Will Tim Duncan Retire On Top If San Antonio Spurs Win 2013 NBA Title?

Luke Petkac@@LukePetkacFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2013

There's a good chance you've read 60-odd “Tim Duncan is still underrated” columns over the past week or so, so rest assured, this isn't one of them (though just for the record, Duncan is still underrated).

The question here is pretty simple: If the San Antonio Spurs win the 2013 NBA title and Duncan retires after the season, will he retire as the best player of his generation?

It's a fair question and not at all an easy one to answer. We're going to have to dig deep here, starting by finding the guys who will compete with Duncan for the crown.

And when you consider everything, there are really only two guys capable of going toe-to-toe with Duncan: Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. That's it. Everyone else is either too young or doesn't have enough jewelry to make the cut.

So with that being said, let's break this baby down, starting with...



No one's going to get a real edge in this category since all three guys have way too many accolades to count. But let's take a quick look since it's a good way to sum up each player's career.

Rather than listing it all (which would take up too much time and space), just take a glance at each player's Wikipedia page. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal. Go ahead, I'll wait.

...Pretty crazy stuff, right? You could give Kobe or Duncan a slight nod since they each have another ring (assuming Duncan wins one here), but there's no point in that. Like I said, no one can possibly win this battle. 

Winner: Even


Offensive Repertoire

Here's where things start to get interesting, particularly between Shaq and Kobe.

Of the three players here, Shaq easily had the smallest offensive arsenal, sporting a post game (and a post game only) that consisted of mostly dunks and jump hooks.

At the same time though, Shaq's hooks were polished, and he had such a physical advantage over the rest of the league that he dominated down low. No one could stop Shaq from backing his way to the rim and getting a semi-decent shot off whenever he wanted. You don't lead the league in scoring twice by accident. (And yes, we're ignoring his free-throw shooting for now.)

Kobe is the exact opposite. He's a whirlwind of fakes, jab-steps, up-and-unders and turnaround jumpers. His footwork is—and always has been—immaculate, and though he can't get to the rim the way he used to, he's made up for that by mastering a punishing low-post game.

Duncan simply can't compete with that. That's not to say Duncan isn't great—he's a phenomenal offensive player. He's got a Bill Walton-esque bank shot, the ability to score on almost anyone down low, he's a skilled passer and he's excellent in the pick-and-roll.

But volume does count for something, and Duncan has broken the 25 points per game barrier just once in his career. So despite his sparkling efficiency, Shaq and Kobe take this category.

Winner: Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant (tie)

Runner-up: Tim Duncan


Defensive Repertoire

Duncan takes this one by a landslide.

Kobe was a lockdown perimeter defender in his prime, but he's skated by on his reputation for a long time now. For God's sake, the guy got votes for the All-Defensive Team this season, per NBA.com, the same year that basketball writers were devoting entire columns to how terrible his defense was (just check out this breakdown from Grantland's Zach Lowe).

Duncan, though, has always been a stone wall. He's led the league in defensive win shares five times and is already on the top five all-time list in the category, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

You won't see many Duncan chase down swats on SportsCenter, but he's always in the right place at the right time, he defends without fouling, and he's an excellent communicator (which is completely underrated).

The fact that he's never won defensive player of the year is criminal.

If you looked at that defensive win shares page closely, you might have seen that Shaq was pretty high on the list, and for good reason—he was a great rim protector for a number of years.

The problem with Shaq is that there's a pretty good chance he would have gotten murdered defensively in today's “everybody goes small” game. Can you imagine Shaq trying to defend Chris Bosh at the elbow or having to play hedge defense on Tony Parker in a pick-and-roll? He'd get eaten alive. Maybe young Shaq could have done it, but not the guy who won four titles. Not a chance.

Winner: Tim Duncan

Runner-up: Kobe Bryant


On-Court Impact

This is tough to measure by anything other than pure numbers, so let's just get straight to it.

Over the course of Duncan's career, the San Antonio Spurs outscored opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, a pretty stellar mark. With Duncan off the court, they outscored opponents by just 1.9 points per 100 possessions, giving Duncan a net rating of 8.1, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Kobe and Shaq, on the other hand, posted net ratings of 6.5 for their careers, a good bit off from what Duncan was able to do, per Basketball-Reference.com.

To be fair, Kobe and Shaq both played on teams in which another superstar could take over when they were resting, dropping their ratings down a notch. A past-his-prime Shaq also floated around from team to team at the end of his career—something that could have driven down his on-court impact as well.

