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Duncan's Longevity & The Meaninglessness Of Stardom

In a Game 1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, Tim Duncan had 27 points and 7 rebounds on 12-20 shooting. The San Antonio Spurs won by five points and Duncan was +24 in his 38 minutes on the floor. Even at 37, the Mavericks have no answer for him in their frontcourt. He has long since lost the athleticism of his youth, but his size and skill have allowed him to remain a great player while his peers faded away. He's one of two players left from the 1997 NBA Draft.

There have been a ton of articles marveling about the Spurs longevity atop the NBA, but there's no real mystery to what's going on. San Antonio had Tim Duncan on their roster for the last 16 teams - if they weren't an elite team in that span, something went terribly wrong. Shaquille O'Neal didn't play on a lot of bad teams either and he was in his fair share of dysfunctional situations. When you have one of the 10 greatest players off all-time on your roster, it's pretty easy.

Duncan did things in a more understated fashion, but in his prime, he was every bit as dominant as Shaq. He was a fundamentally sound 7'0 250 big man with elite athleticism - about as good at basketball as any one player could be. He was a Defensive Player of the Year type player who commanded a double team in the low post. Having Tim Duncan meant your team had a great offense and a great defense. There are not many players in the history of basketball you can say that about.

Like Shaq, he wasted little time making his mark in the NBA. In his rookie season, the Spurs went from 20 to 56 wins and made it to the second round. In his second season, he was the NBA Finals MVP. Over the next 14, despite the roster turning over around him several times, San Antonio was always an elite team. Winning 50 games is the mark of a good team and Duncan has never played on a below 50-win team. In 16 seasons, the Spurs have missed the second round three times.

After Michael Jordan's retirement, Shaq and Duncan carved up the league between them. From 1999-2007, the titles went Duncan, Shaq, Shaq, Shaq, Duncan, the Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Shaq, Duncan. Those two would have been successful in any era of basketball. There's not much the other team can do against an elite 7'0 center who can play on both sides of the ball. The team with the biggest, most skilled and most athletic player on the floor usually wins.

When you look at Duncan's career in total, it's remarkable how many more championships he could have won, were it not for a few bounces of the ball. Derek Fisher's 0.4 shot in 2004, Dirk Nowitzki's and-1 in 2006, Ray Allen's three in 2013 - there isn't much separating Duncan from seven rings. That's what happens when you carry your team deep into the playoffs for almost two decades. When it comes to longevity, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is Duncan's only peer.

That's what separates Duncan from Shaq. Shaq never took great care of his body. By the end of his career, he had ballooned well past the 300 pounds he was listed at. Duncan has kept himself in excellent shape, looking like a slightly weathered version of his younger self in his late 30's. Shaq was still an extremely effective player in his last two seasons in Cleveland and Boston. The problem was that he could no longer stay on the floor - injuries are what end great players careers.

Just as important, Duncan never let his ego get in the way of winning. There was never anything like Shaq's feud with Kobe Bryant. Instead of feeling threatened by the emergence of Tony Parker, Duncan welcomed it and gladly gave him the ball. Shaq knew he was a great enough player that the normal rules didn't apply to him - he was never afraid of burning bridges on his way out of town. Duncan could have acted the same way. He just choose not to.

It seems a little weird to praise someone for not being an asshole, but it can be a vanishingly rare quality in the world of NBA superstardom. When a player starts racking up championships, a whole cottage industry of people spring up around them, willing to excuse anything they do. Jordan would berate his teammates and punch them in the face and everyone acted like it was cool because he won a lot of championships and that's what it took to be great.

Tim Duncan treated everyone like a normal person and it seems to have worked out OK for him. There's no great mystery to what he does or some secret aspect of his character that accounts for his success. Duncan is no different than anyone else - he's just a little taller and more athletic. He was blessed with tremendous gifts and he has worked hard not to waste them. He seems to have more perspective on what being a great athlete actually means than most of our society.

If he played in a major media market, we would never hear the end of his selflessness and what a great winner he is. As is, he seems likely to fade from public consciousness once he retires. Duncan will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he probably won't be on too many player's Mt. Rushmores in 20 years. The secret to his success, though, has come in recognizing how meaningless that stuff is. Hard work is its in own reward - better to play at 38 than have people talk about you at 58.

The great lie we tell young players is they need to develop a persona to sell themselves to fans, as if their career wouldn't be complete unless they were constantly on TV trying to sell people stuff they don't need. Tim Duncan has made over $225 million dollars in the NBA. Play the game unselfishly, never put yourself above your teammates and treat everyone around you the right way and you can make more money playing basketball than you could ever possibly need.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

Here are the playoffs predictions from eight of RealGM's writers.

