Player Capsules (Plus): Tim Duncan, Salt of the Earth

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Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here, the sometimes stat guy. I have my own NBA blog, called Gothic Ginobili, at which I’m currently writing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version elsewhere. Today we’ve got a sojourn to my favorite player ever, so I figured it’d behoove me to share it with those who’d appreciate it most. Let’s talk Tim Duncan, friends.

To frame the metaphor I’m going for, let’s describe the Spurs. Many pieces have been written likening the San Antonio Spurs to a clockwork machine. The pinpoint offense, the crisp rotations, the sly execution — all of it combines to create a mechanical process seemingly fated to produce startling on-court success, greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve always found this an effective metaphor, even if I disagree with those who use it to put down the personality of the Spurs as nonextant or absent. Still, there’s something lacking about it. The metaphoric “well-oiled machine” is one of a singular purpose — a car that goes fast, a clock, an instrument. The Spurs are more akin to a combination of many machines, or a process that everyone takes for granted. The Spurs system involves coaching the players in a position where they succeed, drafting the right players for the role, and developing players as well or better than any team in the league. At every step, the Spurs set new standards and build new cultural mores for the basketball universe.

With such a convolution of moving pieces, simply calling it a machine isn’t wide-ranging enough. No — the Spurs are the basketball equivalent of a network, a process, and a system. And, in fact, I’d argue they’re the basketball equivalent of one of man’s greatest achievements. Modern first-world civilization is driven by a process so finely tuned, so long-running that it’s faded into the background and become a given. People just assume it to be there, without ever really thinking about how astonishing and glorious an achievement it was (and continues to be) for a first world civilization. I refer, of course, to our global food distribution network — we’ve taken the specialization of food to an insane extent, putting at the fingertips of first-world countries every sort of comestible we can possibly produce, at any given moment. There’s something tremendously beautiful about it — thousands of years in the making, people 500 years ago could scarcely imagine the convenience of the modern grocery store. It’s incredible. And it owes a great debt to refrigeration, and the ongoing study of food preservation.

Before refrigeration? There was salt. Before salt? There was nothing.

• • •

Of all the great leaps in human history — the first man-made flame, the first stirrings of Babbage’s Difference Engine, the first successful manned flight — few are as overlooked as the advent of food preservation. It’s easy to take for granted that we can make a meal one day and eat it two days later. It’s easy to take for granted our ability to hunt for large game and store the leftover meat, and our ability to keep food fresh over a long winter season. Historically, though, salt was the great equalizer. The advent of salt-curing — the process of preserving meat using large quantities of salt — allowed for the previously impossible transportation of preserved food. It was easy to produce traveling food, and easy to sell. The world economy became interconnected, as it became possible to carry rations from one far-distant land to another. The curiosity of man became something people could truly act on, not just dream about.

Intuitively it may seem obvious to us, but looking back it’s hard to imagine how in God’s name humans in 1,000 B.C. figured it out. How did people realize that sprinkling leftover meat with evaporated seawater would turn it into a transportable, long-lasting product? A bit of genius, a bit of miracle. But regardless of its origins, if we’re assessing the historical arc of the Spurs to match that of food distribution, as I am, it’s important to recognize the true underpinning of that distribution. And at its beginning, that underpinning was salt. Salt-cured meat was the easiest to transport of any preserved meat, and our fledgling systems for distributing food and networking crops relied on it. It relied on heavily salted meat that would last long journeys and keep travelers fed. As specialized animal farms began to form, and farmers began to bring their meat in town in larger and larger bulk, the salting of the calf became not just a luxury for travelers, but an essential fact of life. Salt spiced the food, salt kept the food, and salt allowed the underpinnings of today’s wide-spanning distribution system to emerge.

So, where does Tim Duncan come into all of this? Simple. He’s the salt. His talents and abilities would make him important no matter what he was like personally — regardless of what position he plays, he’s one of the greatest players of all time. But Duncan is a humble, quiet man — he carries with him no airs of self-importance, no misguided obsession with proving his own worth. The Spurs operate with such bleeding-edge efficiency and efficacy that they resemble more strongly a network or a process than any particular machine. They aren’t simply the boat that carried Irish potatoes and meat across the Atlantic to feed the colonies. They’re the organizers who planned the shipment, the men who run the boat, the distribution centers at both ends of the sea. They’re the system behind the food, not simply the transportation device. And just as salt lies as the stalwart foundation to the advent of food transportation (and the subsequent rise of an interconnected human civilization), so too does Duncan lie at the stalwart foundation to the Spurs’ system.