But even if the numbers should be a little closer than they are, Duncan seals this one by a slim margin.

Winner: Tim Duncan

Runner-up: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal (tie)


It might sound a little silly, but this is (usually) what separates the all-time greats from players who were simply very good.

The best recent basketball example is probably Reggie Miller. Miller was good, there's no question about that. He was one of the best in history at losing defenders through screens, he had nearly unlimited range, and he delivered dozens of classic moments along the lines of “eight points, nine seconds.” Awesome stuff.

But at the same time, Miller was never dominant. He really only impacted the game with his scoring, he was a poor defender and he never made you think, “How on earth can anyone stop Reggie Miller?”

It just didn't happen. Check out his Basketball-Reference.com page, and you'll see that Miller's best season was probably 1989-90, when he averaged 25 points, four rebounds and four assists on 65 percent true shooting.

Fairly impressive numbers, but hardly even better that what James Harden did this season for the Houston Rockets, per Basketball-Reference.com. And no one would ever claim that Harden took over this season.

That's what I mean by dominance. The greats take a season, and they own it (like LeBron James did this year). As incredible as Duncan's career has been, he's never had a season like that.

It's not that Duncan couldn't do it, simply that he didn't. Duncan's greatest trait has always been his consistency (more on that later), and the fact that he's always, always cared more about wins than his own stats. 

Duncan raises his game when he needs to and always does enough to ensure that the Spurs make the playoffs and his teammates are involved. It's a refreshing mentality, but it also prevented him from ever having an “I'm going to murder everyone” season (and it's probably too late for one now).

Shaq and Kobe have had seasons like that.

For Shaq, it was 1999-00, a year in which he averaged 30 points and 14 rebounds for a 66-win Los Angeles Lakers team. Shaq, somehow, ramped his game up even further in the playoffs, peaking when he averaged 38 points and 17 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers in a finals beatdown that was all but over after Game 1.

Kobe's year was 2005-06, when he basically threw away the concept of team basketball and started firing up shots like crazy. Some may not see it as his best season (his efficiency nosedived), but it was the year in which he became one of just five players ever to score 35 points per game in a season, per Basketball-Reference.com and made history with an 81-point masterpiece against the Toronto Raptors.

Watch the highlights from that game again. It's comical the way Kobe scores. The Raptors throw two, three, sometimes even four guys at him, and he simply blows by them or shoots over them. Kobe almost literally plays 1-on-5 on the offensive end and wins. It's remarkable.

Again, as incredible as Duncan has been, he's never had a season like that.

Winner: Shaquille O'Neal

Runner-up: Kobe Bryant


Greatest Playoff Run

We already covered Shaq's demolition derby in 1999-00, so let's take a look at Duncan and Kobe's best postseasons.

Duncan peaked during a remarkable 2002-03 playoff run in which he averaged a 25-15-5 with three blocks. He also put up a bunch of games that are probably floating around ESPN Classic—a 37-16 to close out the Lakers in the conference semis, consecutive 20-20 games against the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals and two virtuoso near-quadruple-doubles (a 32-20-6 with seven blocks and a 21-20-10 with eight blocks) in the finals.

Kobe's best run was the 2000-01 postseason. With most defenses keying on Shaq, Kobe was free to be an all-around nightmare, averaging 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists and routinely checking the opponent's best player on the other end.

The Lakers only lost one game in that entire playoffs (a six-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the finals), and Kobe highlighted the run with a pair of consecutive 40 point double-doubles against the Spurs and Sacramento Kings—probably Kobe at his all-around best.

Very few playoff runs could top what Shaq did in the 1999-00 season, but Duncan and Kobe keep it close.

Winner: Shaquille O'Neal

Runner-up Tim Duncan


Defining Characteristic

Basically, when each player is retired for say, 10 years, what's the first thing that will come to mind when you think about them?

For Duncan, it has to be his almost eerie consistency. As was mentioned a little earlier, Duncan is one of the most consistent superstars in NBA history. Take a look at the per-36 numbers on his Basketball-Reference.com page. It looks like someone started copying and pasting the same numbers over and over again.

Night in and night out, we've known what to expect from Duncan—something like 20 points, 12 rebounds, a handful of assists and blocks and impeccable defense to go with it. That can't be overstated.

Maybe the most distinct things about Kobe are his ferocity and work ethic—aside from Kevin Garnett, no one is more intense from a game-to-game basis. In the past 20 or so years, only Michael Jordan has seemed to covet winning (and improving) more. ESPN's Chris Palmer summed it up pretty well when he tweeted:

...and then followed it up by tweeting:

That's partially what made Kobe's season-ending injury so strange. His crazy work ethic and general demeanor made him appear nearly superhuman. We became so accustomed to seeing Kobe will himself through injuries that the thought of an injury he couldn't play through seemed unnatural.