Christopher Reina (@CR_Reina)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

The wear and tear of reaching The Finals in each season since the formation of the Big 3 will finally catch up with the Heat against the Thunder. Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be as brilliant as expected in this series, but it will come down to how healthy and effective Russell Westbrook is compared to Dwyane Wade, along with how stubborn Scott Brooks is with his rotations. With superstars potentially moving around again this offseason, this could be the last best shot for Oklahoma City.

Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat. Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Unseating the two-time reigning champions is difficult, but Oklahoma City has the likely MVP and a motivation that still permeates from its defeat in The Finals last season. The Heat's health also could be put into jeopardy this late into a fourth straight run to the championship series.

Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Raptors, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, Heat

Conference Finals: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Heat

Miami still has the best player in the world and they've done a much better job of managing Wade's minutes in the regular season. Watch out for Greg Oden and Michael Beasley - I could see both playing a huge role at certain points in the playoffs. 

Daniel Leroux (@DannyLeroux)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Heat 

Conference Finals Winners: Spurs, Heat 

Finals Winner: Heat

This year is challenging because I feel the Spurs are the best team, but Miami has the twin benefits of being more likely to make the Finals due to a weaker conference and having the best player in the world will of course prove valuable should they make it. Health will be a major factor and it would make sense for it to hit the Heat due to their age but that does not trump their other advantages in my mind.

Andrew Perna (@Andrew_Perna)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Durant will best LeBron as the league’s MVP and deal another blow by preventing the Heat from three-peating in June. Oklahoma City will have two of the best three players in the Finals, which will be the determining factor even if Miami has three of the top five.

Sam Yip (@SamYip_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although Miami has been on top of the basketball world for two straight seasons, San Antonio's roster along with their improved bench will likely dethrone the defending champions. The Spurs were one Tim Duncan layup away from winning their first title since 2007 last season. The new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format will give the Spurs an edge with their home court advantage.

Benjamin Cantor (@BenCantor_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although the Thunder have given the Spurs trouble in the past, Popovich always seems to have a way to adjust to opponents who have beaten him in the past. Last year, many people thought the Grizzlies might give the Spurs trouble because of what happened in 2011, but Pop and the Spurs clearly showed they knew what adjustments to make when they swept Memphis in the conference finals. I think San Antonio's defense against Miami in last year's finals was outstanding and this year they'll have home court advantage in the finals. 

Dan Friederg (@danfriedberg)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Thunder

With LeBron and KD both at the peak of their powers, the role players will make the difference. Caron Butler, Jeremy Lamb, and an improving Reggie Jackson will tip the scales over an aging Ray Allen, a fragile and unproven Greg Oden, and an empty space where Mike Miller used to be. Durant will hoist his first championship trophy to go with his first MVP award, and the world shall rejoice.

Spurs Remain The Surest Playoff Bet

After Ray Allen took the life out of the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, a lot of people—including myself—thought their era of contention would draw to a close. It had been seven years since the Spurs last won a title, yet they have managed to stay relevant every season since.

“I don’t take it as a redemption,” Manu Ginobili told David Flores of Kens5.com. “I think we had a hell of a playoff run last year, and it just happened that we lost. We had an unbelievable regular season. We put ourselves in a great situation to be No. 1 overall. And we’re going for it, like ever year.”

San Antonio finished the regular season with a 62-20 record, good for 1st in the brutally tough Western Conference. With 30 road wins, they managed to become the 13th team in NBA history to accomplish the feat. Seven of those previous 12 teams went on to win the championship.

Since 1996, Gregg Popovich has been at the helm of the Spurs, guiding them through four championships in a decade span. Although the Spurs have not won since 2007, they have managed to win at least 50 games for 15 straight seasons. Like Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, Popovich conducts a strict system style of team ball consequently demanding respect and discipline from every player, no matter how valuable or invaluable they are to the franchise. Known as one of the most stable and consistent franchises in North American professional sports, the Spurs have remained a powerhouse franchise throughout the 21st century.

One of the most important things that coach Popovich has preached from the start of his tenure has been team defense. The Spurs finished the regular season 4th overall in defensive efficiency at 100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs as a team allow 0.86 PPP (points per possession), third best in the league.

Offensively, the Spurs have been one of the most unselfish teams in the league for awhile now. Since the ABA-NBA merger, San Antonio is the first team to not have any player average more than 30 minutes per game. Moreover, the Spurs lead the league in assist ratio at 19.1 (percentage of team’s possessions ending in an assist). No player on the roster averages more than six assists per contest, yet at 2,064 total assists, the Spurs finished with the most total assists by any team according to NBA.com.

Since the Spurs shifted away from relying on Duncan as the main go-to guy on heavy half-court sets, they have followed the rest of the league and starting playing a more up-tempo style. Anyone that watches the Spurs usually finds an open three-point shooter wide open from the perimeter. This past season, 20.1 percent of their plays were via spot-up shooting per Synergy. Their pedigree on offense relies on Tony Parker to speed through the lane and find open shooters around the perimeter. Only 8.6 percent of their plays relied on posting up, proving how far the Spurs have gone away from halfcourt basketball.   

