Tim Duncan and the case of the disappearing bank shot

by

Note: The Spurs are nearing the end of preseason and making roster deliberations, and so are we. Aaron McGuire is one of the new faces on our team. Many of you probably know him from his work at Gothic Ginobili, and if you don’t, you should. Aaron recently finished up at Duke -— now you either love him or hate him -— and works professionally as a statistician. Follow him on Twitter: @docrostov. 

I have a hypothesis that I’ve been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. At its core, the idea is that the Spurs are dangerously close to a not-inconsequential falloff in our offensive efficiency, one that’s going to cascade when it hits and completely change the way the Spurs work on offense. It’s rather complicated, multifaceted, and worrisome. I’ll start from the top and work my way to the theory. But I’ll give you a hint. It all starts with Tim Duncan’s offense.

THE STATS

Let’s break down Duncan’s scoring patterns. Duncan played 31.2 MPG in 2010, and scored 17.9 PPG on 56.0% eFG%. Last year, he played 28.4, scoring 13.4 PPG on a lessened 53.6% eFG%. Not a big gap, right? Correct — in the broader sense, his scoring and efficiency last year took not but a small dive. Nothing particularly concerning — while he decreased his usage (usually leading to increased efficiency), the increase in efficiency from low utilization simply served to offset Duncan’s declining offensive repertoire with age. Which is essentially what Pop wanted, and is perfectly fine. But we’re not quite done yet. Because if you dig into the numbers, you begin to uncover a trend in Duncan’s game that gives me great apprehension as we enter this compressed season. A trend that, given time to stew, may serve to be the Spurs’ offensive achilles heel.

In 2011, Tim Duncan took 3 shots a game from the long midrange — IE, the 16-23 foot range. He managed to make 43% of those shots — a respectable sum, and roughly in line with his career averages. He had a terrible season from the “true” midrange, shooting 33% from that distance and setting a somewhat ignominious career low. He shot lower than his usual 50%+ mark from close-in, but set a 5-year high of 72% at the rim (good for top 30 in a league of 450 players) to save his overall percentages. This all seems rather reasonable on its face — essential conclusion looking at solely those numbers would be that Duncan’s post game and long shot is as deadly as ever, but he’s beginning to lose his touch at canning the close-range bank shot and the midrange. A decent hypothesis, and the numbers back it up. On the surface. Unfortunately for the Spurs, that’s not the only thing going on. And the other things that are going on are — frankly — not good signs for the Spurs’ future with Tim.While he kept his at-rim and long midrange numbers constant or excelling, he did it at the cost of shot creation and volume — on a percentage basis, Duncan only took 28% of his field goal attempts last season from at-the-rim situations. That’s fewer than ever before in his career.

On a percentage basis, Duncan also took more shots from the long midrange than ever before (26% of his shots were from 16 feet and out), and took more bankers than he’d taken in several years (26% of his possessions as compared to 23% last year). In taking more shots from the long midrange, he generally traded off the ability to call his own shot from the long midrange and create his own possession — Duncan was assisted on 85% of his long midrange shots, a vast increase over the last 5 years, where that figure has ranged from 63% to 72%. Which is essentially the story throughout his numbers — at every shot location, The percentage of shots Duncan gets assisted from teammates has taken an upward nudge the last few seasons, despite playing Duncan fewer minutes. Which combines to paint a relatively simple picture — the Spurs are painting over the decline of Duncan’s offensive game by ensuring he’s set up with better passes and that they run plays to get him open, something they never really needed to do during Duncan’s Hall of Fame career up til now. Despite this, he still experienced some serious dropoff in several shot categories, and it appears Pop recognizes the decline and is putting effort into changing his role in the offense without drastically altering the perception of how he’s used. Because perception, in this case, is exactly where the Spurs stand to lose the most.

THE PROBLEM

There’s a classic quote in War and Peace attributed to the Russian Commander Mikhail Kutuzov. He lies on the field of battle, his cheek grazed by a stray bullet and bleeding. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky — this his first battle — rushes to the Commander, trying to help him with his wound. “Are you wounded?” he asks, frightened at the mortality of his commander.

“The wound is not here, but there.”

He ignores his own wound and points to the field of battle; Andrei turns to see soldiers running frantic, confused and rudderless.

