The Tim Duncan Legacy: Where’s His Place Among The All-Time Greats?

The San Antonio Spurs now have five NBA championships and there is only common thread linking the first title run of 1999 to the most recent one completed on Sunday night is Tim Duncan. The power forward so technically sound that he carries the nickname “The Big Fundamental” was already destined for the Hall of Fame, and already acknowledged as perhaps the greatest to play his position. The question here is this—in spite of all that, is the Tim Duncan legacy underappreciated?

When your nickname is The Big Fundamental it suggests that you aren’t going to get the kind of news coverage that’s been reserved for people like Shaquille O’Neal and now LeBron James over the course of Duncan’s career. Everyone who follows basketball respects Duncan and acknowledges his excellence, but he doesn’t casually appear in discussions about the best player (not just power forward) of a generation.

Of course part of that is that Michael Jordan has the top spot in these discussions locked down and anyone who dares trespass that is immediately burnt at the stake as a heretic by media hordes ranging from Bill Simmons to Skip Bayless. I don’t disagree—Jordan is clearly Numero Uno in my eyes—but the way in which any and all discussions on the topic are immediately shut down is a little silly.

As we move to the next level of players, I’m going to keep this restricted from the late 1970s and going forward. I mean no disrespect to the greatness of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, among others, but I never saw them play and will leave assessments to those that did.

If we keep the discussion starting about 1977 (when the ABA and NBA merged, forming the league as we know it) here are eight other players that deserve to at least get their name mentioned…

  • Magic Johnson
  • Larry Bird
  • Julius Erving
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Shaquille O’Neal
  • Karl Malone

Where does Duncan fit on that list? I’d immediately and without hesitation put him ahead of Malone, Kobe and Erving. The reasons are these—

TimDuncan*Malone’s big-game cache was too questionable. The lack of a ring can be forgiven since he played in the Jordan era, but with Malone playing for Utah in the West, there should have been more Finals appearances. And Malone then shamelessly went ring-shopping in trying to join forces with Kobe and Shaq in Los Angeles in 2004, the ultimate “if you can’t beat them, join them” tactic that a superstar should be above. Then the Lakers flopped in the Finals anyway.

*Kobe’s got the big-game pedigree, but he was also the second-in-command for three of his five championship runs, playing the role of Shaq’s running mate from 2000-02. Duncan, by contrast, was the indisputable best player in the first four of his title runs and you can probably still argue him as the best in the balanced Spurs lineup that just won Ring #5.

*Dr. J was as exciting an offensive player as there was, but he didn’t defend and didn’t have much of a perimeter jumper. Honestly, even including him on this list is more a testament to his historical impact—his electrifying dunks helped put the ABA on the map and paved the way for the merger—than true greatness.

I’m also moving Duncan past Shaq and Larry Bird. This is more debatable and is as much about personal taste. Shaq and Bird—especially Bird—had peak years that were better than Duncan’s peak years. Bird’s run from 1984-86 can stand up with any three-year run by any NBA player ever. But back injuries forced him out early and by the time the 1992 Dream Team rolled around, Bird was there more out of respect than because he truly belonged anymore.

In the case of Shaq, he just seemed to lack the all-out drive to be great for a long stretch of time. With an array of outside interests, from music to television, O’Neal didn’t live for staying in shape or being in the gym and it shortened his greatness.

My own personal preference is to value a long career with a consistent body of work over and above dramatic highs. Once that’s settled, it’s easy to take Duncan’s career over that of Bird or Shaq.

There are now only three players left between Duncan and the rarefied air occupied by Jordan, and those three are Kareem, Hakeem and Magic. This is where it becomes tougher to move the Big Fundamental up much higher.

*You can argue Duncan over Hakeem based on the ring count (5-2), but Olajuwon played in an organization that repeatedly made mistakes with the supporting cast. Hakeem was an incredibly gifted big man, a former soccer player with the footwork to back it up. Right now, I take Hakeem—he was productive until he was 38, the same age Duncan is today. If the latter keeps going strong—not necessarily winning titles, but just being a steady part of good teams, longevity could swing me the other way. But today, it’s Hakeem.

*I can’t see any argument for taking Duncan over Kareem, other than the fact that as a fan, I just really want to. But Jabbar is the league’s all-time leading points leader and was the stabilizing veteran presence on the five championship teams of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. He was MVP of the Finals in 1985 and should have been in 1980. Furthermore, Duncan has no skill set that Kareem doesn’t. There’s just not an argument here, and given that Kareem had a long career, one is never going to materialize in future years.

*The Duncan vs. Magic debate is interesting. Magic, as a 6’8” point guard that ran the floor so smoothly, was such a freak of nature that the instinct is to take him. But then again…he wasn’t the clear team leader until 1987 (when three of his five titles had already been won). And his career, similar to Bird’s, was very short, realistically ending in 1991. It was the HIV virus, not a physical ailment that ended Magic’s career, so he was productive to the very end (winning the MVP in 1991 in fact in 1990 and making the Finals in 1991). His promiscuous lifestyle cut his years short. If he’d have kept it in his pants, this isn’t a discussion. As it is now, it is.

I’m going to do the cowardly thing and bail on Duncan and Magic, and just declare it a tie. My own “best ever” list for the generation of players I’ve watched starts with Jordan, then moves to Kareem and Hakeem, then we pick up with Duncan and Magic.

I suspect Duncan is higher on my list then he is on most people’s. But wherever you rank the Big Fundamental, it’s time for a serious re-evaluation of the Tim Duncan legacy. Just because your nickname isn’t flashy and you’re not obsessed with constantly being seen, is not a reason to be neglected by history.