OH, SO NOW THEY GET IT…SURE THEY DO! (Sports Moment #6)

…Or pretend to, at least.

This week the San Antonio Spurs reached their fifth NBA finals of the “Tim Duncan Era.” The Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade (that’s DBCCB for short if you’re a newcomer here) at ESPN and the other usual outlets are suddenly doing things like wondering if Duncan is the equal of, say, Kobe Bryant!

I didn’t stick around for the debate between whatever intellectual titans actually engaged in this particular argument, just caught the teaser. Somehow, I doubt they called it the no-brainer it is.

Tim Duncan is the best player of the post-Jordan era and a top-ten all time.

He’s also probably the most underrated player in the history of American sports (off hand the only competition that comes to mind is Chris Evert but that’s another topic for another day–in any case the list is very, very short.)

Consider this:

In the history of the modern NBA, which effectively began when Bill Russell arrived in Boston in 1957 and ushered in the recognizably modern game, NBA titles have been won by “small market” teams exactly seven times. That’s seven times in fifty-six years.

Four of those seven titles were won by the San Antonio Spurs (currently the 24th largest market in a 30-team league). For the record, the others were the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 and the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 (ah, the seventies!).

So to put it yet another way, since the beginning of the truly modern NBA (which began with the twin arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–to major markets of course–in 1980), only four championships have been won by small market teams (four in thirty-three years) and the Spurs won all four.

Duncan led every one of those San Antonio teams–each of whom had the deck stacked even more thoroughly against them than the teams that won in the seventies–in both scoring and rebounding. The only other player who led four championship teams in the two most important statistical categories was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (As Lew Alcindor, he led the Bucks to their title, then repeated the feat for three of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.**)

(Just as an aside, Duncan and Jabbar also led their teams in blocked shots each of those four years–to my mind a more important, game-controlling statistic than the more popular “assists” category, which is rather randomly applied in any case.)

In addition to all that, Duncan never once played alongside a fellow twenty-point a game scorer in any of those championship runs. (Tony Parker had the best scoring season of any of his teammates when he averaged 18.6 in 2007–Parker also edged the now thirty-seven-year old Duncan as the team’s best scorer this year, so Duncan will not be in a position to break his tie with Jabbar when the championship series starts next week.)

Just to put that in perspective, [and granting that team scoring totals have come down somewhat over the years] Jabbar only failed to play beside at least one twenty-point a game scorer on one of his championship teams (and even then, he was abetted by Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge who averaged 19.4 and 18.4 respectively–in other words, in the season when he had the least big-time scoring support, he still had two scorers as effective as the 2007 Tony Parker, the closest thing to a consistent big-time scorer Duncan played with during any of his championship runs.)

Bear in mind that Duncan did all this while routinely playing for something like half his market value–thus providing the only means by which his franchise could possibly pay the competitive salaries to other players that have allowed them to compete.

All of this has been accomplished so quietly that Duncan has rarely been mentioned as a truly era-defining player. Journalists–and not only the DBCCB membership–tend to be impressed by flash and stats. Duncan has never been big on either. Yes, he can fill a stat sheet, as evidenced above. But his career numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch and the myriad ways in which he effects and controls games are rarely if ever pointed out by commentators or morning-after talking heads. Whether they don’t know the value of making percentage plays that don’t show up in box scores more consistently than anyone who has played in the last forty years (the time period I’m qualified to pass judgement on–I missed Bill Russell sad to say) or simply think it’s not worth talking about–i.e. “too boring”–I don’t know.

Some of this might end up being discussed further if Duncan’s team manages to win a fifth championship in the next few weeks–especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. There are some who are saying that Duncan might, in effect, “take the leap” into the land of players who define the history of the NBA.

That’s nonsense. He took that leap long ago. Nothing has changed just because the people who get paid to pay attention to such things have finally decided to do their jobs. And I’ll put very long odds on ever seeing his like again.

[**NOTE: George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in the pre-Russell era and he almost certainly led his team in both scoring and rebounding all five years. But rebounding totals were not kept as an official statistic during his first two title seasons. The only other players to lead championship teams in scoring and rebounding more than once were Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished it three times with Los Angeles, Hakeem Olojuawan, who did it twice with the Houston Rockets, and Larry Bird, who, remarkably since he was not only a small forward, but playing on teams with Hall of Famers at center and power forward–the traditional positions for rebounding leaders–did it twice with Boston. As with Jabbar, O’Neal and Bird were, in all cases, assisted by more accomplished scorers than Duncan ever had. Olojuwan did do it once with less, or similar, support (the second time he had Clyde Drexler averaging over 20 a game).

Michael Jordan, of course, led six teams to championships in a large market (Chicago). It’s difficult to compare a swing man to a post player in terms of impact since he isn’t likely to lead a team in rebounding or blocks. But it’s worth noting that Jordan certainly had more scoring support. His number two man, Scottie Pippen, met or exceeded Parker’s 2007 scoring average in five of Chicago’s six championship seasons (and was only a fraction below it the other year). And no, that doesn’t make Duncan “better than” or necessarily even as good as Jordan or any of the others. But it does mean that whatever belated consideration he is getting when it comes to being mentioned in their company is long overdue.]