My car is a 1999 Toyota Camry with 203,000 miles on it. It’s starting to burn oil a little bit, and my heel has rubbed a hole in the carpet, and there’s an ugly scratch on the left front fender. Nobody lusts after it at a stoplight. But it has never once failed to start. Every year, the Camry is one of the best-selling cars in America, and it’s always one of the most reliable. As plain as it looks, it’s clearly one of the greatest cars of all time.
In other words, it’s Tim Duncan.
This is going to sound weird: Tim Duncan is my favorite player in the NBA, but I don’t really enjoy watching him play. Well, that’s not exactly right, but there are a lot of more exciting great players: Kevin Durant makes 22-footers look like tossing paper balls in a trash can, and Derrick Rose is Rodin going to the hoop, and LeBron James loose on the break might be the most thrilling five seconds in sports. (And as he proved again last night, LeBron in the last two minutes of a big game is the most baffling thing in sports.)
Tim Duncan’s genius is in the box score. His career stats look like the output of a machine carefully calibrated to produce double-doubles on command. Here’s his per-game rebound average for his 15 seasons in the league: 12, 11, 12, 12, 13, 13, 12, 11, 11, 11, 11, 11, 10, 9, 9.
And when we talk about championships, about Kobe’s five rings and Dirk finally getting his first and the Heat’s promise of not one, not two, not three… there’s Tim Duncan down in San Antonio with four rings already, and maybe the best team in the league again.
Duncan turned 36 last month, and this year when he sat out a game against Philadelphia the team famously listed him as “DNP-Old.” He averaged 15 points and 9 boards in the condensed season, five points and two rebounds off his career averages. Tony Parker is the Spurs’ best player now. But for the first time in a couple of years Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili are healthy at the same time. The Spurs have surrounded them with an endless supply of midsized guys who can defend and pass and shoot the three. San Antonio is even getting important minutes from Boris Diaw, unanimous winner of the NBA’s Most Disinterested award during his time with the Charlotte Bobcats. In Charlotte, Boris seemed to have a private bet with himself over how many minutes he could play without producing a single statistic. On the other hand, he did look cool riding around town on his Segway.
The NBA playoffs are the most fun when they match up two good teams with clashing styles. The L.A. Clippers are a blast to watch — when Chris Paul isn’t crossing over some poor defender on the way to a layup, he’s lobbing cherry bombs that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan explode at the rim. Compared to that, the Spurs are shuffleboard. But in Game 1, after midway in the second quarter, the outcome wasn’t in doubt.
And for one more night, Tim Duncan was the best player on the floor. He dunked right-handed and flipped in a hook left-handed. He plucked an uncertain pass by Griffin out of the air like a father catching soft-toss from his son. He grabbed a ball that was pinballing around a forest of legs in the lane, half-turned toward the basket and banked in a one-hander that doused the Clippers’ fourth-quarter rally.
With just over a minute left, the ball swung to Duncan on the right wing, foul line extended. Nobody came out to cover — after 15 years of making that shot, defenders still give it to him. He took a couple of seconds, squaring up to the basket, turning the ball in his hands.
When I was in college, playing a lot of pickup ball, one of the regulars was a guy who seemed ancient to us — he was probably in his 50s, which doesn’t seem so ancient now. He didn’t talk much, but at some point we learned he had played college ball at Wisconsin. He couldn’t really run. You could guard him if you paid attention. But if you left him open, and he had a shot, it was going in. Everybody knew it. And people still forgot about him.
Consistency is the most underrated greatness.
Tim Duncan shot, and of course it went in. The Spurs won their 15th game in a row, and if none of their stars get hurt, I think they’re going to win the NBA title. Duncan’s career average in the playoffs is 23 points and 12 rebounds. Last night, he finished with 26 and 10. The great basketball machine rolls on.