In a roundabout way, that’s similar to where we stand now. In a vacuum the Spurs aren’t harmed that much by the cut to Duncan’s efficiency. It’s a marginal effect at best. Duncan’s offense is always a fantastic option to have, but him falling off a cliff wouldn’t suddenly make Tony a bad post player, or sap Bonner of his three point ability, or forcibly wrest from Manu his euro-step. Were that the only effect at play, this wouldn’t be nearly as concerning. The true wound to the team is a problem endemic not to Duncan’s issues but more representative of the broader strategical problems that lie in Duncan’s slow deterioration. It’s the problem of spacing, marginal loss, and — above all — respect.

A strange way to put it, but it fits. Without Duncan’s ability to create his own shot, defenses treat him differently. This wasn’t much of a factor in the beginning of last year as teams played him essentially exactly as they did earlier in his career, but as the year drew to a close and Duncan began to battle minor injuries teams began to figure the 2011 Spurs out. The deterioration of the Spurs offense culminated in the 2011 playoffs versus the Grizzlies — the Grizz bottled up Duncan and ensured that he wouldn’t get the steady stream of perfect passes and easy setups in the midrange that Pop, Tony, and Manu had spent the whole season getting him. The Grizz ran the tapes, took notes, and decided they could live with Duncan getting his shots if they merely bodied him up and made sure that none of the passes would be quite on target. They would make the trade of leaving Duncan slightly open, but in a position where he’d need to make his own shot because a setup man was impossible. Looking on StatCube at his shot location graphs from the playoffs, you see the unfortunate results. While Duncan was still extraordinarily efficient at the rim (shooting 64% at the rim, less than in the regular season but quite a bit more than you’d think if you’re simply reading the postmortems on the series), Duncan’s outside and midrange shooting absolutely fell apart. He shot an anemic 20% from the painted area outside of at-rim shots, and a poor 39% on true midrange shots (as compared to around 45% overall if you examine his regular season numbers).

Which leads you to the essential conclusion — whatever Duncan is doing in the painted area, it isn’t working. And what does Duncan do in the painted area? Close range bank shots, if you’ve been watching his career. The numbers tug at the finding that Spurs fans uncomfortably realized as the season went on — Tim Duncan’s banker is becoming less and less valuable as an offensive weapon. While his post game is still extremely potent and he can still can a midrange shot if you set him up properly, Duncan’s bank shot has essentially gone AWOL. Which has a number of cascading effects on the Spurs offense. It ruins virtually every set the Spurs used to run where Duncan would challenge the defense by faking a bank shot and passing to the open man or handing off to a driving Manu or Tony when the double came — when teams no longer respect his bank shot, Duncan isn’t going to attract doubles anymore. And not only that, his single defenders are going to begin to challenge him to make the shot, and give him the room to do it. He’ll make them look silly, occasionally. But more often than not they’ll have made the right move, and cut off the better play by allowing Duncan to shoot a shot he can’t consistently make anymore. And that’s where respect come into play. If Duncan isn’t attracting doubles, suddenly, there’s that much less space for Manu to slash. There’s that much less space for our three point shooters to get their feet set. Tony can’t drive as comfortably. There’s a whole host of problems that pop up once teams realize they no longer have to consider the Duncan bank shot a significant threat.

And in this case? Perception is everything. Pop, Duncan, and the Spurs as a whole have tried their hardest to keep Duncan’s shot distribution even with his career averages in such a way that dulls the visual impact of his decline — most teams simply notice that he makes it, not that he’s set up with a far more open shot than he used to be. For much of the Spurs early season hot streak, teams continued to double Duncan’s bank shot — a sensible option, given that as early as November of 2010 Duncan was still producing MVP-quality statistics. Which actually is an aside worth mentioning — Duncan was averaging semi-amazing 21-11 type numbers in an absurd 31 minutes per game as recently as the opening months of the 2010 season. Going into this season, it wasn’t a given that his falloff at the end of 2010 was an age-related thing. So it made perfect sense for teams to continue treating him like the historical great he is. But now? The Spurs enter next season having been defeated by a team that dared to let Duncan shoot.

