Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant: A clash of titans and systems

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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.”

  • d.iyer

    A well written article and a spot on analysis. I have always felt that this comparison between the two best players of the post-Jordan era always creates a debate. However, I have always believed that Tim is the better player in terms of intangibles such as leadership, maturity, poise, and adaptability. These things don’t show up in stats. I feel Kobe is the more talented player with better offensive skills, more clutch and a single game changer, by the smallest of margins. TD’s effect on the game is very meticulous and hard to see with the naked eye. It is all in the nuances of the game. If I was a GM, I would pick TD over Kobe to build a franchise ten times out of ten.

  • bmanis

    And you’d have one less championship.

  • FrankPistachio

    Well said. In a vacuum, a dominant big man like Duncan is a lot easier to build a team around than a volume-scoring SG like Kobe.

  • OutofmyPass

    I find it very hard to appreciate Kobe when he goes to hero ball mode at the end of games as it would have to suck the basketball-life out of you if you were his teammate. IMO Dwayne Wade is the 2nd best shooting guard of all-time. I know the most the media and Kobe will tell you how good he is but it feels a disservice to be placing Kobe on the same level as Duncan.

  • Titletown99030507d

    That’s because LA has the money to put Superstars around Kobe. Well in this seasons case it backfired on those assholes. bahahahaha!

  • Bob

    There’s no reason the Spurs shouldn’t have done the same. There’s no award for getting championships on the cheap.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    There’s no award, but there are certain realities. And one of them is the Spurs can’t extend past the luxury tax as often as Los Angeles does because they lack the resources. That being said, Spurs ownership does open their wallets when a smart move can be made. They’re not as thrifty as they’re always made out to be.

  • d.iyer

    And it becomes even harder to bring in top-notch talent to build around Duncan when you are trying to preserve the class that the Spurs have. I am sure they front office could bring in superstars, but would their egos fit through the door? And what is even more mind boggling is a player who wouldn’t want to play in San Antonio.Yes, the Spurs are about winning championships, but the right way with the right personnel that fit the culture and philosophy. It has to be a match made in heaven.

  • irongiant823

    I find it interesting that Duncan is spoken of as having a “resurgence”. What really seems to have happened, starting last year, is that he has recovered from his injuries he incurred about 3 or 4 years ago when he decided to get stronger by trying that super macho work out system. You know, the one where you keep flipping this huge tire over and over. As a forty something year old guy who tries to stay in shape, I know the delicate balnce you have to maintain to keep from getting injured. Duncan should never have tried to bulk up to keep up with the really big, strong guys. His game has always been based on skills and fundamentals. His game has drastcally improved since he lost his 15 pounds of muscle and got light and fast again.

  • DorieStreet

    Duncan had 4 titles to Kobe’s 3 after 2007.The tide turned in WC finals 2008–Spurs up 65-45 with last than 6 minutes to go in 3rd qtr; lost 1 game at home in game 4 with 2 chances at the end to win; lost 17-pt lead to go out 4-1. Even though they lost to Celtics in Finals, getting Gasol mid-season, then the player former players known as Ron Artest in after 2009, helped Lakers get back on top to win back-to-back titles (2009, 2010). Meanwhile, injuries slowed core 3 and additions to team (RJ, among others) resulted in the 1st and 2nd round playoff outs for ’09-’10-’11.

  • DorieStreet

    I with you on the balance, I got a decade more in the books than you–and I have to temper “pushing the limit” —making sure my body is prepared enough (stretching, conditioning, etc.) to take on a step-up in intensity, plus limiting the load & duration of the push.
    This 2012-13 season, Duncan has found the balance. If he continues to do so, and his teammates can step up (newcomer De Colo and struggling Neal), an extended post season run is still possible despite formidable West shaping up – Clips (and possibly Warriors) joining Grizz and Thunder challenging the Spurs.