5. Tim Duncan

by November 09, 2006

With summer dragging on and on and on before the NBA tips off, we’ve decided to initiate a multipart series that will be the definitive look at the best players in the NBA today.

Over lunch at the Outback Steakhouse (word to Steve Irwin), your crack SLAMonline.com staff sat down and ranked the 50 best players in the NBA today. We realize that’s kind of ambiguous, but that’s how basketball is and that’s how we like it. Basically, though, we tried to list the 50 guys we think have the most value to their teams, right now, at this moment. This doesn’t mean they’ll never be traded, and it doesn’t mean they’re due tremendous contract extensions, but it does mean — since value is king in the NBA — that over the next month or so we’ll run down the 50 guys that we think are the 50 best players, right here, right now.

Before long it’ll be time for our annual NBA team previews. Right now it’s time for some law and order…

5. Tim Duncan
by Lang Whitaker

In the spring of 2005, I went to San Antonio for a week to try and figure out what makes the Spurs tick. I’d been watching them all season with a closer eye than normal, and I was convinced they were ready to take another title home.

Upon arriving in San Antonio, I decided that I was going to try and get an interview with every player on the team. I wasn’t sure that was even possible, because the NBA puts pretty strict limits on the media’s time, and even if I stayed in the locker room the entire pregame, there was no guarantee all the players would make themselves available. What I had going for me, though, was that the Spurs were all nice guys, and they tended to hang around the locker room, so after one game I was doing pretty well…except for Tim Duncan.

How can you write a Spurs story without interviewing Tim Duncan? Duncan sat in the locker room for the entire pregame media availability, but he kept his back turned to the room the entire time, which is NBA speak for “I’m not speaking.” He was quiet, too, speaking only to Brent Barry and Robert Horry about video games. And when I heard talk of Socom coming from his mouth, I knew I was in.

A few nights later I went to another Spurs game, but this time I was prepared. I’d stopped at a bookstore along the way to the arena and bought a copy of a video game magazine. When Tim came out and plopped down at his locker, I scurried over and said, “Hey, don’t want to bother you but I heard you talking about video games and thought you might like this.” I set the magazine down in his locker and walked back across the room to join the rest of the media.

Not two minutes later, I heard Tim’s voice: “Hey…hey…come here.”

You talking to me? He was talking to me. I walked over to his locker.

“So,” he asked, “are you a gamer?” And we were off.

That was how I got to know Tim Duncan, and as I’ve talked to him on and off since then, I’m always surprised by how different he is from the general perception of him. Now, I know we’ve done a lot (and continue to do a lot) to perpetrate that perception: He’s an emotionless robot who goes out there and kills his opposition. That’s an easy connection to make, and it’s funny to say that stuff, I suppose. And to a certain extent, it’s true: Duncan is arguably the best big man in the NBA, in terms of his ability to consistently score and rebound and do all those things. He’s a two-time MVP, a three-time NBA Finals MVP, eight-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA first team. If you watch the NBA, even casually, you understand that Tim Duncan is dominant.

But he’s also amazing in terms of his ability to fit into a team structure and play within the system that Gregg Popovich has honed in San Antonio. That system is partly based around Duncan’s strengths, but he’s remained a team player, and to my memory has never been quoted complaining about a teammate. Duncan understands how to lead, and more importantly, how to win. Which is why he’s one of the top five players in the NBA.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews with NBA players since I’ve been at SLAM, but one of my personal favorites was the interview I did with Tim Duncan over the summer. They aren’t hard-hitting questions and there’s no profound information uncovered, but it is one of the few times I’ve ever heard Duncan laugh and seem to have fun with an interview. It shows that somewhere underneath all those layers of adamantium and blinking lights beats a human heart.

Well, either a human heart or a really good facsimile built by the world’s top scientists,