The climactic scene takes place during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City, where a 38-year-old Duncan finds himself without Tony Parker, in one of the most hostile environments in the league, with Serge Ibaka shadowing his every move and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook desperately trying to pull themselves back into a series that had seemed all but over. Oh, yes, it happened to be overtime, too, and coach Gregg Popovich had no choice but to play his aging great 39 minutes. How does Duncan respond? By scoring seven straights points – getting whatever he wants against Ibaka -- to send the Thunder home for the summer and silence the Chesapeake Arena. And then? Minutes later, he calmly predicts that his Spurs will revenge their 2013 Finals loss against the back-to-back champs. Five games and four blowout wins later, Duncan’s prediction came true.
Almost 20 years ago, Wofford coach Richard Johnson gave this speech before facing Duncan’s Wake Forest team: “Let me tell you guys about who you're playing tomorrow. Someday your six-year-old will ask you for a Tim Duncan jersey for Christmas. This is your chance to play a future NBA Hall of Famer, your turn to face the greatest player you will ever meet." Those words were delivered when Michael Jordan was still collecting championship rings, when Shaquille O’Neal had just arrived in Los Angeles, when Allen Iverson was in the middle of a Rookie of the Year campaign, when Anthony Davis was first sprouting a unibrow, and yet the gist of Johnson’s message could still be delivered by any NBA coach today.
Think it’s unfair to keep Duncan in the top five when he is the only player in the top 10 who is older than 30? A far greater injustice would be to rush this living legend out the door, to downplay his status – as of mid-June 2014, not five or 10 or 15 years ago -- as the best player on, by far, the league’s best team.
Duncan’s Spurs were so dominant last year that you need to adjust his stats not only to account for Popovich’s careful rotation management, but also for the fact that many of his team’s postseason games were over midway through the third quarter. Even so, he trailed only James in postseason Win Shares, his postseason average of 16 points and nine rebounds marked the best numbers of any big man who advanced to the conference finals, and he posted a comical +11.2 net rating for the duration of the playoffs. Even though he is years removed from his most prolific statistical seasons, Duncan’s impressive all-around per-36 minutes numbers – 18.7 points, 12 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.3 blocks – were matched by exactly zero players last season. There still isn’t another big man who packs as many different types of positive plays into his court time as Duncan does, despite his advancing age.
With each new season, there are fewer and fewer historical comparisons for Duncan’s late-career brilliance. At this point, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and John Stockton pretty much make up the entire list. The 14-time All-Star is fully within “wheels falling off” territory. There’s definitely a chance that age decline alone causes Duncan to drop out of the top 50 of SI’s Top 100 of 2016, something that absolutely cannot be said about anyone else in our top 10. There’s also a meaningful chance that Duncan isn’t included at all on next year’s list because he decides to call it a career. But those exact same things could have been said last September, and yet here he is, one ring richer, continuing to loom over the league with his Spurs as the early favorites to win the 2015 title.
Until Father Time intervenes, until retirement beckons, or until a young big man finally succeeds in knocking him off the pedestal for good, Duncan deserves every ounce of credit and praise that we can muster. The one part of the story that you won’t want to tell your grandchildren: “By the end, we were so caught up in how old Duncan was that we weren’t able to fully appreciate his greatness.” — B.G.