THE WOUND

I’d like to think Pop will come up with a strategically brilliant way to get our spacing back without requiring Duncan’s customary doubles. And I’m sure he’ll do his best. But it’s worth understanding — when we experience our inevitable offensive falloff — that the loss of efficiency inherent in an aging star isn’t the only factor that depresses a team’s offense. The killer isn’t the star losing his points. The killer is all the little things that get harder when the star loses his respect. The few inches less Tony has to drive in. The few less seconds Duncan has to complete the pass. The one three point shooter who won’t be open because his man will stay home.

That’s what kills the team. That’s — indeed — exactly where the wound is.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant write up.  You could have gone on longer and I would have read every word.  But every story must have it’s end to establish it’s point of even telling.  So be the case of Duncan and the Spurs?

    The “wound”?  The wound is also exhibited in not being fiscally able to command respect of other top notch players to join in battle.  A declining dynasty with no hope of resurrection until total collapse.

    Comrades in arms to the very end.  Now we get to see who are the loyal subjects and/or followers.

  • Bob

    Nice article. I think Duncan’s bank shot has been awol for several years. He used to be pretty much automatic earlier in his career. Along with that I think his footwork is not as sharp. Also teams have figured out he’s bothered by long and tall defenders plus he’s been forced to play more center. Part of the reason he became a hall of fame power forward is he used to abuse smaller defenders and then when you switched a center on him he would use his quickness and athleticism to take advantage.

  • TD BestEVER

    Kind of a wasted article……. stating the obvious, even if you do use Stats to back up what we have all been saying for years…….Also POP has no one to blame but himself………He has never gotten Duncan the help he needs to gracefully decline like David……

  • Tony

    I agree completely with your analysis of Duncan’s declining bank shot, but I have a theory. Duncan looks very light on his feet, and his top-of-the-key jumper looks better than I’ve ever seen it (at least through two pre-season games and one scrimmage). I think Duncan decided to put work in on his mid-range jumper. One of the biggest problems with playing Splitter and Blair with Duncan was spacing. It appears that Duncan has decided that it’s easier to improve a good jumper than to create a non-existent jumper (see Splitter and Blair) on the fly. I think this year we will see Duncan being the big man creating space, allowing Splitter and Blair to go to work down low a bit more. If so, it’s just one more wrinkle that makes Duncan the best and probably most unselfish power forward ever to play the game.

  • Anonymous

    Nice.  If that be the case — and I’ve noticed that too in these first two games — and “if” Duncan shows consistent high percentages with his mid-range shot — teams will have to honor that developed aspect of his game making it easier for other post players to score near the rim.

  • Anonymous

    All the while helping increase that spacing for Parker, Ginobili, 3pt threat to operate.

  • GMT

    His bank shot has gone AWOL because his body won’t allow him to use it anymore. Think about it: he always shot it from the left side and put a lot of stress on his left knee, which is, of course, the knee he wears a brace on. Not having him shoot there anymore preserves his body. We don’t want an older Duncan banking it, because we want him on the team for as long as possible.

  • http://twitter.com/LasEspuelas STC

    Maybe I havent played enough basketball in my days, but why would a bank shot go before a post game with age? It seems like the least physically demanding thing he could do, catch and shoot.  I would have thought the opposite for some reason. As he ages, the defender will not give him enough space, challenging him to go to the rim which should be more physically demanding. Back in the day defenders had to play pretty far away from Duncan to avoid being left behind. Whenever the defender played far away, Duncan had all the time in the world for the bank shot. Where is the error in my logic?

  • Anonymous

    KL and Ja will have to be the ones to seal the wound off.

  • JustinFL

    Plus he’s such a great passer from there as well.  He can also give and roll to his spot underneath.  I’ve been relunctant to comment on his resigning with the team, because I couldn’t blame him for chasing 1 more ring elsewhere.  I’d like for him to stay but only if the team could pick up another big to help carry the load.

    I know the FO is doing what they can, we are just in a tight spot. The team has kicked the can down the road in terms of finances, but they’ll get some relief next year and then we will see if the FO has still got it.  As for me, blasphemous as it may sound, there is a secret part of me that would love to see Timmy chasing a ring alongside DHoward, even if it is in NJ.

  • Bob

    Your right. Defenders can now play right up to him and not fear the blow by. Like I said earlier when you couldn’t switch your center on to Duncan in his prime because he would use his quickness. But now he has less of that they can really bother his shot.

