He comes lumbering down the court, like the other thousands of times over the last 15 years. Only, it is not the same this time. This is the finals, game 7, 2013. Down by two points to the Miami Heat with under a minute to go, the Spurs decide to lean on the old man one last time. Manu Ginobili sets up on the wing, waiting for the pass from Danny Green so he can deliver the ball to Tim’s sweet spot. It was a play they had run thousands of times over the years. He posts up on the left block. It was a move he had perfected over countless hours in the gym, preparing for moments like this, when the lights shined their brightest on the grandest stage. He makes his move. His back facing the basket, he rumbles across the lane for his patented right-handed baby hook, with his defender, Shane Battier, only able to helplessly watch as he shoots. Except this time, the ball betrays him. The ball bounces off the back of the rim and back towards him, and his tip attempt is nowhere close. The spurs never recovered from that miss, and lost that game and the championship on that floor in Miami.
In a career full of triumph and victory, that moment has always stood out as an exception to Tim Duncan’s greatness. Every player has moments of failure, and some are consumed by their failure and disappointment and never overcome it. Nick Anderson is better remembered for missing those four free throws during the 1995 finals than for being an integral piece of the only team to defeat Michael Jordan in a playoff series in the 90’s. More people remember Tracy McGrady for never advancing past the first round of the playoffs rather than for his incredible skill and scoring ability rivaling any of the great players to have ever played the game. But Tim Duncan was always able to overcome his failure, always able to get back up and compete at the highest level, with the utmost respect of his teammates and opponents.
Tim Duncan was the ideal big man to build a championship team around. Duncan possessed an unrivaled basketball IQ, able to always determine the best play to make on the court. Offensively Duncan had an incredible assortment of post moves he could unleash at any moment, from a turnaround fade-away to his assortment of baby hooks. When facing up on either wing, Duncan could utilize the most underrated shot in all of basketball, the bank shot. It was such a large part of his offensive arsenal that Duncan is perhaps the most notable user of the bank shot in NBA history. Defensively, Duncan was one of the great rim protectors of all time. He always knew where and what to be doing at any given time, and was the absolute defensive leader for some of the greatest championship defenses ever. Duncan was an incredible force inside, able to alter and block shots at the rim in ways few others have ever done.
Duncan’s accomplishments are enough to comfortably put him among the ten greatest players of all time, and he is undoubtedly the greatest power forward of all time. A 5x champion, he also was a 3x finals MVP, 2x league MVP, 15x All-Defensive team selection, 15x All-NBA team selection, and the 1998 Rookie of the Year. He won championships 15 years apart, the only player to accomplish that other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
More than anything, Tim Duncan’s ability to come back from heartbreak and disappointment was his greatest asset. After winning the championship in 2003 and dethroning the Lakers (including a near quadruple-double in the championship clinching game), the spurs would come up short in their title defense in 2004, losing to the reloaded Lakers in the playoffs. However, Duncan would rise back to the top, using the heartbreak of defeat to fuel him and his teammates on the way to the title in 2005. History would repeat itself again in 2006 and 2007, with the Spurs losing to the Mavs in 2006 before sweeping the Cavaliers in 2007 to win Duncan’s fourth title. After losing in 2013, Duncan helped lead the Spurs back to the finals in 2014, where they eviscerated the Miami Heat with the most beautiful display of team basketball we have seen in ages.
Perhaps we should look at that missed shot in Miami as a microcosm of Duncan’s career. Every time it seems Tim Duncan is down, he gets right back up and climbs the mountaintop again. These moments of failure served as the catalyst for his return to greatness, and that is what makes Tim Duncan an all-time great.