Apr 23, 2014 2:15 PM EDT
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.
Apr 21, 2014 12:54 PM EDT
A year later, if the NBA could do a redraft of 2013, two guys would go a lot higher - Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Carter-Williams, after leading Syracuse to the Final Four as a sophomore, slipped to the Philadelphia 76ers at No. 11, due to concerns about his jumper and his offensive efficiency in college. Giannis was the mystery man of the draft, a Greek teenager with no real experience or statistics who the Milwaukee Bucks took at No. 15.
It didn’t take long for MCW to make a splash. In his NBA debut, he led the 76ers to an upset of the two-time defending champions with a preposterous stat-line of 22 points, 7 rebounds, 12 assists and 9 steals. Philadelphia became the feel good story of the league, although injuries and a fire sale at the deadline soon put a damper on that. MCW, one of the only rookies in position to rack up statistics, took a commanding lead in the ROY race and never looked back.
Giannis came on a bit more slowly, but he soon became the only reason to watch Milwaukee Bucks games. At 6’9 210 with a 7’3 wingspan, his length and quickness jump off the screen. Like MCW, a 6’6 PG with a 6’7 wingspan, Giannis came into the NBA a one of the longest and most athletic players at his position. That’s why they were both successful as rookies and they have such promising futures - they are really long and really fast. It’s not more complicated than that.
If they were more athletes than basketball players, their physical tools wouldn’t be so remarkable. However, since they do have the skills necessary to play their respective positions, they have a huge advantage over everyone they face. The best players in the NBA tend to be the ones with above-average height and speed for their position. All things being equal, the taller player has a huge advantage in a sport where the nets are raised 10 feet in the air.
At 6’6, MCW is the tallest PG in the league, so he has a much easier time racking up assists, steals, rebounds and blocks than his peers. Even though he can’t shoot, you don’t see many PG’s who can impact the game in as many ways as he can. He isn’t doing anything different in the NBA than he was doing in college - he averaged 12 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists a game at Syracuse. You just don’t see a player with his combination of skills, size and athleticism very often.
Once the draft came around, though, people focused more on what he couldn’t do than what he could. With the rise of advanced metrics, efficiency became the most prized asset in a prospect and MCW shot only 39 percent from the field in college. The real problem was his college offense - Syracuse played a 2-3 zone, which slowed down the tempo of the game, and they didn’t have a lot of shooters on the perimeter, which allowed defenses to crowd him on the drive.
MCW was an “eye test” guy all the way. When he faced Indiana in the Sweet 16, he tore up Victor Oladipo, another future lottery pick. MCW was too tall, too fast and too quick - he could go wherever he wanted on the court and create easy shots for all of his teammates. The scouting report is the same then as it is now - if he ever consistently made 3’s, he would be one of the best players in the NBA. Even if he didn’t, his size and speed would make him a productive player.
Philadelphia was an excellent landing spot for him in terms of racking up statistics, but he would have made an immediate impact on almost every team in the lottery. If Marcus Smart had stayed in the draft, the domino effect would likely have pushed MCW down to No. 13, where the Dallas Mavericks were set to pick him up. MCW on the pick-and-roll with Dirk Nowitzki would have been unfair - his skill-set would have made a lot of teams better this season.
The same principles apply to Giannis. There are a few NBA players who are as long and as fast as him, but there is no one who is longer and faster. That’s what the “eye test” really means - are you able to see that Giannis is really tall, really fast and really long? Congratulations, your eyes still function. When judging Giannis, there was nothing else for teams to go on. Before the draft, he was playing for the U19 team on a lower division club in Greece.
Unlike most international prospects, Giannis had not been in international competitions or played at the Hoop Summit. The son of Nigerians who had illegally immigrated to Greece, he didn’t have a passport for most of his childhood. His story is like something out of a Disney movie - a coach riding his bike spotted him and one of his brothers in a park. Even after he declared, most people assumed he would go to Spain for 1-2 years before even thinking about the NBA.
