As players keep growing taller, the NBA continues denying the existence of centers because, well, too few low-post employees play like Tim Duncan.
Even with all his low-post chops, Duncan himself regularly manages to avoid the “center” label, which is a convenient method of categorization that allows people to refer to him as the best ever at his position. And that position would be power forward, even though he really, really isn’t a power forward.
Anyway, we shouldn’t become sidetracked by these positional qualifications; the only thing that matters is Duncan – at age 37 – is in the enthusiastic grip of a performance renaissance and has been named first-team All-NBA.
The 7-foot San Antonio Spurs legend now has 10 first-team designations in his career, this being the first in six years. Considering the grind involved in hauling his drop-stepping carcass up and down NBA hardwoods for 82 games (with some strategically inserted nights off from coach Gregg Popovich mixed in), this relative spike in twilight-years productivity is a bit nutty.
Is it truly unexpected? For expert testimony, let’s go with Lon Babby.
“I’m not surprised,” said Babby, president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns, when asked about Duncan’s first-team all-league revival. “He was surprised.”
Babby was a player agent before taking on the task of managing the Suns, and Duncan was one of his clients. He will provide some firsthand insight regarding what makes Timmy Timmy.
Before that, however, let’s take a look at some numbers.
At age 37, Duncan averaged 17.8 points (shooting a tick over 50 percent from the field), 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks during the regular season. He’s pretty much matched that productivity in a postseason now headed for a date with the Miami Heat in the Finals.
One year ago, Duncan averaged 15.4 points and shot 49 percent; he gave the Spurs 13.4 points the season prior.
So what gives? Well, realizing what was required to keep up with speedy teammate Tony Parker and a few other young cronies, Duncan – often seen sprinting up and down a 40-yard, man-made hill next to the team’s practice facility – dropped 30 lower-extremity-stressing pounds in the offseason.
With less burden on his knees, Duncan used his well-maintained, old-man moxie to do what few “bigs” have done before.
For historical perspective, let’s look at some large NBA players from days gone by.
At age 36, New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing averaged numbers very similar to what Duncan contributed this season; but Ewing, who liked to squeeze off his jumpers, only made 43.5 percent of his field-goal attempts that year.
At age 35, Wilt Chamberlain was NBA Finals MVP for the Los Angeles Lakers, having led the league in rebounding and field-goal percentage during the regular season.
At age 35, Boston Celtics great Bill Russell was claiming the last of his 11 championship rings but made only 43 percent of his shots and scored 9.9 points in his final campaign. He did average a crazy (for now) 19 rebounds.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played on Lakers championship teams at ages 33, 35, 38, 40 and 41. He was first-team, All-NBA at age 39 (the oldest in that category; Duncan is the second) and voted Finals MVP at 38.
Shaquille O’Neal helped the Miami Heat win a title at age 34 and gave Phoenix 17 points per game at age 36.
So, Duncan stands tall in pretty strong company … with centers.
To compare his influence on the game with that of players roaming farther away from the low post is silly. It’s seems like more of an honor to make comparisons to the aforementioned players than to ignore how or where he operated and match his impact with those at power forward.
But the task of understanding what makes Duncan special is made easier by using a few more observations from Babby.
For starters, we’ll hark back to the start of Duncan’s NBA career. Thanks to an injury to Spurs superstar David Robinson, San Antonio lost enough during the 1996-97 season to make the draft lottery and conveniently nab the first pick in year when a history-altering player was available.
Before Duncan teamed up with Robinson in real NBA games, they combined to film a commercial for Schick. Before filming, according to Babby, Duncan had some concern about how his arrival as the No. 1 overall pick and rising hotshot would be received by the Hall-of-Fame-bound Robinson and his new teammates.
“I said, ‘you can’t be worried about David,’ ” Babby said, “and he said, ‘Absolutely I’m worried about David … he’s my teammate. I’m going to be taking some of his limelight.’
“It was just a moment when this kid – right out of school – had such a perspective on being a teammate and being humble. I’ll never forget it.”
That perspective arrived in the NBA with Duncan after four years of processing at Wake Forest.
“He always had it,” Babby said. “He’s totally without ego. He has a great sense of what it took to be successful.”
Even more importantly, he understood what it took to be successful within team concepts. The aforementioned blending with Robinson, another elite 7-footer, has been bookended with Duncan’s career-ending run alongside Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“He was graceful in the transition from Robinson to him, which is not easy,” Babby said. “He was graceful to David, but — even more difficult — he was graceful in the transition from him to Tony and Manu.
“You’ve got to give the organization credit, but that organization reflects Tim as well.”
As these reflections are presented during the upcoming Finals (especially if the Spurs thrive), the appreciation for one of history’s greatest post players should rise.
“He’s really what you want everyone to be,” Babby said, “yet we don’t take the time to give him enough credit probably.
“As he enters this last phase, people will take a step back and say, ‘What a great player, what a great person, and what a credit to what this league and sports should be about.’ ”