Top 50: Tim Duncan, no. 30

by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

At some point over the last few years, I got old. Growing up, I was the guy who had all the NBA Entertainment compilation dunk videotapes, and I watched “Inside Stuff” every week just for the opportunity to see any dunks I might have missed. Because I lived in Atlanta, I got a steady diet of Dominique Wilkins and his windmills and double-pumps. Even though it was only an exhibition, I was furious when Michael Jordan was awarded the 1987 Dunk Contest ahead of a clearly superior Dominique. So perhaps, even just subconsciously, I correlated dunking ability with greatness, or at least believed that the better a dunker someone was, the more likely they were to be great.

I fully understand that Tim Duncan’s game isn’t for everyone. When I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t have got it. But as I aged and my life and dreams started being lived closer and closer to the ground, I grew to have more of an affinity and appreciation for those who played basketball a bit closer to the ground. Like Tim Duncan.

There will be those who say Duncan was mostly the product of the system he played in, surrounded with talented teammates, coached by a brilliant coach, with a terrific GM pulling the strings. And sure, all of those things are true. But then, Duncan made all those things work for him. He fit in, but he also stood out, and all of that together turned one of the NBA’s smallest markets into one of its most powerful dynasties.

Last season was probably Duncan’s worst NBA season, at least statistically. He finished the year averaging 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, both career lows. He averaged just under 29 minutes per game, and only about 11 shot attempts per game, also career lows. If you weren’t sure, the numbers should confirm that Duncan is no longer the player he was a decade ago.

But he’s still dope. He still kisses the ball off the glass. He still pump fakes guys into the first row. He understands the angles, as if he sees the game as a series of binary numbers. He still can get up and block a shot, still put down a peaceful little one-handed dunk. I don’t know if the general basketball watcher gets all that when they see Tim Duncan play these days. I hope they do, and I hope you do. And if recognizing the value of Tim Duncan makes me old, well… call me Methuselah.

I used to have a running gag in The Links about Tim Duncan actually being a robot that was designed to be dominant at basketball. It was based mostly on Duncan’s public persona, which was really more of a lack of a persona. We didn’t know very much about him, and whenever he spoke, which wasn’t often, it was mostly rote and unrevealing. He was like Watson the supercomputer with legs and arms.

But really, Duncan’s robotic personality spoke to his greatness, and his ability to tune out all the noise and, night after night, crush his opponents. Just like a robot. Hmm.

In 2009, when we did our list of the greatest players of all time, I wanted to write about Duncan. I know he doesn’t sell magazines, and he won’t have a signature shoe dropping anytime soon, and he won’t be on the front of any video games. But he’s the greatest power forward in NBA history. Like him or hate him, he’s earned our respect. Here’s what I wrote about Duncan two years ago, and I think it still holds true today:

“Tim Duncan is the best power forward to ever play basketball. Over 12 seasons, he’s accumulated one Rookie of the Year award, two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, four championships, nine First Team All-NBA appearances and 11 All-Star Game invites. And all for the same franchise. His career numbers are dizzying, but Duncan has never been about the stats. With his quick wit, quiet grace, no-nonsense approach to the game and always, always perfect positioning, Tim Duncan playing basketball is poetry personified. At 33 years old, his career is probably winding down. Enjoy him—and appreciate him—while you still can.”

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Luol Deng Bulls SF 8
49 Andrew Bogut Bucks C 7
48 Ray Allen Celtics SG 9
47 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 6
46 David West Hornets PF 15
45 Kevin Martin Rockets SG 8
44 Andrew Bynum Lakers C 5
43 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 11
42 Lamar Odom Lakers PF 14
41 Gerald Wallace Blazers SF 7
40 Brook Lopez Nets C 4
39 Joakim Noah Bulls C 3
38 Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 13
37 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 12
36 Eric Gordon Clippers SG 7
35 Tony Parker Spurs PG 10
34 Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 6
33 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 11
32 Al Horford Hawks C 2
31 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 9
30 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 10

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.