all but six players, and 251 playoff games, more than all but one player, Tim Duncan was the basketball equivalent of a robot. He was the most “boring” superstar in the league with the most “boring” nickname whose teams won the most “boring” championships in the most “boring” fashion playing for the most “boring” city.
In a 2012 feature for Sports Illustrated, Sean Elliot, Duncan’s former teammate and current Spurs broadcaster, told Chris Ballard that “In 15 years, he hasn’t changed”, and was absolutely right. Duncan’s signature turnaround bank shot, his cradling of the basketball before every game and his wide-eyed hands-up pleading with referees stayed exactly the same throughout his entire career. As the entire league shifted, including San Antonio’s playing style and the team Gregg Popovich built around Duncan, the man himself stayed exactly the same.
Watch the game that is widely considered Duncan’s best Finals performance—Game 6 of the 2003 Finals against the Nets—and you’ll gain an appreciation for two things. The first is for Duncan himself, who finishes with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks, who moves himself into the lane for runners with sheer will, rebounds as easily as Mozart plays the violin and passes from the post like no other big man, dumping the ball into cutters at the perfect moment and consistently beating double teams with easy flicks of the wrist that find open shooters.
The second is for why the 2003 Finals were one of the lowest rated since before Magic and Bird popularized basketball; two small markets, a new rights holder that failed to properly advertise the product and didn’t have the right broadcasting tandem, and generally unentertaining basketball. Only once in the entire series did a team break 100 points and only one other time did a team break 90. Most of the game is broken down into 1-on-1 isolation basketball, the type that caused the U.S. to lose in the 2004 Olympics to Argentina.
That contrast between Duncan playing incredible basketball and the game around him being so drab is why it took so long for the collective NBA fanbase to appreciate him. His three Finals MVPs came in a terrible lockout shortened season (’99) and during a stretch where basketball had a dip in popularity because the play was so bad (’03 and ’05). Ditto for his two regular season MVPs, where he averaged a combined 24.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 blocks over two straight seasons (’02 and ’03). Even the 2007 Finals, a series where he arguably should have won MVP over Tony Parker, was one of the least compelling Finals ever and had lower ratings than 2003 to show for it.
The collective We, the basketball watching public that is, found the things Duncan was good at to be boring for most of his career. He was consistent as hell, making the All-Star team every year from 2000 to 2011 and either the 1st or 2nd Team All-NBA every year from 1998 to 2009. His 15 All-NBA selections are tied for first all-time with Kobe and Kareem and his 10 1st Team All-NBA selections are tied for second all-time with six other players. He’s 6th all-time in rebounding, probably the least fun to watch activity that can be done on a basketball court and 5th all-time in blocks, only instead of emphatic blocks into the third row that make SportsCenter, Duncan’s blocks are often in the direction of a teammate, meant to start a fast break, much like the way people describe Bill Russell’s blocks. He’s not an incredible scorer despite being 14th all-time in the category and when he does score; he does it in a way that the collective We does not find compelling, with a turnaround bank shot or something else of the like. He’s not flashy or egotistical—remember that paper he wrote in college?—and he’s never once shown concern for his brand, even after losing $20 million to a crooked financial advisor, doing some commercials but none of them memorable. I had to do a Google search to see if Duncan has any signature shoes and if so what brand are they. Turns out, Duncan had two signature Nike releases in the early 2000s that didn’t make much noise and then signed with Adidas, where he remained, quietly, for the rest of his career.
