Rebuttal to a rebuttal: Duncan's stats put him in elite class
If you popped on SI.com, you will see
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
"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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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,
• In 2004,
• In 2002,
• In 2000,
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.