Like all of Spurs teams in the past, Popovich surrounds his starting five with deep benches. With the departure of Gary Neal, Aussie journeyman Patty Mills was given more responsibility of backing up Parker. Albeit Mills averaged just less than 19 minutes a game, he managed to score 10.2 points and shoot 46 percent from the field in 81 games this season. Additionally, offseason acquisition Marco Belinelli has been the perfect fit to the Spurs style of ball: capable of shooting the three and creating off the dribble. Contrasting to previous seasons when Ginobili was relied upon to do so much for the offense off the bench, the arrival of Belinelli and the emergence of Mills have lessened the pressure on aging Argentinian Manu Ginobili.  

Some may argue that 13 of the Spurs’ 20 losses have come against the other top-4 seeds in the West and top-2 seeds in the East. However, this is misleading since the Spurs rest much of their players throughout the long grueling 82 game season, and on many occasions against the elite teams. Everyone knows how little Greg Popovich and his personnel care about the regular season.

A good argument can be drawn that Oklahoma City will beat San Antonio as they did in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, but this Spurs’ team is on a mission to get back to the Finals. Sure, Kevin Durant is playing at an unbelievable MVP caliber season, but with the trade of James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s three knee surgeries in less than a year, there is too much of the unknown as to how far Durant can carry his team past the Spurs.

Even the demanding Popovich has been amazed at how this season has gone so far, given how last season ended.

“What does impress me about the group is the fact they’ve competed and gotten themselves in this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year. I think that’s pretty impressive. I don’t think a lot of people have picked up on that, but I have. And I’m really impressed with them,” said Popovich to Mike Monroe of Express News.

With the improved depth and Popovich’s legendary presence, it is difficult to see any other team beating the Spurs four times. 

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

Boris Diaw Held No-Brainer Decision To Return To Spurs

Once last season’s NBA Finals ended, Boris Diaw spent reasonable time deciding on the player option on his contract with the San Antonio Spurs. For Diaw, the choice had been made simple far beyond the amount of money on the deal.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

The South Beach Experiment Is Over- It Worked

One of the most common criticisms of the Heat is that they “bought” their championships. The real story, though, is who exactly is doing the buying. For the Spurs, the players are cogs in an organization. In Miami, the players are the organization. They’re a worker-controlled factory, employee-owned and operated.

2013 NBA Finals Retrospective

Through the first five games of the series, we had noticed a trend that had developed: The winner of the points in the paint battle turned out to be the victor in that particular game. Game 6 and Game 7 went the other way.

Breaking Down The Epic Game 6

Down 10 and in desperate need of a run, Erik Spoelstra went with the lineup that initiated the 33-5 run for the Heat in Game 2: Maro Chalmers, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, LeBron James and Chris Andersen. They scored on their first four possessions and opened up the floor.

Anatomy Of A Run

There are a hundred fascinating storylines coming out of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, one of the greatest games in NBA history. The three-minute stretch to start the fourth quarter allowed the instant classic finish to play out and gives us a lot to consider ahead of Game 7.

Spurs Isolate, Defend Paint, Go Up 3-2

Prior to Game 5, the Heat were averaging 58.7 percent on shots in the paint in the series, going 81-for-138 as a team. In Game 5, the Spurs did an excellent job of defending the paint, allowing the Heat to convert on just 46.5 percent.

Searching For Ginobili

Through the first four games of the Finals, Manu Ginobili is averaging 7.5 points on 34 percent shooting. If the Spurs are to win their fifth NBA championship, Ginobili must find a way to break out of his funk and give his team something they can use towards a win.

The Big Three Make It Best-Of-Three

It all started in the first quarter, with the Heat playing aggressively on defense and on offense with their modified starting lineup, aiming to play the way they play best: small.

Dwyane Wade's Game 4 Arrival, Masterpiece

Finishing the game with 32 points, six rebounds, four assist and a playoff career-high six steals, Dwyane Wade controlled the game and set the tone for the champs. It was his best game of the playoffs and a performance that could serve as a springboard for the remainder of the Finals.

Heat Seek Bounce Back In Game 4

Win or lose, LeBron James is ready to make a statement in Game 4. He won’t forget about his teammates, understanding he wouldn’t be in the Finals without them, but he understands it’s time to place his signature on the series for something more than a spectacular block or bad shooting night.

Behind Spurs' Three-Point Explosion In Game 3

The Spurs took advantage of Miami’s lack of aggression and energy in Game 3 to get the shots they wanted instead of taking the shots the Heat wanted them to take: great ball movement led to great shot selection.

Spurs Looking To Shoot Better, Take Care Of Ball In Game 3

The Spurs have shown they can win playing while below their standards and now they have to find a way to make shots and play the type of basketball that led to a 12-2 record to reach the Finals. The first step in that process is playing better in Game 3.

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