Tim Duncan has retired from basketball after 19 amazing seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. He walks away with five titles, three Finals MVP trophies, and two MVP trophies. He has won championships in three different decades and finishes with 26,496 points, 15,091 rebounds, and 3,020 blocks. He has had one of the greatest careers in NBA history. While he has undoubtedly had one of the greatest careers, where does he rank among the best players? Maybe I’m the only one that thinks this way, but I think there is a difference between greatest players and best players. I believe this is the same argument players and media alike argue about every year when it comes to the difference between the league’s MVP and the league’s best player. If it was the same thing, Lebron would have eight MVPs and MJ would have eleven. So there is something to this distinction. The “Greatest” discussion is about achievement, success, championships, and trophies. Some say it has to do with being the best player on a great team. That would certainly apply in the Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debate. Russell’s team was vastly superior and it’s tough to give the MVP to a player on a bad team. At the same time everyone knew Wilt was the better player. “Best” is about dominance, statistics, and the eye test. This “best” concept speaks to what would happen if all of these guys were lined up and we were picking teams. Who do you take first? Duncan is the greatest at his position, his success has made it impossible to argue that anymore, but is he the best?
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When comparing him to the other great Power Forwards of the last four decades, Duncan is not spectacular. Really it’s only blocks that he excelled in and he ranked dead last in steals. This one reason why so many have debated whether Duncan was really a Center. He scored at a lower rate than all but Garnett. His rebounding was middle of the road and his assists were better than only Nowitzki.
When it came to shooting percentages, Duncan wasn’t anything special either. In fact, Duncan was the worst shooter of the group. On Field Goal Percentage he topped Nowitzki and Garnett, but those two shot many more threes than Duncan (as evidenced by Duncan having the lowest Effective Field Goal Percentage in the group). He was also the worst from three and from the free throw line.
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Offensively, it is indisputable that Malone, Barkley, and Nowitzki were all superior to Duncan. Defensively is where Duncan holds an advantage. Comparing his defensive stats is difficult because he really played defense like a Center. Malone, Barkley, and most Power Forwards averaged more steals than blocks. Not so with Duncan. Duncan blocked more than twice as much as he stole it. Dirk is just a terrible defender so we won’t even talk about him and Garnett blocked only slightly more than he stole it (he also played a fair amount at Center in his career). Barkley and Malone both stole it much more than they blocked. His blocks gave Duncan a unique stat when being considered for the All-Defensive Team. He easily blocked more shots than other Forwards, but he also racked up steals at a lower rate as well. As one of the league leaders in blocks from the Forward position, it was easier for voters for All-Defensive Team to vote for Timmy.
What about Playoff performances? Great players play biggest in the biggest moments. The chart below shows each player’s change from regular season averages to Playoff averages. This is an indicator of how clutch a player is when the stakes are increased in the Playoffs and it is Dirk, not Duncan at the top of this list. Malone was by far the worst in clutch Playoff situations.
I always like to look at the difference in Offensive and Defensive Rating. It is not fair to condemn someone for being a poor defender if his offense more than makes up for it. Conversely, you cannot give a great defender too much credit if they are less dominant than others on the offensive side. These numbers bring Barkley to the top.
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If you rank these five amazing Power Forwards in several categories that make a player great, it is the intangibles that push Duncan to the top of the list of “greatest” players. I think that is what makes Duncan special. Duncan is boring, predictable, and unspectacular. It’s what makes me and so many others feel indifferent about him. I think that is the reason that only seven people will click on the link to read this article (after everyone I know read and shared the article on Kevin Durant). Tim Duncan is boring. He is also a leader, a finisher, and a winner. I have always resented him that despite being an inferior player to Karl Malone, Duncan led his team to much more success. If only Malone had been more clutch, the Jazz would have had multiple titles. If only Barkley had been a better leader, he might have secured a championship. Sure, we can blame it on Michael Jordan’s greatness that denied Malone and Barkley rings, but the Jazz and Lakers (for Malone) and the Suns and Rockets (for Barkley) all had their shots and choked them away. Duncan didn’t do that. He wasn’t the best athlete. Barkley and Malone were much better athletes. He wasn’t the best shooter. Dirk, Barkley, and Malone were all better shooters. He wasn’t the most clutch in the Playoffs, Dirk was. Duncan just won. He is the modern day Bill Russell. He benefited from a legendary coach and a perfect system, just like Russell. Which is why according to my count, he is the “Greatest” Power Forward of All-Time. But he is not clearly the best. The “best” will depend on what type of player you are after and what players you have surrounded him by. It depends on what type of leader you want. All of these players offer something unique and special. Dirk, Malone, Barkley, or Duncan, each could be considered the best and I can see the argument for each one. Dirk the shooter, Malone the scorer, Barkley the bruiser, and Duncan the winner. He’s not spectacular, but the man has been so good for a long time. As a Jazz fan, I have never liked Tim Duncan, but I do respect the man and what he has done. But according to my count, Barkley and Malone may not be as “great,” but were still better.