Tim Duncan can still dunk on you (and will, if given half a chance)

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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
2002-03 0.039
2003-04 0.033
2004-05 0.029
2005-06 0.026
2006-07 0.021
2007-08 0.018
2008-09 0.010
2009-10 0.013
2010-11 0.016
2011-12 0.021

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.

Keep dunking, Tim.

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  • DorieStreet

    A year ago today we Spurs fans had to view the abysmal stat line for Tim the night of his 35th birthday, and I’m sure many of us thought that game signaled “the end for #21 is very near- or here.” That Duncan’s body of work for 2011-12 would be reflected in production similar to that game 4 output (well, not THAT bad, but further decline toward that mendoza line). But lo and behold, in this truncated season and through his truncated game time, Tim performed at a level just below his prime seasons.

    I am wishing and rooting for his full redemption from our perceived notions that his game was gone— Tim once again standing on the championship podium (and he does not have to be the Finals MVP).

  • Bob

    He’s seemed to have less bad games recently.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    This is what I am talking about!! A great positive article with information I would not have come up with on my own.

    I have my picture of Tim, Manu, and Tony laughing on the bench – a classic photo that many spurs fans own. It is from the ’05 championship run and Manu has lots of hair…

    When things get tough like they did last season, I look at that photo and I realize that these players are truly inspired and inspiring. They are enlightened enough to know that it is about the journey and not the destination. Yes, a 5th title would be pure bliss, but however it ends this has been a beautiful journey that will remain a joy for years to come.

    I pronounce this season a true success! Our guys like each other as much as any team in the league. They have fun playing and are great fun to watch. They are sportsmen on the court and ambassadors off the court. They are loud and laughing with each other (except for Kawhi) yet the are quiet and respectful to everyone else. I have seen them in person just once and yet I feel like I have known them for years. I am a little older than Tim Duncan but he feels like an older brother.

    There is very little that I watch on television. It is mostly violence or empty shows lacking any content. The one thing I watch consistently are the Spurs. Win or lose they bring me joy. The local broadcasts are so good (Thank you “League Pass”). The guys are humble, funny and it feels so much like a family. Even the commercials during the games are not bad and the ones with Tim, Tony and Manu are great!

    Being a champion is more than just winning — it is how you win. By that measure (as well as by winning percentage) the Spurs are the classiest organization in Sports over the last 15 years. In fact, they have really had class right back through the Admiral to the Ice Man. No suspensions, no steroids, no “spy gate,” no giant egos confronting the coaching staff. Just guys who love basketball, the way that those of us who never had a hope of getting paid love basketball.

    Tim Duncan is a true champion. The Spurs are true champions. Go Spurs Go!

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    Oh and I read today that Kobe expects the Lakers to win. Of course he does, so many of these teams need to win in order to validate their seasons. The Lakers have had a rocky season. They have not played well together they have not been a family and they have had more than one incident (Bynum and Artest).

    If you love basketball and you enjoy the season you do not have to win in order to make a very negative experience look better. The Lakers need to win for the sake of ego and redemption. The Heat need to win for the sake of ego and LeBron’s guarantees. The Thunder need to win for ego to validate themselves.

    The Spurs WANT to win for each other but not one Spurs fan would say the only way to remember this season fondly is with a championship. It is a paradox, the true champions do not “need” another championship. But they just might win one!

  • silverandblack_davis

    Most excellent post on my favorite Spur of all-time, David. Now I feel like dunking on a 4 foot-high rim.

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