Before the draft, the only film you could watch on Giannis was a few of his youth-league playoff games that DraftExpress posted on YouTube. There were no statistics and the level of competition wasn’t great, probably not better than a high-school state tournament in the US. The film was grainy, but Giannis was running point, making ridiculous passes and handling the ball at a very high level. It didn’t matter who he was playing - the physical tools translated.
When you see a 6’9 player with elite length, skill and athleticism, you have to figure he is a pretty good at basketball. The same goes for an athletic 6’6 PG with MCW’s skill-set. When you are evaluating young players, the statistics can only tell you so much. In Giannis’ case, there were no statistics to go on at all. Nevertheless, there are still ways to find steals in the draft - look for the tallest, longest and most athletic guys at each position. It’s really that simple.
Apr 15, 2014 2:06 PM EDT
From an NBA draft perspective, the Nike Hoop Summit, which pits the best under-19 international players against the best US high school players, is the most intriguing of the high-school all-star games. It’s one of the only times the best teenagers from overseas play in North America before the draft - Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and Enes Kanter were all “discovered” at the game. Every year, there’s at least 1-2 future lottery picks on the international squad.
Given the one-and-done rule, though, much of the intrigue comes a year in advance - the standout players at the 2014 Hoop Summit won’t be drafted until 2015. If you want to talk about the 2014 draft, you have to look at 2013 Hoop Summit. The film from last year’s game gives us a few clues about what should be one of the biggest storylines in this year’s draft - Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum, the two World Team guards expected to go in the Top 5.
Neither fits the stereotype of the unathletic international player. Like Tony Parker, Wiggins and Exum are sons of Americans who played in the NBA before finishing their careers overseas. Mitchell Wiggins wound up in Canada and his son played high school ball in the US. Cecil Exum played in Australia and his son spent most of his teenage years at the Australian Institute of Sport, the academy that produced Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova.
Exum was not in a situation in Australia where he could get much publicity in NBA circles. Coming into the Hoop Summit, he was more of an unknown commodity than Wiggins, who was being hyped as the best prospect since LeBron. Exum was expected to play college basketball and not declare for the draft until 2015. That began to change after a strong performance in Portland, where he was every bit as good as his more celebrated teammate.
The game itself, a 112-98 victory for the World Team, wasn’t all that competitive. They got out to a big early lead by playing zone, which forced Team USA to beat them with a half-court offense instead of going 1-on-1. The Americans were able to get back in the game by speeding up the tempo with a full-court trap, but the international players eventually figured out the press, pulling away in the fourth quarter with a string of open dunks in transition.
As the NBA teams that drafted Saer Sene and Bismack Biyombo in the lottery found out, there’s only so much you can take away from an exhibition game between two groups of teenagers who practiced together for less than a week. Team USA, which had more slashers than shooters, didn’t have enough time to prepare for the zone and neither team was all that smooth in the half-court. The internationals had 24 assists on 19 turnovers; the Americans had 15 on 14.
Nevertheless, just from that game, you could see why people are so excited about the two guards. Wiggins (6’8 200 with a 7’0 wingspan) and Exum (6’6 190 with a 6’9 wingspan) both have an elite combination of size, speed and length. Exum may not be quite as explosive in the air, but he’s every bit as quick laterally. His first step is absurd - the American guards couldn’t stay in front of him. The difference in quickness between Exum and the Harrison Twins was glaring.
When you look at his production in the game, what jumps out is how efficient he was. Exum needed only eight shots to get 16 points. He didn’t get the ball that often, but when he did, he knew what to do with it. When the Americans eventually began playing off him, he knocked down the open jumper. He could take whatever the defense gave him without having to force the action. The best players can beat a defense in multiple ways - they make the game look easy.
Wiggins got 17 points at the Hoop Summit, but he needed 16 shots to do it. That was the big difference between the two - Exum played under more control and had a lot of finesse in his game. For the most part, Wiggins was putting his head down, running at the rim and throwing up shots. He was mostly scoring off being longer and more athletic than the guys he was facing - in the NBA, he will be playing guys who are just as long and just as athletic as he is.
