I was born in 1991, and I'm
26 25 years old as I write this today in 2016. I started following the NBA as a kid, watching games occasionally on TV. But there was no NBA team in Oklahoma City, so what really got me into the NBA was a game called NBA Live '98. That was Tim Duncan's rookie year. So, literally, Tim Duncan has been in the NBA for the entire time I've followed it. For me, there are no San Antonio Spurs without Tim Duncan. Seeing Duncan retire is downright eerie for me.
But beyond that, Tim Duncan symbolizes something else very different to Thunder fans. Tim Duncan symbolizes who we really wanted and needed as a star. Kevin Durant is a person with a quiet demeanor, but he's always been searching for the spotlight in one way or another. KD has been all over international commercials, has his own shoe line, and even starred in his own self-produced movie. Don't get me wrong. I admired the fact that Durant was so kind toward the people of this city, and put in so much work for us. But there's no denying that Kevin Durant has an ego. Just look at all of his rants against the "media" and what they having against him, and it's plain to see.
Tim Duncan, though. He didn't have an ego. I don't know if I could point to a single player that's more singularly selfless and dedicated to his craft. Duncan pounded at the rock in San Antonio, Texas for 19 years. I can't remember a single Tim Duncan commercial from that entire time. There are no Air Duncan sneakers. And I'd be shocked to see Duncan make a movie cameo, much less make his own movie.
Where Durant was all talk, Duncan was all business. Durant talked about how the Thunder were "Westbrook's Team". Durant talked about sharing the ball, about playing as a unit. But in reality, Durant was a shot chucker who struggled to make good decisions with the ball. Look no further than Durant's playoff stats, where he averaged 3.3 assists to 3.6 turnovers. Duncan's never been a distributor, but he's known his role. Has there ever been any question about whether Duncan was taking too many shots, despite the fact that he averaged over 20 points per game for 10 straight seasons? Furthermore, has there ever been question about Duncan's defensive effort? Both ballhogging and lazy defense plagued Durant throughout the course of his career in Oklahoma City.
The signs have always been there. Durant likes the spotlight, Duncan likes working on his cars. Was there any real question about who would be committed to the team that drafted them? And the city that embraced them?
Duncan vs. The Thunder
When it comes to Tim Duncan and the Thunder, there's definitely a bit of history. Duncan was 32 years old during the Thunder's inaugural season in 08-09. Despite that, Duncan was still averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. In fact, Duncan would be named an All-Star five times after that season. Duncan was perhaps never the dominant force that he was in his mid-twenties. But Duncan was still thoroughly elite, and his team consistently one of the best in the Western Conference.
Fate wouldn't have it that the Thunder and Spurs met in the playoffs until 2012. It was the perfect matchup between old and new. The Spurs were the battle tested team that had seen it all, re-tooled by a youth movement of players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Thunder were the young upstarts, powered by a under-25 trio of Westbrook, Durant and Harden. Duncan's presence in that series was somewhat of a farce. As Duncan's team did worse, Duncan only got better and better. It was truly a powerful feat, as Duncan was directly matched up with players far more athletic than he. Check out the stark contrast between Ibaka and Duncan in that series, in two plays:
Ibaka is in the skies, and Duncan is rooted to the ground. Yet Duncan managed to finish with 25 points, while Ibaka only had 10.
Tim Duncan's playoff story against the Thunder doesn't end there. Two years later, the more experienced Thunder would face the Spurs again in the Conference finals. The 2014 Thunder featured Durant and Westbrook, along with Reggie Jackson as the new third lynchpin. But the Spurs had gotten deeper, and were bolstered by a powerful youth movement. Furthermore, the Thunder missed the presence of Serge Ibaka in Games 1 and 2.
Without Ibaka gone, Durant spent a lot more time at power forward. Duncan, despite being 37 years old and averaging only 15 points per game that season, saw great opportunity. Here's some of the highlights from Duncan and Durant's Game 1 encounter:
Looks pretty even, right? Well, Kevin Durant is the reigning MVP. And Tim Duncan is, again, 37 years old. The final tally was Duncan with 27 points on 57% shooting. KD had 28 points, on 53% shooting. Oh, and the Spurs cruised to a 17 point victory.
