Tim Duncan has been the face of the San Antonio Spurs for nearly two decades, and in that time he has been a perfect franchise player. The model of consistency and production, he was the common denominator for each of San Antonio’s five championships. His stoic, team first attitude became the identity of the Spurs. His on the court achievements definitively put him among the ten best players in basketball history, and his attitude might have been even more impressive. It’s hard to believe that the Tim Duncan Era has finally come to an end, but here we are. The Big Fundamental has announced that his playing days are over.
Old Man Riverwalk may go down as the best player of his era, and his path to that point was unorthodox for the greats of his generation. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant went straight from high school to the NBA, and many others only stayed in college for a year or two. Duncan spent four years at Wake Forest to complete his psychology degree, even though he could have been the number one pick in the draft if he left early. He was keeping a promise he made to his mother, who he lost to breast cancer the day before his 14th birthday.
As soon as Duncan got to San Antonio, teammates, coaches and opponents alike knew that he was the real deal. Second year coach Gregg Popovich praised the rookie’s effort and attitude, as did veteran center David Robinson. Charles Barkley said of Duncan, “I have seen the future and he wears number 21.” Unlike some of the Chuckster’s other memorable quotes, most of San Antonio can agree that he was right about that one.
Duncan was named Rookie of the Year in his first season, and Finals MVP in his second. There is no doubt that if you asked him which meant more, he would point to the award he earned for helping the Spurs win their first ever championship. The Big Fundamental was at his individual best towards the end of Robinson’s career, as he earned two league MVP awards and brought another title home to San Antonio. Duncan’s near-quadruple double in Game 6 clinched the 2003 Finals, he was awarded Finals MVP again, and the Admiral rode off into the sunset with another title.
It’s difficult to definitively bracket Tim Duncan’s “prime” because it really depends on the criteria. His total production was most impressive in the Robinson years, but when Robinson retired Duncan became a true leader. His efficiency improved, and he was the veteran whose lead Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker followed. He led the team to another championship in 2005 behind another performance that earned him the Finals MVP. Timmy joined Michael Jordan, Shaq, and his childhood idol Magic Johnson as the only player to win the award three times.
As the years went by, Duncan’s role shifted. He had been the Spurs’ go-to scoring threat for nearly his whole career, but after the 05’ championship he graciously passed that torch to Manu and Tony. He was entering his 30’s, his legs already had a lot of miles on them, and he knew that the younger parts of the Big 3 were better suited to carry the scoring load. He was still the team’s leader and a dominant force in the low block on both ends of the floor. Though 2007 was his first championship without a Bill Russell trophy, he was an instrumental part of one of the most dominant postseason campaigns in NBA history.
If it feels like people have been calling Duncan old for ten years. That’s not too far off. After winning his fourth title, he was definitely “past his prime”. He was the eldest of a core that wasn’t getting any younger, and he was suffering from the chronic knee issues that come along with playing power forward in the NBA at an elite level for over ten years. For some it was a simple assessment; he had a good run, but it was nearing its end. Thanks in part to the career extending superpowers of coach Pop, Duncan contributed to a perpetually contending team into his 40’s.
The Spurs didn’t just get a decade of “prime” Duncan, they also got a decade of “still really great” Duncan. Two words that are most associated with his career, other than winning, are longevity and consistency. Though his minutes decreased as he got older, he was the most reliable player on and off the court during his time in the league. His per 36 minute numbers are remarkably consistent throughout his entire career, and it’s a big reason why his Spurs were able to enjoy such a sustained run of success during his time in San Antonio.
From his Rookie of the Year season in 1997 through his fifth championship in 2014, Duncan has racked up legendary numbers and individual accolades. Over the course of his career he averaged 21.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. 15 times he has been on an All-Star team, an All-Defensive team, and an All-NBA team, earning First Team All-NBA honors 10 times. He’s a 2 time MVP, 3 time Finals MVP, and most importantly a 5-time NBA Champion. Nobody will ever win 11 rings as a player in today’s NBA. Duncan is as close as we can get to a modern day Bill Russell.
Somehow, his temperament is even more special than his on the court achievements. So many basketball players do it for the fame, the mansions, the cars. Tim Duncan’s singular focus for the past 20 years has been being the best basketball player he can be to help his team win. He allowed himself to be coached extremely hard, and that helped him grow as a player and set a great example for his teammates.
In an era dominated by cocky superstars with bold personalities, Duncan was quiet, stoic, and humble. He gave credit to those around him when he succeeded and took responsibility when the team didn’t. He was a leader in every sense of the word, and that will be missed just as much as the beautiful bank shots, perfect post moves and dominant defending. Coach Popovich says that the Spurs look for players who have gotten over themselves. Duncan was the original.
Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward of all time, and that debate mainly comes down to whether or not he truly was a power forward. He’s arguably the greatest player of his era, and for many that debate comes down to a personal preference for his style or Kobe Bryant’s. Those debates will continue forever without a decisive answer, but one thing that cannot be debated is Duncan’s standing as one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball.
Duncan is also in elite company when it comes to beloved franchise players in modern sports. In the old days it wasn’t too uncommon for players to stay in one place, but that kind of loyalty is so rare in a time where it’s easy to be lured away by brighter lights, bigger contracts, and better opportunities. The list of modern franchise players gets even shorter when you factor in sustained individual production and multiple championships. Duncan is right up there with guys like Kobe, Tom Brady, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, all-time greats who meant everything to a team and community during their time.
It’s almost impossible to picture the Spurs without Tim Duncan, but Father Time has finally caught up with Father Time. Duncan’s retirement is profoundly bittersweet for Spurs fans, an entire generation of whom have never known San Antonio basketball without number 21. It’s the end of a historic era in which he gave his team and its fans so much joy, so much to be proud of. Timmy will be sorely missed by basketball fans everywhere, but the pure, winning culture he helped establish will live on in San Antonio long after the Big Fundamental hangs ‘em up.