Aggressiveness was one of the knocks on Wiggins in college, but that was more about his role in the offense than his mentality. Kansas runs a lot offense through the post - Wiggins didn’t get to play in transition nearly as much as he did in AAU ball. He’s an inconsistent shooter without great ball-handling ability, so it was hard for him to be as “aggressive” without open lanes to the rim. He got most of his points in the Hoop Summit in transition and the offensive glass.
A perimeter player with that skill-set is valuable, but they have a hard time making their teammates better. That’s where Exum has an edge on Wiggins - he’s a much better passer. A few months after the Hoop Summit, he carried a relatively untalented Australian team to the semis of the U19 world championships. Exum averaged four assists per game in Prague while Wiggins had only 1.5 a game at Kansas. That’s a big deal when evaluating wing players.
While Exum isn’t quite as long and athletic, he’s far more skilled. He’s an elite athlete in his own right and he plays with more poise than Wiggins, despite being six months younger. You have to play Trading Places with these guys - what would have happened if Exum was on the AAU circuit every summer and Wiggins was in the AIS? Forget which one has the better highlight tape and who is getting more publicity - passing up Exum to take Wiggins could be a mistake.
Apr 12, 2014
It’s easy to forget how young some of the players in the league are - freshmen drafted in 2011 would have been college seniors this season. You have to judge young players against guys their age not against the guys in their draft class.
Apr 08, 2014
John Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. It’s a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire “one and done” model.
Apr 07, 2014
The crucial earning years for a basketball player aren't their early 20's but their late 20's, when they are in the prime physically. At that point, it's not about whether they maximized their draft position but whether they developed their game and maximized their earning potential before they start to decline.
Apr 03, 2014
The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonald’s game are the sport’s blue bloods. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2.
Apr 02, 2014
Jahlil Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014.
Mar 31, 2014
In a tourney filled with unlikely stories, none is more unlikely than John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats becoming a Cinderella. Rather than 2-3 guys emerging as stars, everyone on has shared the burden, with each member of their rotation coming up big at a different time.
Mar 28, 2014
While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways.
Mar 21, 2014
One of the most common misnomers about the NCAA Tournament is that it’s a “guard’s game." While it is very hard to win games in March without quality backcourt play, it is just as hard to win them without quality play in the frontcourt. The best teams have good players at each of the five positions on the floor, which allows them to match-up with any opponent.
Mar 18, 2014
When their five starters are in, Michigan State has an NBA prospect at every position who can impact the game on offense and defense. Unlike the rest of the field of 68, they don’t have an exploitable weakness on either side of the ball.
Mar 11, 2014
Wichita State has become one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. They want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.
Mar 05, 2014
No one was winning a title with Dwight Howard’s supporting cast in either Orlando or Los Angeles. He’s in a better situation with the Rockets, with a shrewd front office and a talented young core around him.
Feb 11, 2014
It would be easy for the Blazers to stand pat at the deadline, as they’ve already done more than enough to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2011. At the same time, their core is firmly in their 20s and the long-term status of LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't been resolved.
Feb 01, 2014
Over the last generation, many of the league’s best shooting guard prospects have been undone by getting too much too soon. Terrence Ross has been the exact opposite, an All-NBA talent forced to pay his dues and learn the game at every stop of the way.
Jan 07, 2014
The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.
Dec 13, 2013
Eric Bledsoe has played only 15 games in a Suns' uniform, but the trade already looks like a massive heist. His 20.95 PER is sixth among PG’s, one spot ahead of his former Kentucky teammate John Wall. Wall is a No. 1 overall pick who received an $80 million extension; Bledsoe has been every bit as good.
Nov 14, 2013
Forget whether or not tanking is morally acceptable. Most NBA franchises are so bad at identifying young talent (and even worse at developing it) that draft position almost doesn’t matter. The Pacers didn’t have to lose a bunch of games to build a championship-caliber team.
Oct 29, 2013
After Brooklyn acquired Joe Johnson, everyone decried how inflexible their roster situation had become. Since then, they have acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche. The Nets are extremely deep, with one of the most loaded rosters from top to bottom in the league.
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