Editor’s note: This column appears in the May 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
My father visited me last weekend for two reasons: He wanted to see his granddaughter, and he wanted to finalize his will in case he drops in a heap after David Stern says these words: “The third pick of the 2007 draft goes to … the Boston Celtics.” At one point during Dad’s visit, I was discussing possible column topics for the issue you’re currently reading. Tim Duncan’s name came up.
“Would you read a column about how underrated Tim Duncan is?” I asked.
Dad made a face. He played with his hair. He seemed confused. “A whole column on Tim Duncan?”
“You wouldn’t read it?” I continued.
“I don’t think so. I’d see the headline, skim the first two paragraphs and flip to the next article.”
“Seriously? He’s the best player of the past 10 years!”
“Nahhhhhhh,” Dad maintained. “Nobody wants to read about Tim Duncan. He’s not that interesting.”
Duncan’s prowess has been a sore subject with my dad and me since the 1997 lottery, when our beloved Celtics had a 36% chance to land the No. 1 pick, and San Antonio plucked it away. Helplessly, we’ve watched him carry the Spurs to three titles, a number that could have been five if not for Derek Fisher’s miracle shot in 2004 and Manu Ginobili’s stupid foul of Dirk Nowitzki last season. No Celtics fan can assess Duncan’s career for more than .21 seconds without
remembering he could have been ours. With the franchise facing another make-or-break Ping-Pong moment on May 22, it’s safe to say that not getting Duncan set the Celtics back 10 years.
But what did we really miss besides a slew of 58-win seasons and a few titles? Well, the chance to follow the most consistent superstar in recent NBA history, for starters. Duncan’s averages from his first year (21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.7 apg, 2.5 bpg, 55% shooting, 39.1 mpg) are nearly identical to those of his just completed 10th (20.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.4 apg, 2.4 bpg, 55% shooting, 34.1 mpg). His placid demeanor hasn’t changed even a little; he looks exactly the same. His trademark 15-foot banker off the glass hasn’t changed. Nearly 900 regular-season and playoff games have worn down his legs a little but not much, and he’s made up for the erosion with an ever-expanding hoops IQ. If there’s a major difference between the 1998 Duncan and the 2007 Duncan, it’s his defense. He’s gotten better and better as the years have passed, not just as a help defender but as an overall communicator.
Whenever I watch the Spurs in person, that’s the first thing I notice: how well they talk on defense. It’s a friendly, competitive chatter, like five buddies maintaining a running dialogue at a blackjack table as they try to figure out ways to bust the dealer. Duncan is the hub of it all, the oversize big brother who looks out for everyone else. During breaks in the action, you can always count on him to throw an arm around a teammate before dispensing advice or to wave everyone over for an impromptu pep talk. He’s their defensive anchor, smartest player, emotional leader, crunch-time scorer and most competitive gamer, one of those rare superstars who simply can’t be measured by statistics alone. Fifty years from now, some stat geek will crunch numbers from Duncan’s era and come to the conclusion that Kevin Garnett was just as good. And he’ll be wrong. No NBA team that featured a healthy Duncan would have missed the playoffs for three straight years. It’s an impossibility.
I’m not a fan of the whole overrated/underrated thing. With so many TV and radio shows, columnists, bloggers and educated sports fans around, it’s nearly impossible for anything to be rated improperly anymore. Everyone is constantly searching for fresh topics to dissect, so could anything slip under the radar at this point? Think back to when Duncan entered the league: The web was still rounding into shape, sportswriters weren’t screaming at each other on TV, radio hosts were confined to talking about their local teams and everyone read their local columnists. That’s it. Ten years later, a hyperactive sports world means that, if anything, underrated players (like Ben Wallace, for instance) quickly become overrated because everyone spends so much time discussing how underrated they are. Well, I say Tim Duncan is underrated. You know what else? He’s wildly underrated.
Assuming the Spurs win the 2007 title and Duncan captures his fourth Finals MVP award (both decent bets), his first professional decade will have concluded with four rings, two regular-season MVP awards and nine first-team All-NBA nods. His best teammates have been David Robinson (who turned 33 in Duncan’s rookie year), Manu Ginobili (never a top-15 player) and Tony Parker (ditto). In fact, Duncan has never played for a dominant team; the Spurs have never had quite enough talent to roll through the league. Trapped at the top of the standings, they’ve been forced to rely on others’ failed lottery picks, foreign rookies, journeymen and head cases with baggage. Zoom through San Antonio’s past 10 rosters on basketball-reference.com some time. You’ll be shocked. Tim Duncan has never played on a great basketball team. Not once.
So how can he remain underrated? For one thing, he’s always had a little too much Pete Sampras in him. Even last month, when Joey Crawford tossed Duncan for laughing on the bench, everyone seemed most shocked that Duncan was the guy involved. It was like watching an AP history teacher flip out on an honors student who never speaks in class. Duncan certainly doesn’t have Shaq’s sense of humor, Kobe’s singular intensity, KG’s menacing demeanor, LeBron’s
jaw-dropping athleticism, Wade’s knack for self-promotion, Nash’s fan-friendly skills or even Dirk’s fist pump. If there’s a defining Duncan quality, it’s the way he bulges his eyes in disbelief after every call that goes against him, a grating habit that was old about five years ago. The other “problem” has been his steadfast consistency. If you keep banging out great seasons with none standing out more than any other, who’s going to notice?
There’s a precedent for this: Once upon a time, Harrison Ford pumped out monster hits for 15 solid years before everyone suddenly noticed, “Wait a second, Harrison Ford is unquestionably the biggest movie star of his generation!” From 1977 to 1992, Ford starred in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones movies, Blade Runner, Working Girl, Witness, Presumed Innocent and Patriot Games … but it wasn’t until he carried The Fugitive that everyone realized he was more bankable than Stallone, Reynolds, Eastwood, Cruise, Costner, Schwarzenegger and every other competitor from that time. As with Duncan, we didn’t know much about Ford outside of his work. As with Duncan, there wasn’t anything inherently interesting about him. But Ford always delivered the goods and, eventually, we appreciated him for it.
I think we’ll say the same about Duncan someday. Over the past 10 years, he’s been overshadowed by Kobe and Shaq, LeBron and Wade, Nash and Kidd, Nowitzki and KG, even C-Webb and Iverson … and yet, Tim Duncan was
better than all of them.
Just wait, he’ll have his Fugitive moment. It’s coming. Maybe even next month.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.