The one problem is that this same ferocity, sometimes, led to one of Kobe's biggest weaknesses—his often shaky shot selection.

Shaq, unfortunately, will always be remembered with the words “could have been more.” It may seem unfair to say that considering how incredible Shaq's career was, but he constantly made you feel like he could have been a little better. Constantly.

Only in the playoffs did it seem like Shaq was really letting loose. He routinely used the regular season to play himself into shape, and even when that happened, he often coasted through the season, only stopping to dial in for a few select games.

Watch a game like Shaq's 61-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000, and you'll probably come away thinking, “Wow, that was easy.”

Shaq made it look so effortless when he was locked in that it was disappointing any time he didn't put up video game numbers. Was it unfair to expect so much from Shaq every night? Maybe. Probably, even.

But considering Shaq's physical advantage (quite possibly the largest in NBA history), it became impossible not to expect that much. Shaq could have been the greatest ever, but wasn't. Fair or not, that will always be the epitaph to his career.

Winner: Tim Duncan

Runner-up: Kobe Bryant


Biggest Weakness

Since Duncan, Shaq and Kobe are all consensus top-10 or top-15 players, you wouldn't expect them to have many glaring weaknesses. And for the most part, that's true—except in Shaq's case.

You know what's coming—the free-throw shooting.

Let me first say that Shaq's free-throw woes have been overblown. He was a career 53 percent shooter from the line. That's bad, but certainly not bad enough to merit sarcastic videos like this one:

However, Shaq's poor free-throw shooting did make it very, very difficult to play him in close games, and that's a huge flaw in a superstar.

As I said before, Kobe's biggest weakness is directly tied to his demeanor on the court. Kobe doesn't just want to show his defender up, he wants to destroy him. And that, combined with his outrageous self confidence, often leads to some pretty bad shots.

Just check out a few of Kobe's games or his NBA.com shot charts, and you can see it as plain as day. He goes a little overboard, sometimes. That "destroy you" mentality isn't so bad when Kobe's hot, but he tends to try and shoot himself out of slumps with difficult attempts that really cripple the Lakers' offense.

As for Duncan...it's tough to find a real weakness in his game. "The Big Fundamental" is about as well-rounded as they come. If anything, Duncan's big flaw has been fixed—though he's now a strong mid-range shooter, he was surprisingly poor at it for most of his career (including the Spurs' first four championship runs per NBA.com).

Overall, Duncan takes this category fairly easily.

Winner: Tim Duncan

Runner-up: Kobe Bryant


Supporting Cast

This is, by far, Duncan's biggest claim to fame. He hasn't had near the firepower surrounding him that Kobe or Shaq enjoyed.

Duncan, Shaq and Kobe all played with exceptional role players (Robert Horry, anyone?), so that's a wash. But in terms of top-level talent, Shaq and Kobe are way ahead. Not only did the two have each other for teammates, but Kobe had Pau Gasol (a top-15 player during the Lakers' last two championship runs), and Shaq had Dwyane Wade (top-five).

Duncan's best teammates from 1998-2007? A past-his-prime David Robinson, Manu Ginobili and a young Tony Parker. Of the three, only David Robinson made an All-NBA team—he made three—and two of those selections were sheer reputation picks (look at the numbers if you don't believe it).

That's right, Duncan was the only top-15 player on the Spurs every single year they won a championship. In fact, Parker and Ginobili combined for just three All-Star appearances in that span. Because of the way Parker in particular has evolved, everyone assumes that Duncan has had a great supporting cast his entire career, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Until this season, Duncan has never had a top-notch sidekick to take some of the pressure off him. Remember when Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat, and everyone thought it was remarkable that a team with just one superstar could win a title? Duncan did that four times.

Kobe was the best player on two championship teams. Shaq was the best player on three. Should the Spurs win the title this year (and again, we're just assuming they do), Duncan will have been the best player on five. That's amazing.

Winner: Tim Duncan

Runner-up: Shaquille O'Neal




So does all this tell us that Duncan will retire on top should he win a fifth ring? Not quite.

When you're dealing with players of this caliber, you could make a case for or against any of them. But the argument for Duncan wearing the “Best of His Generation” crown is pretty strong as it is. And if he adds one more ring to his collection...

Well, let's just see what happens, shall we?


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