Nov 9 2012 3:50PM

The Curious Case of Tim Duncan


D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

There are three reasons why Tim Duncan, at age 36, keeps improving on his legendary Hall-of-Fame game, which in turn allows the San Antonio Spurs to progressively get better as a team these past three seasons:

1. Duncan has become the NBA’s best pick-and-roll player by far.

2. Duncan has developed a leaner, swimmer-like body to accommodate his new role as an active screening big, since he doesn't needs the the bigger frame to engage post-up battles with bigs anymore.

3. The March 2012 acquisition of pass-savvy Boris Diaw gives Duncan the perfect high-low complementary big to take his game back to MVP-consideration level.

It really is as simple as 1-2-3. No other center the past three seasons has been able to post better Player Efficiency Ratings (22.3) and Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus numbers (+4.60) as the 16th-year Spur (Dwight Howard has a 25.3 PER with a +3.25 RAPM, while Kevin Garnett has a 20.3 PER with a +6.05 RAPM; nobody else is even close).

These are similar to the numbers Duncan maintained in his 20s, back when he was collecting two regular-season MVPs and three Finals MVPs while leading San Antonio to four NBA championships.

But what's most impressive is that Duncan is posting these impressive numbers at age 36.

In fact, the only big men in NBA history who have similar PERs at 36-plus years of age with 2,000-plus minutes played are Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And since record of plus-minus stats only goes back to 2000-01, nobody in NBA history comes close to topping Duncan’s 13-year regular season and playoff score of +6796--952 better than his closest competition (Dirk Nowitzki). Last season alone, his regular season and playoff plus-minus score of +308 topped all centers.

For years, forecasters have been predicting the demise of the Spurs, while ignoring the fact that its oldest player has not suffered a decline at all.

That is precisely why the team has been on the upswing in 2010-11 (going an NBA-best 61-21) and 2011-12 (going an NBA-best again 50-16) and 2012-13 (going 4-1 to begin the season).

There is a plethora of advanced statistics to illustrate this tale even better.


Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

Synergy Sports Technology shows Duncan is the only NBA player who ranks in the Top 10 in its three main big-man categories of pick-and-pop (1st at 1.007 points per possession), roll to the hole (10th at 1.247) and most efficient screener (4th at 1.077) in the 2011-12 season.

These facts become even more relevant when you realize San Antonio has become the NBA’s No. 1 offense these past three seasons—scoring 111.1 points per 100 possessions—ever since the Spurs became the pickingest-and-rollingest team in NBA history, with novel sets that see the Spurs run as many as four, five, even six pick-and-rolls per play. Quite simply, Duncan is the best pick-and-roll big in the game.

Ginobili became the team's main quarterback in 2010-11, consequently earning All-NBA honors that season, while Parker was the Spurs' QB in 2011-12, eventually finishing fifth in MVP voting that season.

All the while, Duncan has been the lead blocker, the left tackle of this unstoppable offense, if you will, that sees a dozen different Spurs--any given game--regularly free themselves up for open threes, jumpers or slashes to the hoop.

None of this could be done without Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich’s genius X-and-O play-calling, Parker’s indomitable will or Ginobili’s relentless, makeshift creativity.

It is also good to know Tiago Splitter, now in his third NBA season, has become quite adept himself as the big in pick-and-rolls, ranking third in the roll-to-the-hole category (1.381). That allows the Spurs’ bench not to experience a huge dropoff when Duncan gets his customary, needed rest (he has averaged 28 minutes the last three seasons).

Still, it is Duncan—after all these years—who makes the engine run.

It is truly a sight to behold, not only because he remains a highly-productive offensive force, but also because Duncan still has the No. 1 defensive RAPM for any NBA player (+3.95).

It really is quite amazing when you think about it.

As the statistics become more advanced, we also see Duncan’s game advancing, as well.

Even though, it is taking most in the mainstream awhile to notice.

Last year, fans and coaches did not put Duncan on the 2012 NBA All-Star team, the first time he was left off in his career.

This came despite the fact, the Spurs had the best record in the West, with a three-game lead entering All-Star Weekend.

Yet, NBA coaches saw Duncan’s 15 point and 9 rebound averages in 28 minutes per game and determined he was not worthy of All-Star status, most likely because his numbers did not match career averages of 20 and 11 in 35 minutes per game.

They never factored in his 15 and 9 were equivalent to 19 and 11, if you broke things down on a per-minute basis.

They never factored in Duncan did not need to play unnecessary minutes in double-digit-point wins (31 of those games), just to build up old-fashioned, 20th-Century box-score stats.

I digress.

The reinvention of Duncan cannot fully be appreciated until you look through the prism of advanced stats. It is there that you see Duncan's dominance really has not changed at all.

His game may appear different—he’s not the top post-up threat like he was when the Spurs won the 2007 NBA championship, back when Duncan had a league-leading 163 baskets within 3-to-9 feet of the basket.

His body may have changed—he is now more fleet afoot since he doesn’t need to pound in the paint as much.

And he even may appear more rested--less susceptible to injuries--even though Duncan has never been injury-prone, missing only 14 games combined from the 2010-11 through this 2012-13 season, with most of those missed games coming from Pop resting his big man. After all, Duncan has not missed double-digit games in any of the last eight seasons.

His teammates also are improving, with chemistry heightened by the return of 13 Spurs from last season's Final Four squad, not to mention the aforementioned return of the court-smart Diaw. Duncan is truly at his best when teamed with a veteran pass-happy, high-low big—whether it be Diaw today or championship teammates from the past like bigs Robert Horry, Fabricio Oberto and David Robinson.

Indeed, many people write about Duncan's reinvigoration today--saying he found the Fountain of Youth--when that is not necessarily true.

Perhaps the youth following him just caught up to his wisdom. He has played at such an advanced level over three different decades, that it is only now that the iGeneration can truly appreciate his uniqueness.

The 20th-Century greats Bill Russell and Michael Jordan won their last NBA championships at age 35, before retiring (in the case of Russell) and re-retiring (in the case of Jordan, who had three goodbyes to basketball).

On this side of the millennium, however, the 21st-Century great Duncan is 36 and is showing no signs of dropoff when it comes to quality of play.

Quantity dropoff, in terms of minutes per game? Yes.

Quality dropoff? None, whatsoever.

That, in itself, makes Duncan a legend beyond comprehension.

He truly has become a legend that does not end.