What to Expect When You Are Expecting: Tim Duncan

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Published: October 30, 2012
Tim Duncan Two Arms Around Ball

As if the tip-off against the Spurs won’t be exciting enough, Davis vs. Duncan may be the first in a series of barometer matchups for the potential NBA MVP.

I can not express the feeling I have regarding the mere possibility that Anthony Davis could possibly be mentioned with Tim Duncan when the history books are written. Tim Duncan is one of the finest NBA players, and, in my mind, has shaped the NBA. He’s a player that has never fit a mold but was talented enough to force the world to adjust to him.

The recent removal of “Center” from the All-Star ballot was arguably initiated when he was drafted, joining David Robinson (who studied mathematics) in the frontcourt of the Spurs. After being welcomed and mentored by The Admiral, The Twin Towers helped lead Gregg Popovich’s teams to two titles. During the ten years after Robinson’s retirement, Duncan had led two more of Pop’s teams to titles, and the NBA has a number of teams emulating the post-Robinson Spurs model.

Enough of dreaming on the heights . . . these stories always start in the depths . . .

The Team: 1996 – 1997 San Antonio Spurs

The 1996-1997 San Antonio Spurs were poised to be anything but what they were. Bob Hill had coached the team to 62-20 and 59-23 records in the prior two seasons, David Robinson was one of the top Centers in the NBA, and the team experienced a 17-game win streak during the prior season.

Life happens, as it often does. Bob Hill’s contract was not extended after these performances. Then, David Robinson hurt his back, and six other players missed time during the early games of the season. The result was a 3-15 start including only 1 win in 10 against lottery teams. Robinson returned, but fractured his left foot after only 6 games, and was limited in those 6 to get treatment for his back during the game. The team had no draft picks in the prior draft, so there was no one to take the load.

The fallout was that Popovich replaced Hill starting in game 19 and a perfect reversal of fortunes, netting a 20-62 record.

Out of this perpetual gut-punch of a season, they got added two sure Hall of Fame inductees: Gregg Popovich (at game 19), and Tim Duncan with the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, which they won despite having only the third worst record, and with the second-worst record Celtics having two shots at the top pick.

The Player: Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan grew up in St. Croix and began his amateur athletic career as a swimmer. Naturally, he was good. Like training for the 1992 Olympics good. Yes, in swimming.

The following led him to the position to be drafted by the Spurs:

  • Hurricane Hugo damaged the Olympic pool in his area, forcing him to train in the ocean, if at all
  • Duncan had a fear of sharks that ended that option
  • He hung with Alonzo Mourning in a happenstance pick-up game (really, and really)
  • Before his mother passed away, he promised her that he would finish college with a degree

During his time at Wake Forest, he amassed a number of accolades, making him one of the top collegiate players. This is due in part to the fact that the stayed in school despite knowing that he could be the top pick in the draft if he came out early and with knowledge that a rookie salary scale was going to be instituted if the remained a Demon Deacon for four years.

Duncan ended his first year with 33 games at 30.2 minutes per game, 6.7 shots at a TS of 0.593, while netting 9.6 rebounds and 3.8 blocks. By his senior year, he was putting in 36.7 minutes per game, 12.4 shots per game at a TS of 0.629 while netting 14.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks. His foul rate was constant at about 2.2 per game. Even factoring in the increase in minutes, the overall game play is remarkable.

Ten players finished college with more than 2,000 career points and 1,500 career rebounds. Tim Duncan is one. He was also the first player in NCAA history to reach 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 blocked shots and 200 assists in his career. He was elite and was breaking the mold before he even entered the NBA.

In more subjective terms, Duncan was Defensive Player of the Year for his last 3 years at Wake Forest.

Certainly the rookie got a rude awakening the NBA.

Certainly.

Right?

Right, guys? Hey . . . hey, guys?

Um, no.

Tim Duncan played in 82 games in his rookie year, averaging 39.1 minutes per game, attempting 15.7 shots per game at a TS of 0.577, while netting 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks at the cost of 3.1 fouls. In terms of total performance, his PER was 22.6 and his WS/48 was .192. These were the lowest and second lowest of his first decade of play.

In the awards side of the house, not only was he Rookie of the Year, he was Rookie of the Month every month. He also managed a Player of the Week in there for lagniappe.

The Impact: The 1997 – 1998 San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs won a title in the second year with their trio of Duncan, Robinson, and Popovich.

And so it began.

With respect to team play, it’s unfair to look at the comparison between the 1997-1998 team and the 1996-1997 team that `merited’ a high lottery pick, as the team effectively added Duncan and Robinson. Comparing instead to the 1995-1996 team, we see a perceptible drop-off in play, but not one that indicated disaster, clearly. In time order the (ORtg, DRtg) were (110.2, 102.5), (103.3, 112.3), (103.8, 99.4) while the pace changed from 93.3 to 87.3 to 88.4.

There are a trunk full of statistics than can be tossed out, but it’s safe to say that great play from two all-time greats in an all-time great system need time. A little time.

Compare and Contrast: Duncan vs. Davis

Just staring at Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan’s silhouette can be seen. Davis’ 6’10, 220 lb. frame is still growing at age 19 by his own account, and the guy knows how his pants fit. It’s not like he buys off the rack . . . . Duncan exited college 2 years later at 6’11”, 248 lbs.

Davis ended his first year with 40 games at 32.0 minutes per game, 8.4 shots at a TS of 0.654, while netting 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks at a cost of 2.0 fouls.

