The NBA that drafted Tim Duncan was a different place. It was ruled by post players, their refined skills made unstoppable by the limitations of legal defense. Double teams were only allowed in the most explicit fashion; any defender loitering in the lane and taking up space without matching up closely with a specific opponent would be whistled for a violation. Seldom could teams do better than to slow the game down and steadily grind out points, all the while baiting opponents into hard, exploitable doubles or scaring them out of the prospect entirely. High offense was drawing the most blood from the stone.
Even the fastest teams in the league then would rank below the league average by today's standards. The slowest—Duncan's Spurs among them—played what amounted to a different sport.
Duncan thrived. From his first day in the league he was a ready-made post scorer and post stopper, a perfect coincidence of talent and time. There was no learning curve. While his peers worked themselves through the rigors of pro competition, Duncan averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds on arrival and made the All-NBA first team in his rookie season. He was the player worth tanking for. Other teams tried but San Antonio, struck by the fortunate misfortune of David Robinson's broken foot, wound up in favorable lottery position. It took all of two seasons thereafter for the Spurs to become champions. Duncan, at 22, was the Finals MVP.
It's easy to forget now, some 19 years later, that a young Duncan was a physical marvel. Even the most capable opponents were rendered helpless by his length. Shot attempts were denied with dispiriting ease. Those who rose with Duncan on one of his drives to the rim could only watch as he reared the ball back for a dunk. Rebounds were tapped away from even those who had gone to the trouble to box out and do everything right. Just as Duncan's fundamentals were remarkable for a player his age, his natural tools were exceptional for a player of his fundamentals. That rare combination propelled Duncan and the Spurs to another title in 2003. Duncan, at 26, was the Finals MVP.
The NBA that Duncan grew into was a different place. By the mid-2000s, the post-up had given way to the pick-and-roll, changing the foundation of the game from under Duncan's feet. Suddenly, size and touch weren't enough to make a big man effective. He had to be able to move—both to make the most of his own team's evolved pick-and-roll play and to counter the two-man game at the center of the league's most effective offenses. A certain subset of plodding big men began to fall out of the league.
Teams around the league picked up their pace and, more specifically, their tempo. Patient entry into the post still had its place, but changes to the rules allowed defenses a greater ability to pressure the low block than ever before.
Duncan thrived. Even as the league grew faster, Duncan conquered it with a profound understanding of where to be on the floor. The peril of defending the pick-and-roll lies in the exchange. There's a moment at which the two defenders directly involved in the play must hand off assignments between them. In that lies a moment of vulnerability—a window where the defense is either mismatched or scrambling to recover. A prime Duncan would blot it out entirely.
Turn the corner and Duncan would be there. Make the pass to the roll man and Duncan would be there. Glance in the rearview mirror on the drive home from the arena and Duncan would be there. Whatever window of attack an offense had grown accustomed to would disappear against the Spurs. Duncan was unshakeable without any showy, played-up hustle. Just a step in this direction or that got the best defensive player of alltime precisely where he needed to go.
Those teams on the forefront of basketball innovation built rosters, devised strategies, and evaluated their progress with Duncan's Spurs in mind. It was the very specter of beating San Antonio that led Phoenix to compromise its vision by trading Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal. It was Duncan, still, who did them in. The game had moved beyond the post but Duncan had moved with it—into more elbow jumpers, more rolls to the rim opposite Tony Parker, and more quick reads from the comfort of the block. Duncan never scored more in the playoffs than he did in the mid-2000s. That enduring balance brought the Spurs two more titles in 2005 and 2007. Duncan, at 28, was the Finals MVP. Parker, whose career would never have been the same if not for Duncan, took the mantle in 2007 at his teammate’s urging.
The NBA that staged the final act of Duncan's career was unlike anything that came before. An emerging athleticism had taken the league's altered hand-checking rules to their logical conclusion, forcing big men to contain and hedge and drop and control the paint in entirely new ways. The mobility of centers and power forwards was put to the test in perpetuity. Every team in the league seemed to have its own lightning quick point guard, many empowered to score to a degree unmatched in the history of the game.
Teams around the league became fast-breakers virtually by default as a way to punish Duncan and those like him—bigs who could anchor a defense from within and feast on offensive rebounds. Some fell out of the league entirely.
Duncan, somehow, thrived. One of the game's smartest players summoned a deeper basketball intelligence in finding ways to contribute to a modern system. San Antonio changed around him, building in scoring options to alleviate any pressure for Duncan to put up points and orienting an outside-in offense predicated on movement. Facilitation—a relatively minor element of Duncan's early game—became fundamental to his role. The ball flew from one side of the floor to the other in part because Duncan was stationed as a release point in the middle of it.
Neither pace nor space could quite neutralize Duncan's defense. He remained one of the best rim protectors in the league through his very last season, and along the way made the absolute most of his dwindling mobility. An entire defensive career was rendered an enduring vision: length, spatial intelligence, and efficiency of movement rooted him within one of the best team defenses ever at a point where that should have been impossible. Superior athletes danced around Duncan. Very few could actually get the better of him.
Duncan and the Spurs still lost plenty—and painfully. Yet before he was through, Duncan pushed San Antonio to a hard-lost Finals in 2013 and an incredible, redemptive title in 2014. Duncan, at 37, smiled in the background as Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP. From Duncan had come stability, from that stability came a system, and from that system came Leonard.
The NBA that Duncan leaves behind is a brilliant league. Playing to see it first-hand required that he survive some of the most dramatic stylistic changes that the game has ever known. Even bigs are now forced to defend the full run of the court; those who cannot step out to challenge a guard off the dribble to the three-point line and beyond put their team at a strategic disadvantage.
Duncan could still play another season had he wanted to, but that bind would come implicit to his minutes. There is no realistic fix for what spatial demands would be placed on a 40-year-old Duncan. Offense, too, had become a burden as Duncan regularly whiffed on attempts at the rim and shorted his open jumpers. Nothing came easy anymore. And while the game itself hadn’t yet passed Duncan by, its arc had at least hinted at the possibility.
Duncan made his exit before it could. The fittest survived. Malleability is what made Duncan—or more specifically, what made the outrageous idea that a single player could contend for titles for 19 straight years even remotely possible. No player has ever withstood basketball's inevitable, aggressive change so gracefully. Duncan abides.