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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.

Finding What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

Amidst one of the most disappointing rookie classes in recent memory, two bright spots have emerged from the middle of the first round - Gorgui Dieng and Mason Plumlee. Taken with the No. 21 and No. 22 picks, where an average NBA player is all you can hope for, Dieng and Plumlee have already exceeded expectations. As rookies, they are both solid NBA centers who look headed for 10+ year careers. A lot of teams should regret passing on them. 

Dieng, taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the second of their two first round picks, didn’t play much for the first four months of the season. With Minnesota making a desperate playoff push to keep Kevin Love in town, Rick Adelman stuck with his veterans, giving Dante Cunningham and Ronny Turiaf minutes behind Nikola Pekovic at center. It wasn’t until Pekovic went down with an ankle injury in mid-March that Dieng got a chance to show what he could do. 

Because he wasn’t playing much, the feeling around the league was that Dieng was a raw player, years away from being ready to be a contributor. The reality was somewhat different - just because a young player doesn’t get minutes doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play, particularly guys who aren't drafted in the lottery. The NBA, like most workplaces, is not really a meritocracy. On many teams, years of experience and the size of your paycheck determine playing time. 

Dieng, a 24-year old coming off an NCAA championship season, was one of the most NBA-ready players in this year’s draft. At 6’11 240 with a 7’4 wingspan, he already had an NBA body, with the size to hold his own in the paint. Coming out of college, he was uncommonly skilled for a center, with the ability to hit a 20-foot jumper as well as a dissect a defense from the high post. Dieng shot 65 percent from the free-throw line and averaged two assists a game at Louisville.

Dieng started producing as soon as he got into the rotation. He averaged 12 points and 11 rebounds on 45% shooting over the last month of the season, including multiple games where he grabbed more than 15 rebounds. More importantly, from the Wolves perspective, Dieng showed the ability to protect the rim, something neither Love nor Pekovic can do. He averaged 0.8 blocks in only 13 minutes a game - he should have played more. 

Plumlee, like Dieng, struggled to get minutes early in his rookie season. When the Brooklyn Nets season began, not only was he behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, he was also losing minutes to guys like Reggie Evans. Many old-school coaches won't give a rookie a chance over a veteran, but Jason Kidd eventually went with the best player. It was an easy call - Plumlee is longer, more athletic and more skilled than Evans and he does more to help his team win.

After Lopez went down for the season, Plumlee took advantage of the opportunities he was given. Like Dieng, Plumlee is an older prospect, a 24-year old center who played four seasons at Duke and left with a body ready for the rigors of the NBA paint. Per-36 minutes as a rookie, he averaged 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Not only could he protect the rim in the Nets small-ball switch-heavy scheme, he could also make plays for his teammates.

In the first two games of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Plumlee has shown his worth to the Nets. He’s the perfect complement to the older players in front of him - a ball of energy who can finish above the rim as well as add a needed boost of speed to their line-up. In their Game 1 victory over Toronto, Brooklyn was +13 in his 12 minutes on the floor. Plumlee gives them a live body who can match-up with the size and athleticism of Jonas Valanciunas.

Plumlee is the only pick from the back half of the first round with a big role on a playoff team. The Atlanta Hawks took Dennis Schroeder and Lucas Nogueira, two European teenagers at No. 16 and No. 17. Schroeder is good, but Nogueira is a project whose best-case scenario is Plumlee. The Dallas Mavericks took Shane Larkin at No. 18, a smaller PG who hasn’t cracked their rotation. The Chicago Bulls took Tony Snell at No. 20, who has a PER of 8.0 this season.

All three of those teams desperately need help in the middle. Atlanta is using Elton Brand, an undersized 35-year old PF, as their backup C. Dallas has been making do with a platoon of Sam Dalembert, Brandan Wright and Dejuan Blair at the position all season. Tom Thibodeau is having to roll out 36-year old Nazr Mohammed to backup Joakim Noah in the playoffs. Most of those guys are barely NBA-caliber players at this point in their careers.

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6’10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Larkin’s predicament in Dallas is the perfect example of the fungibility of PG’s - the Mavs picked up Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis in free agency and don’t need another small guard. Snell could stick in the NBA, but will he be better than Xavier Henry or Wesley Johnson, two players the Bulls could have had for nothing in the off-season?

Nogueira went higher than Dieng and Plumlee because he was perceived to have a higher ceiling, but that had more to do with his age than anything he showed on the floor. At 7’0 220, Nogueira is a painfully skinny 21-year-old who is averaging six points and four rebounds a game in Europe this season. In many ways, he was where Dieng and Plumlee were as college underclassmen. The problem is most raw young big men never improve as much as those two did.

Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling. Instead of focusing on what they could do, NBA teams worried too much about what they couldn’t. When picking in the latter half of the first round, you should think hard about passing on an NBA-caliber big man, no matter what his upside. Ask the Mavericks, Hawks and Bulls, who will once again be looking for big men this offseason.

Pacers Look Lost In Atlanta, Hawks Grab Series Lead

The Indiana Pacers played 18 games before they suffered their second defeat of the regular season, but in a matter of six days they've managed to lose two of three games in the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks.

As it was in the first two games of the series, Game 3 was decided in the third quarter. The Hawks outscored the Pacers 28-20 in the period and dropped 59 overall after halftime en route to a 98-85 win at Philips Arena on Thursday night.

After taking two steps forward in the second half of Game 2 on Tuesday night, the Pacers have taken four steps backward. It continues an alarming trend for a team that hasn't been able to get their act together since the All-Star break.

Since March 4, the Pacers have managed the following: four losses to winning teams, four wins over losing teams, three losses in four games, huge win over the Miami Heat, six losses in eight games, big win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and a season-ending victory over the Orlando Magic.

On March 2, they were 46-13. Since then (playoffs included) they are 11-15.

The Pacers were by no means rolling when the playoffs began, but even a pedestrian effort was supposed to get them past the Hawks with relative ease. What Indiana forgot was that Atlanta would be playing with nothing to lose, smelling blood in the water.

Indiana's defense was troubling through the first six quarters of the series, but in Game 3 the offense (predictably) was their downfall. The Hawks shot 38.4% from the floor and a very average 12-for-34 from three, but the Pacers couldn't scratch together enough offense to take advantage of Atlanta's shooting woes.

The Pacers will gladly take those shooting percentages, especially on a night when they commit 13 turnovers (just eight after the first quarter) and have a +10 rebounding differential.

Atlanta was the aggressor from the opening tip, causing the Pacers to backpedal on defense and foul often. The defense wasn't awful by any means, but the Hawks missed a ton of easy looks. They continue to somehow get several wide open threes, even though everyone knows they will attempt a ton of them.

The Hawks were 30-for-37 from the foul line, the difference in a game that saw both teams shoot horribly. The Pacers were 16-for-21 from the charity stripe.

DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver led the way for Atlanta. They were a combined 12-for-17 with 38 points and 10 rebounds. Jeff Teague had 22 points and 10 assists, but was 7-for-20 from the field. Paul Millsap shot 3-for-11, but still contributed 14 points thanks to eight trips to the line.

'Small' Ball

Frank Vogel stuck with the usual suspects through the first 11 quarters before finally going small with 9:24 left in the fourth quarter. He played David West and Luis Scola together in the frontcourt, conceding a rim protector (Roy Hibbert or Ian Mahinmi) against a team that has taken approximately 41% of their shots from behind the three-point line in the series.

The lineup worked for a bit, as the Pacers reduced what was once a 12-point deficit to just four on a few occasions, but the Hawks made timely shots, and Indiana missed some, to put the game away.

It's safe to say that Game 4 is a must-win for Indiana, Vogel must make significant adjustments to how the Pacers rotate and defend the perimeter. If that means giving Mahinmi and Scola time that would go to Hibbert, so be it.

Teague's Prayer

Even if the Pacers are able to right the ship and win this series, Teague's Jordanesque shrug following a made three with 2:49 left to give the Hawks an 87-78 lead will be remembered for years.

Indiana was putting the finishing touches on a great defensive possession when Teague rose for an off-balance three in the face of an outstretched Scola. He made the shot without a clear look at the basket, a high degree of difficulty on a night when so many easy ones were missed.

If Teague doesn't make the shot, the Pacers are in business with the ball down just six.

Fans will point to an arcane NBA rule that doesn't allow an out of bounds violation to be reviewed outside of two minutes remaining as a turning point here. The officiating crew reviewed the Teague shot during a stoppage in play to make sure he was behind the three-point line. He was, but replays also showed that he stepped out of bounds prior to rising up.

The rulebook states that “video review will take place ONLY in the last two minutes of the fourth period and all overtime periods” and that “Review must take place prior to the subsequent in-bounding of the ball.”

Thus, even if the officiating crew determined that Teague had stepped out of bounds, they couldn’t have disallowed the made three because of the game situation.

Regardless of how strange that sounds, the Pacers made their bed prior to Teague's three.

Turner's Minutes

Evan Turner has seen his playing time decrease incrementally. After logging 18 minutes in Game 1, he played 11 in Game 2 and just eight on Thursday night.

Vogel has been criticized for his rigidity, but keeping Turner glued to the bench has been a smart decision. Turner is a -20 against the Hawks, scoring 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting. His individual numbers haven't been horrible, but the offense is even more ineffective when he's on the floor. He's been on the roster for more than two months, but often times he seems to be on a completely different page than everyone else.

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