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.