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Tim Duncan Was The NBA's Center Of Gravity

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After 19 phenomenal seasons Tim Duncan has officially retired from the NBA, leaving with five championships, 15 All-Star Game appearances, and most every significant Spurs team record.

Duncan entered in the league in 1997 and won a championship the next year on David Robinson’s team, won three championships in the aughts, and won a championship two years ago as the team became Kawhi Leonard’s. The most remarkable thing about Duncan’s career is that he didn’t just play in the NBA for 19 years, but thrived in the NBA for 19 years. He might have the longest sustained peak of any Hall of Famer—Duncan made the All-Defensive Second Team in both his first and 18th season, and made the All-Defensive Team 13 times in between—and surely would’ve been one of the NBA’s better players if he had decided to come back next year, too.


After a stellar career at Wake Forest, Duncan was named an All-Star and averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds in his first freaking season. Since the Spurs had Robinson and the NBA had dominant traditional centers, Duncan spent his first five years or so at power forward. But as Robinson and his generation retired, Duncan shifted seamlessly to center, a move that affected his defensive responsibilities more than his offensive ones. He didn’t rack up highlight reel blocks or gaudy statistics, but rather anchored a consistently great defense.

Duncan was most notable for being un-notable, his trademark move being the fundamentally sound 15-foot bank shot, or perhaps a perfectly executed pick and roll or defensive rotation. He was uninterested in the media, seemingly led an ascetic life off the court, and wore clothes three sizes too big and five years too late. He proved to be perfect fodder for one of The Onion’s greatest series of running jokes, inspiring headlines like “Tim Duncan Delivers Heartfelt Speech On Fiscal Responsibility During Spurs Victory Celebration” and “Tim Duncan Makes Citizen’s Foul Call.”

But this portrayal of Duncan quickly became hackneyed, and reduced him to a cartoon character. For one, Duncan was sardonic and hilarious, trolling players, referees, and fans, and playing good jokes with his teammates. He also dealt with regular person problems off the court, going through an extremely messy and secretive divorce.


It also understates how much of a joy it was to watch Duncan cook. It goes without saying that he was extraordinarily athletic, but what really stood out was his fluidity. He would stand at the elbow and pump fake 15 times, but in a way that somehow didn’t look robotic and moved defenders to where he wanted them to be, even though they knew exactly what he was doing. Duncan was the outcome from a lab experiment to design the perfect 6-foot-11 basketball player, and then, in his latter years when his athleticism began failing, we saw that Duncan had an even more tremendous basketball brain than we thought. His game turned herky-jerky, but lost little of its effectiveness.

You could spend all day tracking down unbelievable Tim Duncan statistics, but the ones that matter most are that he has played in the 10th most regular season games in NBA history and 2nd most playoff games, and never once missed the playoffs. For two decades, as the NBA evolved around him, Duncan remained the league’s center of gravity, a model of consistency, the one thing you could count on to always remain the same.


And now, if you don’t mind, Duncan will be in the basement working on his model trains. Please don’t bother him until dinner.

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About the author

Kevin Draper

Reporter at the New York Times

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