I was reading Joe Posnanski's very fine column on Tim Duncan in Sports Illustratedlast month and came across a statement which jumped off the page and bit me on the nose. Concluding his homage to Duncan, Posnanski wrote, "He's one of the 10 best players in NBA history ... ''
"No bloody way," I screamed.
Since I was in my home office at the time, I went to a reliable source: ElliottKalb's Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball? Imagine my horror when I flipped through the book (published in 2004) and discovered that Kalb had Duncan ranked the ninth-best player in NBA history?
What am I missing here?
Off the top of my head I'd take Wilt Chamberlain (always No. 1, the guy averaged 50.4 points a game during the 1961-62 season), Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Bob Cousy ahead of Duncan. There's a quick 10 without as much as a three-second violation.
Nothing against Duncan, but you could also give me Kobe Bryant, LeBronJames, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, KarlMalone and Kevin McHale. Oh, and let's not forget Bob Pettit, MosesMalone, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas.
OK, I admit I'm being a little unfair to Duncan. I can find room for him somewhere in that second 12. But only a few of those 12 can make a case for cracking the top 10, and Duncan is not on my list.
Somehow, I've missed Duncan's greatness. Maybe it's because he played in San Antonio. Maybe it's the lack of flair in his game. Even his nickname is boring. Please, "The Big Fundamental?" Sounds like a guy you'd fit for a pocket protector.
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. It's like when you realize that Frank Thomas and Jim Thome are solidly ensconced in the 500 home run club.
Duncan came to Boston last night and, in the interest of research, I wandered down to the TD Garden to watch him in person. He came to town averaging 18.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Against the Celtics, he scored eight points to go along with nine rebounds in 26 minutes of a shockingly easy, 94-73 victory over the allegedly revived Boston Celtics.
He is certainly the slow and steady fire. Except for 2001-02 when he scored 25.5 points per game, Duncan has always averaged between 18 and 24 points per game. The Spurs have been good for 53-63 wins in each of his seasons (save for the 1998-99 season that was cut short with the lockout). He's won four championships, been named MVP of the Finals three times and earned league MVP honors twice. He's the first player in NBA history to be named All-NBA and All-Defensive teams in each of his first 12 seasons.
Bill Walton calls him the Pete Sampras of basketball. That makes him great ... and a little boring.
So who are you gonna throw out of my top 10 to make room for Duncan?
Wilt, Russell, Kareem and Shaq are non-negotiable. I'd take Hakeem over Duncan also, but let's not go there. Obviously, Magic, Michael and Larry have to be in any top 10, even if Larry's former teammate, Cedric Maxwell, thinks DirkNowitzki and Kevin Garnett are better than Bird. 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'll admit that the more I scour Duncan's numbers, the better he looks. He's a 7-footer who plays great defense, makes the perfect outlet passes and uses the glass like no one else his size. He's won his whole career, and he's done it quietly. Too quietly for his own good, maybe. Playing in a small media market has disguised some of his greatness.
Duncan continues to play at an amazing level for a guy closing in on 34.
I talked to his coach, Gregg Popovich, after Sunday night's game. I asked Pop about Duncan as a top-10 player. Of all time.
"I think he'd be flattered and embarrassed by that,'' said Popovich. "I think in some ways he suffers from the small market, with the pop culture and all that. He couldn't care less about that. It's nice that some people rank him high, but we've had a lot of great players in this league.''
Duncan was predictably humble about the whole deal.
Told that he was ranked among the top 10 players of all time he said, "It's a bit shocking. I don't know what to say about that. I know my [style of] basketball. It's nice to be thought of as one of the top players, but I can think of a lot of great players.''
We went down my list. I started rattling off names.
"You got 12 right there,'' he said.
Tim Duncan is not going to fight about this. Even he admits it is absurd. He is a great player. He's just not one of the 10 greatest of all time.