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Tim Duncan: The Big Fundamental


photo by Keith Allison, 2011, CC 2.0

In 19 seasons, Tim Duncan quietly assembled one of the most impressive resumes in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs great won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs and five NBA titles, all while flashier players such as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were stealing the headlines.


Duncan’s success can be attributed to his consistency, intelligence and meticulous attention to detail. On the offensive end, “The Big Fundamental” possessed outstanding footwork, a deadly mid-range game and outstanding passing ability. On defense, Duncan was one of the greatest interior defenders to ever play the game and a tenacious rebounder.


A native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who once dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer, Duncan didn’t start playing basketball until the ninth grade. He went on to hone his skills at Wake Forest University, where he played all four years and was a 2-time All-American. In 1997, he won both the John Wooden and Naismith College Player of the Year awards.


 

On June 25, 1997, the Spurs chose Duncan with the first overall pick of the NBA Draft. San Antonio had been a perennial playoff contender since drafting David Robinson, but an injury to the star center the previous season resulted in the Spurs winning the draft lottery. The injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the team now possessed the best big man combo in the NBA.


Duncan was an immediate success upon his arrival in San Antonio. He averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks en route to being named Rookie of the Year. He was also an All-Star and First Team All-NBA selection.


His second season would prove to be even better, as Duncan and the Spurs made it to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. San Antonio defeated the New York Knicks in five games, as Duncan averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks on his way to Finals MVP.


 

As the new millennium began, Duncan and the Spurs continued their excellence. For the next five seasons, Duncan was selected to both the First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defensive teams. In 2001-02, he averaged a career-high 25.5 points, along with 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 blocks. He was named NBA MVP for his efforts.


The all-world power forward repeated as MVP the following season, averaging 23.3 points and setting career highs with 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.9 blocks. More importantly, the Spurs won their second NBA title, defeating the New Jersey Nets in six games. Duncan was once again named Finals MVP, averaging 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 5.3 blocks. It would be the last championship for the “Twin Towers,” as Robinson retired after the season.


It wouldn’t be long before Duncan would return to the Finals, as San Antonio faced the defending champion Detroit Pistons in 2005. In a hard-fought series between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, the Spurs edged the Pistons in seven games. Duncan won his third Finals MVP, averaging 20.6 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.


 

Two years later, the Spurs won their fourth title, sweeping LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals. Duncan continued his strong play, averaging 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.3 blocks in the series.


Now 30 years old, the Spurs’ big man was still one of the league’s elite players. In 2009-10, he averaged 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds, giving him a double-double his first 13 years in the NBA. He also became the only player in history to make the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams in each of his first 13 seasons.


Four years later in 2013-14, Duncan helped the Spurs to their fifth NBA championship. Even though he was past his physical prime at 37, the 17-year veteran was still productive, averaging 15.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. But it was his leadership that truly stood out.


 

Leadership is an aspect of Duncan’s game that often gets overlooked due to his stoic demeanor, but he was the ultimate leader by example. He set picks, boxed out so his teammates could get the rebound, and had no problem deferring to his teammates on the offensive end. In later seasons, he also renegotiated his contract, so the Spurs could afford to remain a championship contender.


On July 11, 2016, the greatest power forward in the history of the game announced his retirement. In 17 seasons, he averaged 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.2 blocks, while shooting 50.6 percent from the field. His 15,091 rebounds rank sixth in NBA history, while his 3,020 blocks rank fifth. In the postseason, the 15-time All-Star averaged 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks in 251 games. His 164 double-doubles are the most in playoff history.

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