Duncan — in his talents, in his quiet confidence, in his thirst for dominance — redefined the Spurs. The Spurs execute with such efficiency and precision, it’s easy to lose track of how exactly they got to where they are today. Duncan was the one who had to buy in to Popovich and Buford’s plan, and Duncan was the one who made San Antonio attractive to the aged veterans and coaching assistants who built the structure that now towers over professional basketball. It was Duncan’s singlehand domination of the defensive end that turned the Spurs from an ABA castaway most well-known for the quixotic offensive exploits of George Gervin into a defensive juggernaut that couldn’t be kept out of any reasonable title conversation from 1999 to 2009, and it was Duncan’s offensive repertoire that these dominant teams always turned to when the chips were down and the supporting cast faltered. The Spurs system — in Duncan’s early peak years, after Robinson’s back problems and up until Manu and Tony developed and the system became self-sustaining — was essentially nothing beyond what Tim Duncan gave them. Duncan was the first, second, and third lines of attack, on both ends. And he did it all while setting exactly the kind of personal example any franchise can possibly expect of its stalwart.

• • •

Eventually, the importance of salt waned. There were two main reasons for it. The first is one I already touched on — the advent of refrigeration and better methods of portable electrical devices absolutely killed the salt-curing industry, as frozen and chilled meat and produce was far easier to transport and far tastier. As refrigeration, vacuum-packing, and other such alternate sources of food preservation prospered, the ubiquity of salt-curing ceased and it became more an amusing throwback to a prior age rather than the key cog in the preservation process. The other reason was far more economic. Geologically, large deposits of oil are produced between the small space between massive salt domes and the impenetrable rock of the inner earth. Many large salt domes were found prior to the discovery of this geologic fact, and most were simply ignored as too hard to extract salt from. But once people realized that oil was collected under salt domes, the mass excavation of salt domes flooded the world with an incredible surplus of salt, lowering the price to humanity-record-low levels and making it a completely trivial acquisition for any family to make.

As for Duncan? His importance has waned, as well. Much like refrigeration made salt-curing a less valuable method of preservation, the rise of small-ball and the slow decline of the traditional center has made his skillset less desirable as well. For sure, there isn’t a team in the league that would reject a prime Duncan if he came to call. But unlike the early 2000s, teams aren’t actively aiming to get a Tim Duncan. Teams are aiming to get LeBrons, and Kobes, and versatile next-generation big men like Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire. Old-fashioned defensive bigs have, in some sense, gone out of style. So too has Duncan’s skillset. As for the oil beneath the salt-domes, I prefer to think of that thusly — people looked past the salt to find the black gold underneath it, ignoring the fact that it was the salt that helped them find it in the first place. So too have teams abandoned Duncan in search of the next “Big Three”, somewhat looking past the fact that the Parker/Manu/Duncan Spurs of 2005-2007 were the original Big Three, and (as of yet) quite arguably the most successful. And thus, Duncan’s importance waned, and has fallen to the point where the general public believes the Spurs to be an utter nonfactor in next year’s title race, a team on the fringes of a star-studded hypebeast.

But I’ve one last note to leave you on. As man’s grip extends towards the ends of the earth, and apocalypse dawns upon us, it’s easy to forget that over-salting meat is still the most reliable way to store high-calorie food in the bitter chill of the winter’s harsh. Were all electricity to abandon this world, the Pueblo tribes of Arizona with their customary blue salt would scoff and smile. Just because we’ve developed the technology to turn curing into an obsolescent reminder of a bygone past doesn’t mean that salt can’t be used for the old purpose. Just because we’ve moved past our former habits doesn’t mean those habits never meant a thing. And just because we’ve lost sight of what found us the oil beneath the surface doesn’t mean it didn’t lead us there. As I said: before salt? There was nothing. And now, there’s something — something beautiful, something vast, and something that’s enhanced the lives of those it touched.

Thank you, Tim Duncan.

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  • SargeSmash

    Nice article. That was a wonderful read.

  • DJHighlife

    I’ve been captivated by this entire series, the standard capsules and the extended pieces on Hardwood Paroxysm. It seems unlikely that any will top this. That is one coherent and epic comparison you draw, as simultaneously coherent and epic as Duncan’s own career. Every word, truth. Brilliant! Thanks for this, and for the other 369.

