Tim Duncan can still dunk on you (and will, if given half a chance)
On the occasion of Tim Duncan’s 36th birthday, which was yesterday…
I approach the abysm of the playoffs as if it were a dangerous wild animal: with the utmost respect, making no sudden movements, and not letting the fear glitter in my eyes. I have many talismans I cling to for comfort, too. A lucky shirt, my all-powerful crossed fingers, even singing some David Hasselhoff under my breath (ah no, wait, that’s Dirk), they all help. Yet when the doubt starts to creep into my mind, when the insistence of the talking heads that this team and last year’s are simply regular season wonders gets to me, that’s when I seek out Tim Duncan’s dunk stats.
It is easy to forget the first Tim Duncan whom we met in the 90’s, 15 years ago. When he arrived in the NBA, Duncan was not the minimalist, supremely skilled big man he is today. He was an athletic young gun, with a well rounded game, but still much more likely to exert his dominance on the post with a dunk than with a bank shot from the angle. In his first five or six seasons, he remained in the top fifteen in dunks in the league, and was still 9th in the league all the way to the 2003-04 season. Rumors of his boring game have been obviously greatly exaggerated, if his prowess in the fan-favorite basketball play is any indication.
The arrow of time is unavoidable, though, and as age wore down on Duncan, his dunks dwindled. Duncan adapted, moving away from the basket, perfecting his outside jumper, learning how to dominate and prolong his playing life. Energy became a non-renewable resource, so dunks turned into lay-ups, and us fans embraced this new facet of his game as part of our identity. Who cares, right? Two points are two points are two points, ipso facto, et cetera.
However, guys, here’s what I think: Tim Duncan likes to dunk. Oh, and by the way: we like it too. The future Hall of Famer showed up for the 2009-10 season thinner, hoping that the lighter frame would protect his knees and ward off the plantar fascitis bugaboo. Gregg Popovich reined in his star’s minutes, using Tim Duncan a powerful, but strategically limited weapon. Slowly, year after year, the trend reverted. Tim was finding that his legs responded to his orders like they used to, back when, years ago.
There was a reserve of energy available to him once again, so Tim Duncan started dunking.
|Year||Dunks per minute|
Duncan is now 36. Somewhat surprisingly, Tim Duncan is dunking at a per minute rate comparable to the 2006-07 season, that or the Spurs’ last championship run. More importantly, he is showing a presence on the court that opponents find hard to ignore, and as defenses key on our spry graybeard, the lanes open for our guards. For all of Parker’s MVP-like acrobatic layups, Duncan’s throwback performance during the final stretch of the current season is to me the most positive sign for San Antonio’s postseason hopes.
Duncan is one of the most complete players to ever enter the league. From the start, Duncan was all Hall of Fame, all the time. There was no hiccup, no “rookie wall”, the usual tour de force when it comes to excuses for out-of-their-depth players coming out of college. His impact was immediate and consistent. Tim Duncan’s adaptation to this league was less significant than the league’s need to adapt to Tim Duncan. He was a game changer, a paradigm shift in the championship aspirations of the players from his generation.
I cannot decide what impresses me the most about Tim Duncan at 36: his consistency or his pliability. Consistency, because if graphed his per-36-minutes stats resemble horizontal lines that stretch into infinity. Pliability, because of his willingness to morph in both skill set and physical frame. When five years ago I had doubts about his longevity, nowadays I wonder to myself if two more years really is the limit for this once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
For the moment, at least, I simply plan to focus on enjoying this team, this player, and take comfort on what my eyes tell me, have told me the entire season: Tim Duncan is ready for his fifth championship.