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Essay: Tim Duncan Will Never Go Away

Tim Duncan is 36 years old, arguably the Western Conference’s best power forward/center, and playing like we should reasonably expect him to be a productive NBA player in 2017.

Will he ever slow down?

According to Basketball-Reference.com, his 26.4 PER is comparable to his 2002-03 MVP season, his True Shooting percentage (57.6%) equals what he did at the age of 25, and his offensive rating (115) is the second best of his career. On top of that, his 94 defensive rating currently leads the league.

After much due diligence in checking to see if these numbers were telling a contextual fib, I discovered Duncan is averaging 30.3 minutes per game, which is a tick below what he did throughout the 2009-10 season. So, he’s playing a bunch. He’s also making 78.8% of his shots at the rim while averaging his most attempts per game there since 2008. 

His scoring numbers in the paint make such little sense for someone his age that they have made me question the use of analytics to accurately measure a basketball players’ production. Then I watch him play, and I realize that his game calls into question the fundamental philosophies of life, time, gravity, and happiness.

How is Duncan doing this? Well, a few reasons. For starters, he’s really good, with a game that’s tended to combine size and intelligence instead of power and athleticism. As he ages (and keeps his body in tremendous shape with strict dieting and advanced strength and conditioning methods), he won’t shrink, and he certainly won’t get stupider.

Another factor is the lessened burden afforded him by head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. The former changed his system on the fly to a more pick-and-role centric offense that relies on outside shooting and floor spacing (reviving Duncan’s legs a bit because he’s using fewer possessions in the post), and the latter has found the right pieces—Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green—to score, defend, and get the most production possible out of said system.

Duncan has been most brilliant this season with the ball out of his hands, cutting into the acres of vacant space created by his sharp-shooting teammates on dribble-drives to the basket.

(And playing alongside Boris Diaw—one of the best big men passers in the league—has also made Duncan’s life as a scorer much easier.)

As has been true since his transformative rookie season, Duncan’s astounding play hasn’t been restricted to his offensive efficiency. He helps his team win by contributing in several different areas on both ends of the court.

He is turning the ball over only 7.5% of the time he uses a possession, which is the most careful he’s been in his entire career, per Hoopdata—it’s as if his body isn’t aging while his mind is getting wiser.

His defensive rebounding percentage is 28.2%, which stands as favorable to what he was doing in his prime, and he’s accounting for 33.1% of his team’s free-throw attempts when on the court, his highest contribution since 2008-09. He’s also recording 29.2% of all the Spurs made field goals when on the court, his best since 2004-05.

Duncan is in great shape and remains lethal against slower big men away from the basket. He’ll catch the ball below the free throw line but extended from the paint, face up his man, and leave him in the dust on a drive to the basket. Help defense usually isn’t an issue in this situation (the Spurs are overflowing with three-point threats), and the play usually results in either a running hook or trip to the free-throw line.

As one of the smallest teams in basketball, the Spurs are depending on Duncan now as much as they ever have. San Antonio’s defense has remained steady, allowing 98.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and 98.2 when he’s off, but the offense leaps from 102.1 to 106.7 points per 100 possessions (a top five team) when he’s off and on the court, respectively.

His game has incorrectly been described as “unimaginative” and “numbing” by people who love and hate basketball the same, but none of that really matters. Duncan has been named an All-Star 13 times in 14 seasons. He’s been a Finals MVP three times, and on multiple occasions has been called the greatest power forward who ever lived by one of the greatest power forward who ever lived.

Because we’re just over one month into the season, a lot of Duncan’s numbers won’t stay where they’re at. It isn’t even December, and the Fresh-Meter on Duncan’s legs will surely droop as we crawl into the winter and spring. Still, there’s something to be said about a player so old who’s dominating competition that had parent-regulated bed times when he was winning titles with David Robinson as a teammate. (Kevin Love was nine years old 1997.)

Duncan is one of the most effective/productive/valuable basketball players who ever lived. While most great players ache through miserable moments towards the end of their career, he’s somehow improved his legacy by stubbornly, and consistently, continuing to play at a high level on a night to night basis. Isn’t that so Tim Duncan? If you’re wondering why this isn’t a bigger story, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Next weekend the Spurs face the Thunder and Celtics, two elite basketball teams that match up well and play San Antonio tough. Will he come back to Earth then? Who knows. But even if he does, the Spurs will remain an incredibly difficult team to beat.

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