  • Vandals

    Thank you for the great read. Excellent piece.

  • SAJKinBigD

    JAWDROP. That is all. Wow, what an incredible piece!

  • DorieStreet

    One could actually use this article in today’s history class, reversing the analogy–using the review of Duncan’s career to teach the value of salt in food preservation centuries past.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Whatever.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Aaron – You do good work. I like what you bring to the discussion. But I’m afraid you’ve contracted a severe case of Greil Marcus Syndrome. Writers should never fall in love with their analogies, even the good ones. Figurative language is like a spice: It’s makes a good supplement but a terrible meal.

    Also: There hasn’t been any sort of a change in the way professional basketball works, as you suggest. There has only been a shift in the locus of talent recently from one type of player to another, and coaches and GMs (the smart ones at least) have shifted accordingly. The idea of a team of highly skilled mid-sized players is not even remotely new. When Pat Riley built the late-80s Lakers around the idea of five multi-skilled 6’8″ players, he was already resurrecting an old model that he knew from his own days as Kentucky’s undersized but highly skilled center. (Little-known bit of trivia: Riley was an undersized center for the team that lost to Texas Western in 1966, often referred to as “Rupp’s Runts”.) Riley has won several championships this way, not because of the system itself but because he’s had the two most ideal players in history for that system: Magic Johnson and LeBron James. You’ll notice, though, that when his best player was a dominant center (early-80s Lakers, Knicks, and 2006 Heat) he used the “traditional” inside-out, center-anchored style. I don’t think he really cares; it’s more a question of personnel. When your best player is Pat Ewing you use one style but when it’s LeBron you use the other.

    The reason Tim Duncan doesn’t shred defenses and offenses with abandon anymore isn’t the result of a change in the way basketball is played. It’s the result of his age and irreplaceability. He used to have an extraordinary combination of length, skill, and quickness. Now he has a combination of length, skill, and guile. The Spurs have had to adjust in turn, most especially on defense. And nobody has come along since then with his original combination–until now. Pay careful attention to New Orleans over the next three years and you’ll see just how valuable a guy like Duncan still is.

  • Jason S.

    “Old-fashioned defensive bigs have, in some sense, gone out of style.”

    Which is why Greg Oden, Hasheem Thabeet, Bismack Biyombo, and Anthony Davis weren’t drafted very high.

    Wait, what?

  • Aaron McGuire

    I did get a bit excessive in the end when I was finishing the piece off. I think in many ways, basketball is a cycle — defensive-minded old-fashioned bigs go out of style for periods in basketball history only in periods when there aren’t a ton of them. Then as more enter the league and dominate, they come back and every contender seems to have a brilliant big man rotation. It’s mainly a matter of what talent’s available. Still, I wanted to tie everything up nicely, it was a bit late at night, and I’ll cop to the fact that it resulted in an end that went a bit to grandiose when it didn’t necessarily need to.

    That implication was unnecessary, but I wanted to keep the piece relatively neat/elucidating and that resulted in an admittedly silly overstatement on my part. Also, regarding the last point — I don’t think that goes against what I was saying. I was trying to emphasize that Duncan’s personal falloff was a result of age, not a result of some change in the Spurs’ system beyond a bit of an offensive shift. Thanks for the comment, regardless. Apologies if you felt it didn’t do justice to the true nature of the league.

  • Tim in Surrey

    And thanks for the article. It was very thought-provoking. It also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to re-read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”. :)

  • Adam

    Aaron, great piece. One idea to consider though.
    “Old-fashioned defensive bigs have, in some sense, gone out of style.”

    Did you not see multiple teams tank in hopes of drafting Davis, a defensive big? Did you not see the Rockets do everything they could to acquire Dwight Howard? The Sixers traded an athletic wing (Iggy) for an injury prone, immature defensive big who might not even stay with them (Bynum). Other than this year, the last 12 championships or so were won with players like Duncan, Garnett, Chandler, Bynum/Gasol, Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, etc.

    I understand that this year was Durant/Westbrook/Harden vs James/Wade/Bosh, but this was largely because Howard, Bynum/Gasol, Garnett, and Chandler were on teams with serious flawed rosters. I just think many sports writers are overreacting to one finals, which is silly because Boston/Indiana and San Antonio were pretty close to making it to the finals (Boston-Miami was down to 4th q game 7, Spurs were up 2-0 in WCF).

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