If you popped on SI.com, you will see Dan Shaughnessy's interesting counter to my magazine story a few weeks ago about Tim Duncan. My story was more about my endless fascination with Duncan -- the main line was probably this one: "Has American sports ever had a player all at once so great and so unknown?" The man is so counter to today's sports world -- he's the opposite of flashy, the antithesis of SportsCenter, the inverse of hype. He's 1957 transported. He might be the greatest invisible player in American sports history.*
*And as I point out in the piece -- with the perfect boring nickname: The Big Fundamental.
In the piece -- right at the end, in fact -- I called him one of the 10 best players in NBA history. That was not the point of the piece, but that was probably the headline. A letter appeared in Sports Illustrated two weeks later from CarlMcCullough of Trinity, Fla:
"If Duncan is one of the 10 best NBA players of all time, then whom would writer Joe Posnanski take off this list: Abdul-Jabbar, Baylor, Bird, Chamberlain, Erving, Jordan, Magic, Robertson, Russell or West? Maybe there should be 11 players in the top 10."
Dan picks up on the theme in his column. He, too, lists 10 players who have to be on his top 10 list. He added Shaquille O'Neal and Bob Cousy and removed Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving. He then listed another dozen he decided to put ahead of Duncan -- those two along with Kobe Bryant, LeBronJames, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, MosesMalone (so Moses and Karl, but so far no Jeff Malone), Kevin McHale (Kevin McHale? Really? Over Duncan?), Bob Pettit, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas.
Look, there have been a lot of great players in NBA history ... and those are some of the greatest. I think there are probably seven or eight guys who would be on just about everybody's top 10 list: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, WiltChamberlain and Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, KareemAbdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan. After that, you have another few, as you can see above, who would battle for the final two spots.
But I think, once again, it's just tempting to undersell Duncan. It's tempting to undersell him because he just does the same thing every single year -- 20-22 points, 10-12 rebounds, two blocked shots, first- or second- team All-NBA, first-team All-Defensive. He has been in the top five for defensive Win Shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player) every year (No. 1 five times), and the top 10 in rebounds every year, and he always has been the best player on a team that has never won fewer than 53 games in an 82-game season.
This is a point that's easy to overlook. It's a short list of players who were clearly the best player on four championships teams. That list would include:
1. Bill Russell, 10 2. Michael Jordan, 6 3. George Mikan, 5 4. Tim Duncan, 4 5. Magic Johnson, 4
Shorter list than you would expect, isn't it?
Russell won 11 championships -- you could argue that he wasn't the best player on all those teams. He almost certainly wasn't the best player on the 1957 team that had Bill Sharman and Cousy (more on Cousy in a second), though he did grab 19 rebounds a game. A quick look at the Celtics' championship Win Shares leaders:
1969: Bailey Howell, 11.3 * Russell second with 10.9 1968: Bailey Howell, 10.1 *Russell second with 8.2 1966: Bill Russell with 11.7 1965: Bill Russell with 16.9 1964: Bill Russell with 17.3 1963: Bill Russell with 13.5 1962: Bill Russell with 15.5 1961: Bill Russell with 13.0 1960: Bill Russell with 13.8 1959: Bill Russell with 12.9 1957: Bill Sharman with 12.4 *Russell fourth with 6.2
So as you can see, based on Win Shares (which, obviously, is only one measurement), Russell was pretty clearly the best player in eight of the 11, and close enough in '68 and '69 (when he also served as coach) that I gave him credit for those. That gives him 10 championship teams where he was clearly the best player.
Because Russell was so dominant, the many, many, many, many (yikes) other Celtics Hall of Famers from that era really can't be on the list. Cousy won six championships, but it would be hard to argue that Cousy was clearly the best player on any of those teams. Those teams, after all, had Hall of Famers Russell AND Bill Sharman AND Tommy Heinsohn AND Sam Jones AND Frank Ramsey AND K.C. Jones. And for fun, they added Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette at the end of his career, though he was not playing at that level at the time.
Point is, Cousy changed pro basketball with the way he played. We are talking about the greatest players in basketball history, so there are no duds here -- Cousy was magical. But if there was a draft tomorrow with a young Cousy and a young Duncan, I don't see any argument for drafting Cousy.
The same, incidentally, can be said for John Havlicek. He played on eight championship teams, which is remarkable, but he was clearly not the best player on the first six. He was probably the best player on the 1974 championship team and might have been the best on the 1976 championship team, though in both cases Dave Cowens was at least his equal. My idea here is for someone to be clearly the best player on at least four championship teams. Havlicek and Cousy just don't quite get there.