  • Len

    After reading this great article, the first comparison I thought of was Deion Sanders.  When primetime lost a step, I remember it being a HUGE deal.  QB’s weren’t afraid to throw an out in his general area.  Receivers dared to try double moves against him.  The end of his brilliant career came when he lost respect out on the field.

    Sadly, it happens to all the great ones.  Even the GPFOAT….

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Great stuff, Len

  • Anonymous

    How does Zeller survive a cut? And Lawal is gone. Lawal = blocked Scola’s shot, rebounded well, power seen on an and 1. I’m really confused. He was even better than Hassell. Maybe Zeller survives another cut and he shares minutes with Bonner. The world is upside down!

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  • Brian

    I don’t buy that! If you look at “when” Tim starting missing the bank shot you realize it was right after Injuring his knee! For those of you who have never tried the bank shot, it can be mastered the important part is the “lift”. It’s something people think goes away with age, but rather you can adjust it as long as you are not hurt. Just look at Kobe Bryant, he has lost some of his lift but he still knocks down the shots through adjustment. If Tim’s knee is healthy, he will be as offensively efficient as ever! 
    I think you are overlooking the fact that on the defensive end he is no longer the potent shot blocker he once was! That’s a much bigger set back to me than him “falling-off offensively” by 3%. If you get Tim Duncan the same shots he had during 07-08 season at that volume he will produce the same offensive performance, that’s why he is such a great player, he doesn’t rely on athleticism, it’s more skills and brain. 

  • Anonymous

    Scratched my head on that one too.

    Not unless there is a plan in the works to get better talent or attitude issues behind the scenes would there be a reason to get rid of your probable best option out of Lawal, Hassell or Zeller at being your 4th to 5th big on the team.

  • spursfanbayarea

    Of the three Lawal should have been the one to stay. At Georgia tech, he was the better player over favors due to his overall game at that level. favors is obviously more talented. But lawal was a very solid option for a back up #4. rebounds very well for his size, plays decent man on man defense. A major head scratcher. lawal will eventually get picked up somewhere. hassell or zeller will be D-league fodder at best. 

    We need to stop believing that the spurs front office is so much smarter than other front offices when it comes to trades. The last “big” trade we made netted us richard jefferson. We passed up on getting j.r. smith for brent barry. The front office was smart to surround tim and david with role players who would fit around them and contend for a championship. The spurs are still good draft evaluators when picking up late picks. But when it comes to trades, the spurs front office, does not have the balls to make a significant trade to either take us to the top or to start over with youth. 

  • spursfanbayarea

    We need to stop believing that the spurs front office is so much smarter than other front offices when it comes to trades. The last “big” trade we made netted us richard jefferson. We passed up on getting j.r. smith for brent barry. The front office was smart to surround tim and david with role players who would fit around them and contend for a championship. The spurs are still good draft evaluators when picking up late picks. But when it comes to trades, the spurs front office, does not have the balls to make a significant trade to either take us to the top or to start over with youth. 

  • Bry

    What in the world are you talking about? Why do people keep pretending that the Spurs are not already over the luxury tax right now? This is the single worst off-season for the Spurs in years because they are badly restricted by the cap and Timmy is in the most expensive and last year of his contract. It was never realistic to expect them to be big free agent players this year. This summer they can make a big splash. Their last trade was not Jefferson, it was getting Leonard. And, when the Spurs traded basically expiring contracts for Jefferson nearly everybody – including myself and other Spurs fans – thought it was a brilliant move. And now the Spurs front office sucks at trades? C’mon, man. Take an objective view.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    On the JR Smith-Brent Barry thing. The trade was actually accepted by both sides, but the paperwork got to the league office about five minutes after the deadline ended and the trade was reversed. I believe the Spurs had even informed Barry at the time that he had been traded.

  • spursfanbayarea

    So your idea of a big trade is a backup combo guard for a mid round first pick? I stated that a big trade was jefferson who was an allstar at that time. Apparently people only read what they want to read. Also I never stated that the spurs did not go after free agents. 1. we do not have cap space to get a top tier free agent. 2. s.a. is not an attractive option to even mid level free agents who we missed out such as howard and butler. 

     just because we are over the cap does not exclude us from making trades. Jeffersons contract could have been used as an expiring contract, since a team that picked him up could have amnestied him. We would have had to trade him along with a big piece to get a big name, but I would have been for it. The spurs have not taken gambles on big name trades in the last 15 years. trading for jefferson with old players who had expiring contracts was a realatively safe trade. We need to take a risk to either help us get over the top, or stock up with young talent for the future. I would rather go one of those routes than stuck in the middle. 

