The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

The Mis-Measure Of A Robot

I think you have to be either a basketball nerd or live within 20 miles of the Alamo to get Tim Duncan, honestly. I mean really: read this.

I’ll state up front that I think Tim Duncan is easily a top 10 of all time player, and has been for a good long while. Let’s look at some of his achievements along a few dimensions:

Defense: My favorite Tim Duncan stat is this one– he was the defensive anchor and best player on the two greatest defensive teams of the modern (post 3 point shot) era… and no one notices. In some ways that sums up Duncan’s career right there. Beyond that, he’s placed first overall 3 times in individual defensive rating, is the current career leader among active players and second all time (note that this is before a potential decline phase, though he is 32), is the active career leader and 8th all time in defensive win shares, and has made the NBA All-Defense first team 8 times- and the second team every other year of his career. He may be the greatest defensive player of all time. Russell might have been better and there’s some statistical information to back that up, but it’s very hard to compare across eras especially given the number of rules changes which have happened over the years. At worst he’s probably #2 overall.

Offense: Duncan is 8th in career PER neatly sandwiched between Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston. He’s 33rd in career offensive win shares (8th among active players), not bad for a player whose chief value is in his defense. He did lead the league in offensive win shares in ’01-02, and has placed in the top 10 in the league for PER every year of his career.

Longevity: Duncan has played 66 games or more in every full season of his career despite being in the playoffs every year as well and thus accruing additional wear and tear. He’s just outside the top 50 players of all time for minutes played, and at age 33 is putting up a PER in line with his career average and the second best offensive rating of his career. That PER is good currently for 4th in the league this year. He seems to finally be slipping a little on the defensive end, but he’s still in the top 10 in the league for defensive rating.

Other Considerations: Duncan has won 4 titles with the Spurs, on all of which he was considered the best player and go-to guy. On the last two of these he arguably did not have a second HOF-caliber player alongside him, and on the 02-03 version his chief sidekick was the 37 year old version of David Robinson in his last year in the league. Duncan is one of the very few NBA players to have essentially had two completely different title winners built around him, the Robinson version and the Ginobili/Parker version. Duncan led his team in playoff win shares on 3 of the 4 title winning Spurs squads, and was named Finals MVP 3 times. has a HOF probability tracker to summarize the chances of a player being voted into the hall based on his total achievements; Duncan places second among active players (behind Shaquille O’Neal) and 8th all time behind: Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Shaq. That’s just about fair when you look at his overall place in history.

Now Shauna…Shaghna…Sughna…Shaun Of The Dead‘s article isn’t any good really and has no merit on its own pitched as it is at the level of poncy message board trolling, but it is instructive for the biases it contains which are fairly common among ignorant people commenting on the league. Such as:

– “Then again, learning that Duncan is only the fourth player in NBA history to scored 20,000 points with 10,000 rebounds, 2,000 blocks and 2,500 assists (alongside Kareem, Hakeem and Shaq) makes me take him much more seriously”

This is what happens when people who have payed zero attention to the statistical evolution of analysis try to use numbers- they use outmoded stats which don’t really capture best the topic at hand, and report them without any context. In this case, it’s basically a selection of three random endpoints for three random stats; why not steals, rebounds and points? Why not blocks, points and turnovers? These numbers tell you almost nothing.

– “It’s like when you realize that Frank Thomas and Jim Thome are solidly ensconced in the 500 home run club.”

Same basic issue, except this compounds the problem by demonstrating total lack of awareness of the way statistical thresholds mean different things at different times. 500 home runs means less after the steroid era the same way perimeter defense in the NBA is completely different after the changes to the hand checking rule, or how the league as a whole has changed dramatically since the introduction of the 3 point shot.

– “That leaves Oscar, Jerry West and Cousy — the holy trinity of old guards. You can certainly try to argue for Duncan over one or more of those three, but I’m not buying.”

“I learned everything I need to know about this sport in 1986 goddamnit, and you can’t make me learn anything new. Old guys forever!”

In all seriousness, the NBA currently is in a remarkable second golden age. There’s probably 4 players currently active who you could make a case for in the top 15-20 all time (Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, Garnett) and several more who may well be in that zone by the end of their careers (LeBron, Wade, Chris Paul, Nowitzki, Durant), one of whom (LeBron) has a legitimate outside chance to be the greatest player of all time by the end of his career. That’s extraordinary. The league right now has more talent and more exciting ball being played than at any time since the mid 80’s; feel free to ignore it if you don’t care for basketball, but if you’re going to write about the sport in a major publication at least have the decency to notice these things.

This also misses out on one of the under-noticed factors about old-timey NBA eras: they kind of sucked. The league went through a fairly massive popularity explosion in the 1980s and it’s drawn a lot more talent and interest to the game in the intervening years. The level of available talent has gone up, coaching has improved, standards have been tightened up at every level, etc. The way those old teams played defense might as well have been invented in the early 80’s- every game used to look like the All-Star games does now. To a degree it’s only fair to judge players relative to their own era, but if we’re having the best-of-all-time discussion for a sport which has had major league-altering changes on several different levels over the course of its existence, that should be addressed and considered. Put succinctly, Bob Cousy never had to guard Chris Paul on the perimeter.

– “Bill Walton calls him the Pete Sampras of basketball. That makes him great … and a little boring.”

This is one of the reasons I despise 80% of stuff in the major media, because it translates as “he didn’t give me stuff to write a story about therefore he’s not that good.” It’s a failing which is incredibly common among old-line mainstream media, which implicitly assumes that the relationship of a player to them is a major factor in what that player is worth or how he performs. Hell, even someone like Bill Simmons is increasingly prone to this sort of solipsism.

Anyway, this could go on forever, so let’s end it here. Suffice to say that A) the NBA is still getting some of the worst mainstream coverage of any sport out there, and B) don’t let anyone tell you different- Tim Duncan is the man.


March 30, 2010 - Posted by | Other NBA

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