Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant: A clash of titans and systems
AT&T CENTER — Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are old hands at this now, though with each passing day both continue to prove they remain far from old.
Two fundamentally different players, though each well-versed in the fundamentals of the game. Duncan of course is fundamentals personified, while Bryant has simply mastered each fundamental skill set to bend the game into something entirely not.
They approach the game in different ways, but share the same maniacal dedication and intensity to their approach. One need look no further than their 30-something-year-old bodies and current body of work for evidence of that.
“They are both very competitive individuals, very responsible to what they do,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said before the Spurs’ 108-105 win over the Lakers on Wednesday night. “They take care of themselves, they love what they do, and all those things combined have helped them have longer careers.”
Their dedication and success is where comparisons end however.
“Just great players, great competitors,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Different careers, different personalities, but two of the best to play the game.”
Duncan and Bryant are the two best players since the best player ever retired, and will likely remain so until LeBron James completes an already impressive career.
Bryant of course will always be the greatest facsimile of Michael Jordan, though one that misunderstands or purposely distorts the legacy of the man he copies.
Jordan is often remembered for his highlight reels of fadeaway jumpers, impossible twisting drives, and aerial assaults. What is often overlooked is just how fundamentally sound Jordan was. Between the spectacular moves and impossible shots, Jordan created easy shots, working off cuts, screens, and in transition.
These fundamental plays supplemented his individually creative brilliance, making him a wildly efficient player for someone remembered mostly for such wildly inefficient shots.
Like many other players, Bryant is obviously enamored with the man we remember Jordan to be. As improbably as it may be, Bryant has built a legacy by working diligently at perfecting those highlight plays. He is, perhaps, Jordan’s equal or superior in creating and finishing shots at such a high degree of difficulty.
Bryant is often criticized for how difficult he makes the game, and revered and respected for how great he is at doing so. His greatest strengths lie in his ability to exist outside basketball systems, to continuously generate shots and plays from nothing.
Phil Jackson succeeded by building a system around Bryant, one that provided Bryant’s teammates with enough structure to allow Bryant to bend and break it to the Lakers’ advantage more often than not.
Duncan, by comparison, is the Spurs system and of the Spurs system. His presence generates tons of easy shots for his teammates, which in turn allows Duncan to thrive on a number of easy shots.
A few years ago Richard Jefferson said something in an interview that easily applies to Duncan today. Then Jefferson pointed out the difference in his role with the Spurs, stating with the Nets he entered every game with 16 points in his back pocket simply from the work he did off the ball and in transition playing next to Jason Kidd. That’s 16 points he could count on every night, with explosive scoring nights a product of how his shot dropped on that particular night.
This season Duncan has been assisted on roughly 2/3 of his made baskets. Looking through his shot locations, he produces three-to-four layups simply by cutting to the basket or tipping in offensive rebounds, at least two jump shots off passes, and 3-4 free throws a night. That’s roughly 16 points he comes into each game that the Spurs can reasonably depend on.
Bryant has no such baseline to work from. He generates almost all of his basketball plays from scratch every night, which is both a testament to his high skill level and a criticism of his approach.
Bryant leads by example, setting perhaps the highest bar of personal accountability in the NBA. But in regards to his teammates it’s more of an, “I’m great, so you need to be great too” leadership style. Michael Jordan was notorious for this, but he also existed in a framework that allowed his teammates to thrive.
Duncan’s game is built to incorporate his teammates, and his leadership follows. It’s a reason the Spurs have been able to thrive regardless of who they surround Duncan with and what style of play they utilize.
“Tim Duncan has really been the key, and then Manu and Tony after they got there,” Popovich said. “They’re not demanding in the sense of being critical or judgmental. They give time to new guys that come in and they create an environment that allows them to flourish.”