The rest of the series went along these same lines. Game 2 saw both Duncan and Durant's scoring drastically reduced, but the Spurs won by a whopping 35 points. And even with Ibaka back, Duncan would still lead all Spurs with 17.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
But I've saved the best for last, just like Timmy D did. Duncan's Spurs would meet Durant's Thunder in the playoffs one last time, in this past year's Western Conference Finals. It was a series where casual fans liked to make fun of how Duncan was no longer an offensive factor. But those of us who were really watching know that Duncan was still critical to the Spurs' success. Here's a highlight reel put together of Tim Duncan's defense in this year's semi-final series with the Thunder. It's the kind of stuff that doesn't go on stat sheets, but it absolutely needs to be seen:
Duncan is taking on the shots of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. Even though Duncan began as a power forward in this league, Duncan's intellect and passion for the game has allowed him to morph into a modern center. Not only that, Duncan is a very valuable rim protector against one of the most athletic teams in the league. Perhaps most impressive is Duncan's handling of Steven Adams. Adams is a huge, strong guy who doesn't flop. But Duncan always had his hands on Adams, and was ready to tussle. I saw Duncan throw Adams to the floor at least once in that highlight reel. And he's 39 years old!!!! Tim Duncan was old enough to drive before Steven Adams was even born.
I'd also like to highlight the very last game of Tim Duncan's career, which was against the Thunder. The Spurs lost by 14, and it was never really that close. Not all stories can end in victory. But Duncan was right there, battling his hardest until the very end. Duncan had 6 points in the first quarter, and helped San Antonio get an early 2 point lead. And Duncan would finish with 19, scoring the majority of his points while the game was still competitive.
Duncan must have known it was his last game. There was fire in his eyes. Look at this first post hook, and how Duncan works off the weak side. It's some of the classic strength play that we don't get to see very much anymore.
Now watch the end of that video, where Duncan moves to shake hands with Thunder players. The first player Duncan talks to? Andre Roberson. The silent Thunder defender who does whatever is takes, and never complains. Then Duncan shakes hands with Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was the Thunder's best post defender, and took a bargain of a contract that helped keep OKC competitive. It's no coincidence that these meetings took place right after the series concluded. Duncan might be a star, but he had the mentality of a quality role player. And that's what's made Duncan such a tremendous basketball player over the past 19 NBA seasons.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant is meeting with Coach Popovich, possibly talking about free agency. Okay, maybe that was a bit of a pot shot. But really, I see Durant as a superstar with a superstar's mentality. That's led Durant down the road to success so far, and he has the potential to form a Dynasty in Golden State. But nobody is commending Shaq for helping the Lakers win three rings. And no one seems to revere LeBron for helping the Heat win a couple of rings. Superteams aren't the true legends.
The true legends are those who forge their own path, and form a winning culture out of nothing. LeBron has come to understand that, and it's presumably why he returned to Cleveland. But Durant doesn't seem to have that kind of perspective. All the while, Tim Duncan has laid a foundation that will last for generations after this season. I have no doubt that the Spurs will continue to be an example of small market success for some time. And Duncan's protege, Kawhi Leonard, will probably stay in San Antonio for the duration of his career.
As a Thunder fan, my hope now is that Westbrook is willing to stay here and help build that foundation. Somebody who's name is literally synonymous with a successful franchise. Like Bill Russell is to the Celtics. Like Magic Johnson is to the Lakers. Like Michael Jordan is to the Bulls. And like Tim Duncan is to the Spurs.
Tim Duncan to Westbrook: "Did I get you in the face?"
Duncan: "Okay, my fault then."
Any thoughts on Duncan's career are welcome in the comments.
Special thanks to Nobody Touches Jordan on YouTube, who put together the Duncan defensive highlight reel.