(CNN) — OK, readers, let’s have a debate, one of sports talk’s favorites. Who is the best player in the NBA? Is it Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant?
Scroll down to the comments and sound off. Go, now. I’ll wait.
All done? Good. Now, how many of you called me short-sighted (or “an Obama-loving imbecile,” if you’re a troll) for neglecting to include the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan?
Not many, I venture, at least not if you’re outside the Greater Alamo Area. But how can he objectively be omitted from the debate?
“His game is shrouded in fundamentals and not athleticism,” said former NBA sharpshooter Steve Kerr, a TNT analyst who will call Saturday’s Game 6 between James’ Heat and the Indiana Pacers. “What he does isn’t flashy, isn’t explosive. He prefers the shadow. He doesn’t want to be in the spotlight.”
Yet he’s a winner. That can’t be argued, and with his résumé, it’s curious he doesn’t get more credit — and that less-talented fellows like Metta World Peace get more press, even if it’s because of their antics.
Fans profess to yearn for good guys, yet when presented with a stalwart, they yawn or change the channel. Last week’s news of Duncan’s possible divorce from his wife of 11 years is one of the few, maybe only, instances of off-court negative press in his career.
Kerr said he can’t explain it.
“Why do people watch reality TV? Why do people watch the Kardashians? Just consider your audience,” he said. “It’s true that there’s a fairly hypocritical nature, not just to sports fans but human beings. It’s human nature to be fascinated by the bizarre or the crazy or the flashy and not the mundane.”
For 16 years, the two-time NBA MVP has averaged a double-double, tallying about 20 points and 11 rebounds (plus more than three assists and two blocks) per outing. James, Durant and Bryant have impressive career stat lines but not double-doubles.
Duncan’s numbers are a smidgeon higher in the playoffs, which his Spurs have reached in every season since he joined the roster. None of the Trinity has reached the postseason every year.
Then there are those rings: four of them, 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. James has one, Durant none. Bryant has five, a feat Duncan’s teammates hope he will soon match as the Spurs sit at home waiting to learn who they’ll face in the NBA Finals after dismantling the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Tim has laid the groundwork for how he wants his NBA career to be handled,” TNT and NBATV analyst Mike Fratello said, explaining that Duncan has chosen to stay in one of the league’s smallest markets, alongside a coach he trusts, Gregg Popovich.
Before we delve any deeper, Fratello, who spent a collective 15 years coaching the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers, would like to make one thing clear: Durant doesn’t belong in this debate. Not yet.
“It’s unfair to compare Kevin Durant with Tim Duncan. Tim Duncan is the model of longevity, consistency and championships,” he said. “Is he a top three or four player? Yes, without question, but you can’t include him in this conversation. What has he done in the playoffs that puts him in with Tim Duncan?”
Fair enough. Sorry, KD. We’ll talk again in five years.
Back to Duncan. Are you starting to see why the he’ll never be voted prom king? The father of two simply doesn’t care about such things — popularity, ratings. He cares only about Ws, and to many fans, that isn’t sexy unless a player makes an ass of himself or talks trash incessantly.
Grantland’s and ESPN’s Bill Simmons, a Boston Celtics fan, posted a rare (for sportswriters) ode to Duncan this week. In it, he called the Spurs power forward the best player of his generation, better than Bryant, a guy who “probably led the league for 16 straight years just in throwing an arm around a teammate’s shoulder.”
“It’s the little things that make him special. Offensively, he can destroy you in the low post, he can run perfect pick and rolls with any decent guard and when all else fails, he can just bank that pretty 15-footer. Seriously, does anyone else in basketball have that shot?” Simmons asked in the video. “Since 1997, you never heard about Duncan dogging it, calling out teammates, showing up heavy for training camp, complaining about money, asking for a trade, giving himself a nickname. Of course, people found that boring. … I’m sorry. Since when was winning boring?”