Abdul-Jabbar is a tough case. He was absolutely and without question the best player on the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks -- even with an aging Robertson on the team. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 31.7 points and 16.0 rebounds. His 22.3 Win Shares that year was the fourth-highest total of all time (his 25.4 Win Share total in 1972 is tops). And he was probably the best player on the 1980 champion Lakers. That was Magic's rookie year, and NormNixon was still playing a lot of point guard, and Jamaal Wilkes was still doing a lot of the heavy scoring. I think that was Abdul-Jabbar's team.
After that? Trickier. In 1982, Magic has more win Shares than Abdul-Jabbar. Same deal in 1985. For the 1987-88 repeat, it was very clearly Magic's team, and Abdul-Jabbar was much more of a role player. Abdul-Jabbar finished fifth in Win Shares in 1987 behind Magic, James Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green. And Michael Cooper averaged more minutes than Abdul-Jabbar in 1988.
So, what to do? My sense of it is that it's only fair to Magic to say he was clearly the best player on four of the five Lakers championship teams. And that leaves Abdul-Jabbar as the best on two championship teams.
Then there are Shaq and Kobe. Again: tricky situation. They each have four championships -- three together and one apart. Kobe was the best player on last year's Lakers, though Pau Gasol actually scored more Win Shares. Shaq was clearly not the best player on the 2006 Miami Heat championship team that had Dwyane Wade -- even Udonis Haslem scored more Win Shares. And then ... how do you split up their championships?
2002Shaq: 13.2 Win Shares Kobe: 12.7 Win Shares
2001Shaq: 14.9 Win Shares Kobe: 11.3 Win Shares
2000Shaq: 18.6 Win Shares Kobe: 10.6 Win Shares
Shaq was almost certainly more valuable the first two seasons and it was close that third season. But once again, no clear choices here.
Even Bird provides a tricky case here: He won three championships, so he could not make the list. But Bird was not clearly the best player on that first championship team -- that team had Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish, who both scored more Win Shares than Bird. Larry Legend was probably the best player on the team, the championship difference, but that's a different story.
Then there's Duncan. Four championships. And there is no doubt that he was the best player on all four teams. In 1999, he led the team in scoring, rebounding, blocks and win shares. In 2003, his 16.5 Win Shares were more than double anyone else's on the team and he was named league MVP. In 2005, Manu Ginobili was a valuable player -- very close in Win Shares -- but again Duncan led the team in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage, and his defensive rating was the best in the NBA. In 2007, he again led the team in Win Shares, and was once again rated (by his defensive rating and by Win Shares) as the best defensive player in the NBA.
This is just a rare thing. That's not to knock the greatness of West or Robertson or Erving or Baylor or any of the other great players listed above. But Duncan's teams win games, and Duncan's teams win championships, and he's the best player on those teams.
I think basketball -- because of the relatively small number of players on the floor at one time -- rewards an individual's accomplishments more than baseball and football.
• In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and walked 177 times -- no matter how you may feel he accomplished it, that's about as great an offensive season as a player can have. His team did not make the playoffs.
• In 2004, Daunte Culpepper threw for 4,700 yards and 39 touchdowns, ran for another 400 yards and threw only 11 interceptions. His team went 8-8.
• In 2002, Priest Holmes in just 14 games (13½ games, really) gained 2,287 yards from scrimmage and scored 24 touchdowns. He would have smashed both records had he not gotten hurt. His team went 8-8.
• In 2000, Pedro Martinez went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, set the ERA+ record with a 291 ERA+, struck out 284, walked 32, was about as dominant as a pitcher can possibly be. His team went 85-77.
It's not quite like this in basketball. The best players having the best seasons take their teams to the playoffs, often deep into the playoffs, sometimes winning championships. I'm not trying to push any mystical "he's a winner" or "he's a loser" stuff. This is just a factor of five players on the floor. One player can really influence the game. The greatest players -- players who are terrific offensively and defensively, and consistent night after night -- win. They might not quite win it all, but best I can tell just about all of the great players in NBA history have at least played in the NBA Finals.
Put it this way: By my count there are only 22 players who rank among the NBA's top 50 in both Offensive Win Shares and Defensive Win Shares. Best I can tell, all 22 played in at least one Finals. Seventeen of them won a championship -- and in total they won 47 championships -- and that doesn't even include Russell, who didn't quite make it as an offensive player.
So, yes, great players influence games, seasons, championships. And few in basketball history have influenced games, seasons and championships more than Tim Duncan. You could argue about his place in the top 10, and there are enough great players in NBA history to put an imposing top 10 out there without Duncan on it. But I think he's the best power forward in basketball history and the indispensable player on a four-time champion. Even if it doesn't sound right, a top 10 list is incomplete without him.