  • spursfanbayarea

    You are correct that it fell apart in the last minute. But the spurs could have revisited the trade after the season to get younger and more athletic. 

  • spectator

    great writing; i can tell you have a passion and inclination for this. 

    while the article does bring up some concerns that come with duncan’s limited abilities due to age, i am not greatly concerned about it. this is because last season, popovich led the spurs to no 1 in offensive efficiency in the nba, while receiving the worst statistical season (as you point out) from duncan.

    our shortcomings in the playoffs were – not in any particular order – running out of gas (not playing in the mid-regular season form), manu’s hand injury, horrible interior D. while the duncan-gasol duel could be considered a stalemate at center, the opposing PF absolutely destroyed the spurs. 

    espn’s hollinger has a great article about the spurs where he mentions blair’s stats vs. opposing PFs and Cs. as far as i can remember, the opposing players are averaging 21+ and 24+ PER against blair, at the 2 positions. considering that only a handful of players averaged more than 24 PER at PF and 21 at C (although I cannot remember for sure if he was 24/21 or 21/24 at PF/C), that means that the opposing team “averaged” mvp numbers in efficiency versus blair.

    by the numbers, matt bonner is a better defensive player than blair. tiago splitter would be the preferred pairing with duncan, as he is a good passer for a big; however, that would leave the second unit with more holes on defense than a bad fence. yeah – that horrible analogy was made with the purpose of illustrating the fact that it would still be better (as an analogy) than a bonner-blair defensive pairing.

    with dyess retired, our interior D only got worse; let’s hope for some great mid-season FA sign or trade that improves D. 

    merry christmas and happy holidays fellow spurs fans! 

  • Quantro7

    This was a very good article. I don’t know which is worse, watching Duncans’ decline on the court, or knowing that his long, Hall of Fame career will soon end! 

  • JustinFL

    In fairness, the Leornard/GHill trade is too early to tell if it was a big trade.  In the long run, I feel it will be.  Considering the Spurs were going to have to pay Hill a worthy contract soon, the overall potential of Kawhi, and the fact we will probably need him at the 4 this year. 
      Jefferson being amnestied is not the same as an expiring contract.  As I stated in an earlier post, the FO has kicked the can down the road and it’s time to pay up.  On the bright side, it actually came at a pretty good time for us.  In a shortened season like this, sometimes no moves will be good moves.  I don’t feel we missed out on Howard or Butler(well Butler could’ve been interesting).  I much rather let Anderson and Leonard get playing time and see what we got. 
      You talked about trading a “big” piece with Jefferson.  Most of us just feel we can’t get equal value back for anyone.  As Slick Willy use to say, “I feel your pain,”  that’s me too, I am scratching my head as to why they can’t find a servicable big with the new MLE.  Pryzbilla would be my #1 choice with a 1 year contract, or take a shot with Fesenko, but those options may be too late for us now. 
      My gut feeling is Pop playing Kawhi at the 4 which could be a big gamble for this team.  All in all, I still like our chances if we can stay healthy, but that goes for every team.  

  • Colin

    “He has never gotten Duncan the help he needs to gracefully decline like David”
    Agreed.  However, the one year they did get that pick for Duncan was their worst year in almost two decades (maybe more?).  The Spurs have been a 50 win threat since Robinson’s rookie year with the exception of 95-96′, which was the year Robinson sat out almost entirely and Dominique Wilkins was our leading scorer.  Duncan was meant to be a Spur. 

    …..the question of going about how we should have gotten him help over the years is like two people arguing how to get all the piss out of a pool.  Everyone thinks they have the right answer when there isn’t one.  IMO, the team will need to bottom out before coming up again. 