It’s a fine question and one that J.R. Wilco, editor-in-chief of the Spurs blog Pounding the Rock, has heard before. After reading a CNN story from last year about the Spurs’ supposed inability to tantalize, he handed the rock Thursday to one of his blog’s longtime commenters, Lauri (bold and italics imparted by the commenter):
“…the whole ‘Duncan is boring’ argument is so effing tautological. No, he’s not boring. He’s unknown. Because you never feature him. Can he be charming and funny? Of course he can. Is he a fighter and a champion? You best believe it, and if you don’t, look up. See those banners? And the emotion he shows on the court is that much more powerful for being rare. You can promote that, you capitalist a-holes, if the money that promotion brings is really all that matters to you about this game. You can promote anything if you come at it from the right angle. But you’re lazy, NBA suits, and you like to keep the public lazy, and you take the path of least resistance — entertainment over enlightenment.”
Wilco also believes the “boring” argument overlooks that the Spurs’ style of play is by design. It’s not that Popovich is averse to the flashy, Wilco said; it’s more that he’s “anti-bad play,” and the path to victory is rarely paved with quadruple crossovers, one-handed alley-oops and no-look-behind-the-back passes.
Pop and Duncan also famously avoid the media, a practice that might not jibe well with larger markets like Los Angeles and New York. Wilco recalls one of his contributors, Aaron Preine, telling him last year he saw Duncan actually pump a fist — a gametime rarity over the big man’s career — after realizing that no reporters wanted to talk to him in the locker room after a playoff game.
Even on Duncan’s website, there is an FAQ largely about his personal life that, tellingly, hasn’t been updated since Duncan was 27, about a decade ago. His milquetoast answers average 4.6 words and include this bombshell: Asked what wish he’d want granted if given the choice, he replied, “Good health.” As opposed to his own island or a solid-gold Lamborghini Aventador.
“They don’t play to the press. That means there’s less meat for the marketing machine to chew up and process,” Wilco said. “The Spurs’ entire organization, they really think it’s a distraction. The rest of that stuff is external to their job of winning games.”
And since 1997, when the 6-foot-11 Wake Forest grad first donned the silver and black as the NBA draft’s No. 1 overall pick, no American sports team has done that job better. it’s hard to imagine that’s not primarily a product of Duncan’s no-nonsense efficiency, though Fratello points out that Popovich and the Spurs’ front office — as well as the personnel it’s paired with Duncan — deserve credit.
To truly appreciate Duncan, you have to take the long view. So where does he rank among players all time?
We’ll start with Kerr because of his credentials. Sure, Fratello coached greatness in Dominique Wilkins and others, but Kerr played on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams, so he’s actually passed greatness the ball.
Kerr said Bill Russell, Jordan and Magic Johnson fill out his top three, “and at that point, you can throw Tim Duncan up against anybody, in my mind.” A fifth title — should the Spurs dispatch the winner of the Heat-Pacers series — would
elevate Duncan to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar status because of the time between trophies. Abdul-Jabbar won six championships between 1971 and 1988.
“Star players normally don’t win until they reach their prime. … Titles come in a cozy span of six to eight years, not 13,” Kerr said. “It speaks to his brilliance over his entire career.”
Fratello sees it similarly and puts Duncan in the top five of all time, along with Kerr’s top three and Abdul-Jabbar.
“Tim Duncan certainly belongs in that company. It’s rarefied air that he’s in,” he said.
Wilco said “the greatest ever” debates are heavily dependent on “who’s talking, where they’re talking and who they’re talking to.” He’s not sure, as a Spurs blogger, how much mileage he can derive by putting Duncan in an all-time team of players at every position, he said.
He and the other contributors to Pounding the Rock, however, confidently call Duncan “GOAT PUFF,” an acronym (sort of) for Greatest Of All Time Power Forward.
Told of Fratello’s and Kerr’s assessments, Wilco softened his resistance to ranking his team’s perennial all-star.
“I wouldn’t disagree with those guys,” he said. “The top five is an excellent place for him.”