Defending Tim Duncan's place on the 2015 NBA All-Star Game roster
The announcement of the 14 reserves selected to the 2015 NBA All-Star game was met with almost mechanical outrage. The players omitted in these cases are generally irrelevant. What matters -- and what ignites such fevered, impulsive response -- is the very, unavoidable act of exclusion, channeled through the reactive heart of one fan base as easily as it would the next. It is an outrage defined by its vacancy.
And, in the case of this year's most notable omissions, it often came with a target. Whether objecting to the immediate absence of DeMarcus Cousins (who was later named as Kobe Bryant's injury replacement) or Damian Lillard, it became common to sneer at the nod given to the 38-year-old Tim Duncan. One could fill tomes with every parroting of Duncan's selection as a "lifetime achievement award."
There are compelling arguments as to why Cousins and Lillard are worthier selections than Duncan. They may be right. But they shouldn't come at the expense of acknowledging just how brilliant Duncan has been this season, and just how utterly reasonable it is for him to make the All-Star team. Duncan is -- not was -- a terrific basketball player. To claim otherwise conveniently glosses over just how effective and important Duncan has been by his own merits this season.
By the box score, he’s outmatched. Duncan’s per-game averages of 14.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.1 assists and two blocks are solid, through and through, but not sensational in the way of Lillard or Cousins. He is ultimately a middle-usage star playing just 30.2 minutes a night and his basic counting stats can’t help but reflect that. Yet all told, Duncan’s box score output offers only initial qualification; that he is one of just 13 players to average a double-double this season (in fairly few minutes, no less) should put him in a select class of consideration.
Where Duncan shines brightest is in the area the box score most neglects. Defense matters. And that Duncan so clearly contributes to winning basketball with his play on that end should hold more weight in discussion of his All-Star credentials than it does. By this point the refrain is all too familiar: Those who coach, play, analyze, and watch the game closely speak to how consistently underrated defense is in our evaluation of players. We say and hear that call, and then proceed to undervalue it still.
Duncan is a prime case. After adjusting for teammate and opponent quality, Duncan rates as the single most impactful defender in the NBA. He has made a top-five defense of what, frankly, shouldn't be. Kawhi Leonard has missed almost 40 percent of Spurs games while Tiago Splitter has missed over half. Beyond those two, Duncan's team is exceedingly short on plus-level individual defenders. Danny Green qualifies, as might Cory Joseph. Otherwise San Antonio's rotation consists of players who can succeed within a role provided that other, high-level defenders are around to absorb difficult assignments and deep responsibility. Except for Duncan, they haven't been consistent.
San Antonio's championship run, depth, and status as a stylistic model convey a certain immunity to the forces at work in basketball, as if the Spurs were somehow removed from the perils that face all teams. It simply isn't the case. Injuries hit San Antonio as they do all franchises, and throughout this season we've seen the defending champs struggle through complacency. Too often they've played as if their bellies are still full from champagne.
The saving grace has been Duncan. Throughout his 18-year career, Duncan has achieved through consistency. His production has been steady and his temperament even. His playing style, too, is metronomically reliable. When opponents line up a pick-and-roll, Duncan is virtually always in place to defend both active parties. When an opponent slips past Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili into the paint, Duncan slides over in time to contest. He's always where he should be, no matter that he's now older and slower than most every player he comes up against.
None of that has stopped Duncan from ranking among the best rim protectors in the game. According to Nylon Calculus, Duncan saves essentially as many points at the rim as Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka. He does this not through leaping ability, but presence. Duncan operates in a state of heightened basketball consciousness that puts him precisely where he needs to be.
Yet because the Spurs are the Spurs, what Duncan does is regarded as the slow turning of a cog. That notion is ridiculous. Duncan has held San Antonio together to this point to avoid a Thunder-like standing on the precipice of playoff disqualification. The Spurs' offense has been unusually mediocre on balance thus far. It's the defense -- and Duncan's, in particular -- that has given San Antonio the luxury of working out its problems without sliding out of the West's top eight. The buoyancy that Duncan has given the Spurs has dramatically changed their season, and with it the complexion of the entire conference.
This isn't some hazy intangible notion. It's right there on the court, obvious on most of San Antonio's defensive possessions. Duncan could very easily be the Defensive Player of the Year. For a player to bring that depth of influence along with all else that Duncan does is reason enough for those who bother to notice. Argue in Lillard's favor if you prefer his awesome brand of shot-making, or suggest some other candidate if you'd like. Debate over All-Star selection is one worth having, given the outsized importance placed on the honor. But outrage on the subject should be drawn from some injustice, and here there is none.