For those keeping score, point LaRusso. I mean, point Davis.

Davis, of course played on a stacked team, but there are at least two ways to look at that. One is, “Well, of course he could do well, his teammates were so good he had free reign.” Another is, “Well, with all of that talent around him, it’s amazing that he was able to produce so much.” There are others. Take from it what you will, but even discounting this bounty, it’s not insane to hope for or discuss Duncan-like things from Davis.

For those who want the opinion of experts, Davis was lauded as various sorts of Player of the Year: Defensive, Big Man, and just plain old Player of the Year. He also won the Oscar Robertson Trophy. Does it even matter what it’s for? It’s named after Oscar Robertson, one of the most influential figures in all of professional basketball. It’s hard to get, by the way.

In contrast to the level of performance up to this point, there is a good deal of difference between the situations the players found themselves when they stepped off the owner’s plane. Duncan played from day 1 next to a walking talking living breathing NBA version of Chuck Norris. Davis doesn’t even have a Van Damme. Rather, he has the Mystery Men, at least until Captain Amazing recovers.

The team Duncan landed in a team that was knocking on the door for years and had a Fusilli Jerry season (million-to-one shot, Doc) while the Hornets have struggled since their creation for various reasons. While new ownership here is still stuffing clothes in the closet before room inspection, the new owner there had a season to clean house and focus before they hit the draft jackpot.

Duncan was the missing piece. Davis is the first piece.

What We Can Take from Duncan and the Spurs

Tony Parker!

Kidding.

Mostly.

Sadly, the situation of Tim Duncan’s NBA entry differs in such significant ways, it’s tough to say that this team will perform this season the way Duncan’s did during his rookie season. Rather blasting full-speed on the NBA title on-ramp, this team will be trying to see if they work out the playbook. Davis himself could very well put up numbers in the neighborhood of those of Duncan’s rookie year, but the team performance just will not be there without some significant move is likely impossible given Rashard Lewis’ dead money on the books and the new ownership’s tightening purse strings, which is understandable given the decent-fraction-of-a-billion-dollars spending spree they’ve been on the past 6 months.

What is more encouraging, however, is the possibility of how this team will before in year 3. This coming season could very well be like the 1996-1997 Spurs team. Suppose they get a decent draft pick (re: suppose they win 20 games), nab a free agent when that dead money comes back to life in what I hope is a horror movie for the NBA right when the new tax rules slam down like a Rancor door, perhaps rendering the player market the deepest it will be in a decade, if not ever. Suppose we get that piece, that missing piece.

Also, by that time Davis will be of an age and size more like rookie-Duncan, and he will have been forged in NBA fires, not playing as a man among boys in college from ages 19-21 like Duncan did.

Give it a year.

According to the Spurs, someone needs to have a parade ready to go starting in A.D. 3.

Another possibile take is just to view last season as one parallel to the one in which Robinson was hurt, with Gordon playing the role of Robinson. Him coming back and staying healthy could either reduce the importance of finding that missing piece, shorten the time-table to getting that title, or just help the Hornets do a little more damage on the way. Ownership and coaching is still an issue in this model (no offense to Monty, but the world didn’t know Pop was Pop at that time either), but maybe Gordon shores up those weaknesses in this franchise.

Either way, this year is not the year.

A Final Note

As this series issues its final installment just as the season opens and the eponym of this installment is on his way here, I’d like to say, again, that this comparison I find both apt and exciting. Beyond that, I ask at some point during tomorrow’s game, ponder the effect of Tim Duncan on the game of basketball. Ponder how he was central to, perhaps, stopping us from getting an NBA title in 2008 in the fateful game 7.

Tim Duncan changed the NBA and changed the tangled history of professional basketball in New Orleans.

Anthony Davis was four when Tim Duncan was drafted and was entering high school when Duncan won his most recent title. Though Davis was a guard early in his high school career, Tim Duncan had to be someone that Davis knew of and respected, and as his body has grown similar to Tim’s, he’s had to take notice.

Beyond this, remember that both players did not start as basketball big men. Tim Duncan was a swimmer, and Anthony Davis was a guard. Both players are so good, that they adapted to this uberforward role very quickly . . . and then the game adapted to them.

Davis can be Duncan. He might not be, but he can be.

Davis can surpass Duncan. He might not surpass him, but he can.

Take a moment and appreciate the absolute poetry that is the matchup of the once-future of basketball and the possible-evolution of the game. It’ll be right there for our pleasure and our awe exactly 15 years after Tim Duncan made his NBA debut. The revolution will be quiet, like Duncan himself. The effect on the game will be beneath the notice of most, like Duncan’s effect on any game he is in. In the end, however, the game is changed because of him.

And Davis can be better.

Take a moment to realize all it took to bring this here before us.

It does not get any better than this, people.

3 comments
David
David

Good comparisons. Davis really may be the next Duncan, but ultimately I think he's probably more athletic than Duncan really ever was. The key is health. What makes Duncan so special is that he's stayed relatively healthy over the years. Davis will have to do the same. Of course, I can't really see the Hornets doing what the Spurs did in Duncan's early years. Maybe after one more season that earns them a high lottery pick and if Eric Gordon can stay off the trainer's table. Regardless, I can't wait to watch the Hornets this season. I've never said that before.

Matt
Matt

On the eve of the season tipping off, this got me infinitely more excited for the season to be here. And I thought I couldn't get anymore excited

Mike P
Mike P

Really great article. As exciting as it is to win, it is just as exciting when you know you're watching the very beginning of something special. And Davis will be

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