When you take all of that into account, it makes a lot of sense as to why it took most of the collective We until pretty recently to properly appreciate Duncan. Because we now get our basketball analysis from a million different places from a ton of really good, smart writers and podcasters and TV personalities as oppose to SportsCenter and one really good, smart writer from a local paper, there’s enough room for the nuance it takes to appreciate Duncan fully. The 2014 Spurs were the most appreciated championship team Duncan was a part of for a lot of reasons, including that they were simply the most entertaining by any standard, but the biggest was that they were simply more room for them to be appreciated than their counterparts from 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
But forget about the public perception of Duncan for a minute and take a step back. The guy averaged 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.2 blocks for his career. When you consider that, while effective for the last five years of his career, Duncan had to save himself during the regular season and his averages went down, that’s more than impressive, it’s incredible. Take out those five seasons and Duncan averages 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.3 blocks. Over his best five seasons (2000-2004), he averaged 23.5 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.5 blocks and in the playoffs he averaged 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks. There’s remarkable consistency there that stays when you look at advanced stats as well. No matter where you look in his career, saving for the last year or two, Duncan was a double-double machine, consistently putting up 20 and 10 or 21 and 13, shooting about 50 percent from the field with a PER near 24 or 25.
Defensively, Duncan was an absolute force his entire career, making more All-Defense teams than anyone. He’s also 7th all-time in Defensive Box Plus-Minus to boot. When you take the span of his career into account, there probably hasn’t been a better, more consistent big man on defense in NBA history. Hell, there probably hasn’t been a better big man in NBA history period.
You can make the argument for Bill Russell, but Russell played in a less athletic era when the league was made up of just eight teams with most of them adhering to an unwritten rule that you couldn’t play more than four black players at a time. Duncan has succeeded in an era where every player knows and takes advantage of the benefits of nutrition and exercise and more of them use steroids than anybody will care to admit and he did it for longer. If you were to switch the years that Duncan and Russell were born, it’s likely that they would have each other’s careers but ultimately, it’s tougher to do it in this era.
Russell has by far the strongest argument against Duncan, but let’s look at some of the others just for the hell of it. Duncan epitomized unselfishness more than maybe anyone else. That, along with the rest of his previously established resume should put him ahead of Wilt, who was benched in the last five minutes of Game 7 of the 1969 Finals for milking an injury and because his coach couldn’t stand him (neither could his teammates). Shaq has better individual seasons than Duncan but Duncan’s longevity puts him ahead of O’Neal who had 17 years before becoming washed up and “only” 14 years at or near the top of the league. Ditto for Olajuwon. Kareem was bad enough at defense that he got made fun of for it in Airplane and I don’t think anyone would argue for Moses Malone, Karl Malone, Bob Pettit Barkley or Bill Walton.
If you had to pick a big man to play with, to win you a title, you’d pick either Duncan or Russell and I’d go with Duncan. In 2007, Jazz assistant Phil Johnson told Sports Illustrated “I’ve never seen [Duncan] get on one of his teammates…I see only complimentary things.” Not only did Duncan make his teammates better for every one of his 19 seasons, he didn’t rag on them or blame them either. That philosophy won the Spurs five titles, including at least two where they beat the better team if all you did was look at the roster (2003 and 2014).
More than anything, that’s how we’ll remember Duncan. Not as the boring guy with the boring nickname on the boring team but as one of the guys you’d want on your team if your life depended on it. A guy who made everyone around him better for 19 seasons, creating a juggernaut in San Antonio that persevered as over 300 teammates came through the doors, most of them exiting with a ring on their fingers courtesy of number 21.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
 Not including ABA games.
 Brad Nessler was the play by play guy. I like Brad Nessler, but it’s no wonder ABC decided to make Al Michaels call the Finals for the next two seasons when you realize that Nessler was their best option for the NBA Finals.
 Ironically, the 2004 Olympics were the only Olympics Duncan played in.
 Cousy, LeBron, West, Jordan, Pettit, Elgin
 One of these shoes, the Air Max Duncan II, had Velcro straps and a zipper. It’s like the pre-internet version of the Chef Curry’s only way worse.
 He has 15; Kobe and Garnett are tied for second with 12 each.
 The argument of where Duncan ranks all-time is pretty abbreviated here simply because I don’t want this article to be too long (even if it already is too long).