  • Colin

    You should apply for the job………

  • spursfanbayarea

    You are correct in that being amnestied is not exactly like an expiring contract. But this year, when you amnistied someone it clears up cap space just like an expiring contract, but you still must pay the player. So in cap space terms it is an expiring contract. If the spurs were to package him with some enticing young pieces, another team could have traded a player with a longer contract, amnestied him and had cap space to go after another player. The spurs are over the cap , so to amnesty jefferson for the sole purpose of cap space does not gain us much. But for a team at the level of salary cap or slightly above it does pose a big advantage. As I have stated many times on this blog, I like our backcourt and our wings. Leonard has potential to be a very good defensive 3 for us, but to play him at the four against taller frontcourts, will be a disaster as we have tried that with blair. The 4 wings and duncan works against teams that do not have 2 big frontcourt players. Unfortunately in the playoffs most of the good teams have at least 2. Memphis, lakers,dallas, okc. For us to go through them we need to have a shot blocking rebounding big who allows duncan to play one on one defense and not have to switch over to compensate for bonner or blair. splitter should have an improved year I hope. I think he can be a solid man to man defender, but his limited reach and hops limit him as a shot blocker. 

  • spursfanbayarea

    I would love if the spurs took a flyer on Pryzbilla or Fesenko!

  • Bry

    You cannot amnesty a player that you trade for. They must have been on your roster when the CBA was signed. So, Jefferson can only be amnestied by the Spurs. The Spurs only have the mini-mid-level because they are over the cap. I like getting Ford as a very solid back up at PG and Leonard the same at the 3. They didn’t get the big man that they needed, but it’s not the end of the world. They had very few tradeable pieces apart from Hill. Jefferson is the only big contract on the team apart from the Big 3. It made sense to stand pat and weight until they aren’t crippled by the cap. 

  • spursfanbayarea

    Each team permitted to waive 1 player prior to any season of the CBA
    (only for contracts in place at the inception of the CBA) and have 100% of
    the player’s salary removed from team salary for Cap and Tax purposes.

    This is directly from the summary of terms from the 2011CBA. It states that contracts that were in place at the inception of the CBA are allowed to be amnestied. It does not state that the player has to be on said team. It states that said player must have had an exisiting contract prior to the new negoitiation so that teams can not amnesty future contracts. Each team is allowed 1 player prior to any season. Does not state has to be signed by that team. Just that the contract must be signed prior to CBA. Generally most teams will use it on their own players, but the clever gms will work this to their advantage. 

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  • JustinFL

    Good points.  I agree with you that my natural sentiment is not to play Leornard at the 4 because of those reasons you listed.  I know Pop’s infatuation with smallball so that is mainly why I made those comments.  In fairness, if it could ever work, I think Leornard would be the best candidate.  From what I understand, he has a 7ft wingspan, athleticism, and can somewhat stretch the floor with his shooting ability, and possesses enough quickness to blow by most opposing 4’s.  Of course, this is in theory.
      As I said, Pryzbilla was a can’t miss, Fesenko has never averaged more than 9 minutes a game.  If you dive deeper there’s probably a good explanation for that and doesn’t necessarily count against him, it just leaves a question mark.  Both were low risks. 
      If I were this FO I wouldn’t want to take on any contracts extending past this season unless it’s near the minimum or close to within reason.  I would already be looking ahead to the next free agency and just try to survive this year.  I feel like with the moves or lack thereof they’ve made they’re doubling down with this group.  I wholeheartedly agree and I’ll tell you why.
      The rebuilding has already begun.  Depending on what we scrounge up from the FA next year and if Timmy retires or moves on, we are looking good.  We’ll get rid of RJ, have some cap space, reevaluate our overseas talent that we have rights to and make a decision for the future.  Next offseason will be the best time to offer and negotiate trades as well.  Let’s just get through this year.
      In all honestly we are longshots for the championship, but the stars could still align for us.   

  • Bry

    Your interpretation is not what everybody else is saying. Maybe we can get some clarification. From what I gathered, once a player has finished his contract or changed teams, he becomes ineligible for the amnesty. I wish your interpretation was right. It would give the Spurs (and a few other teams) more flexibility. But, I believe you’re wrong.

  • DorieStreet

    Watching the decline. I want Duncan to end his run with a career average of 20 ppg/ 11 ppg so at first glance in the record book it is up there with the greatest PF/C.. If he has another season like 2010-11m, he will lose those benchmarks.

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