On the misunderstood ‘athleticism’ of Tim Duncan

Jun 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) dunks the ball against Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) in game two of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I find it somehow simultaneously mindboggling and understandable that, even after 17 years of watching Tim Duncan play NBA basketball, we still fail to adequately comprehend and describe what it really is we’re seeing.

Mindboggling because 17 years is a long damn time – Tim Duncan’s tenure with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs is older than a human being who can drive a motor vehicle and gain admission to R-rated movies. If we can’t fully grok Duncan in that time, then there’s just no hope for us, is there?

Understandable because… well, we just keep wanting Duncan to be more than he is. I’m trying to avoid using the B word, because no one should be ever deemed “boring” when they’re one of the 10 best players ever to grace a basketball court, but after watching an entire cicada cycle of the same guy wearing the same uniform, we have a natural inclination to dig deeper and look for something more to say about him. Even if it’s not there.

Here’s the latest example. Early in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, Duncan had a dunk that briefly rocked an AT&T Center rim and set social media ablaze. About five minutes into the game, Duncan lurked on the left block while Marco Belinelli snaked his way through a maze of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Belinelli missed a little chip shot at the rim and Bosh appeared positioned for the rebound, but Duncan swooped in, grabbed the loose ball and flushed it in one fluid, aesthetically pleasing motion. It was a highlight-reel moment for Duncan and an unflattering one, to say the least, for Bosh.

The reaction immediately following the play was unanimous: “Wow! For a 38-year-old, Duncan’s still crazy athletic!

I understand the excitement, but I’m also proceeding with caution about declaring a sudden “athletic” renaissance from a guy with over 52,000 NBA minutes on his odometer. Just doesn’t pass the smell test for me, you know?

Here’s a take that’s perhaps unnecessarily contrarian, but not wrong in my estimation: Duncan’s “athletic” dunk on Sunday night wasn’t particularly athletic. I get that he dunked on Chris Bosh and it was loud and it got people fired up, but what did he really do, athletically? How far off the ground did he jump – maybe nine inches? This isn’t exactly Dr. J taking off from the free throw line or Andrew Wiggins putting up a 44-inch vertical at the combine. As displays of jumping prowess go, Duncan’s was fairly pedestrian.

I think it’s important to understand what Duncan’s dunk wasn’t because it might help reveal what it was: a beautiful confluence of timing, instinct and execution. Duncan has never been an overpowering physical specimen like Shaquille O’Neal, but that’s never made him any less fantastic. He does stand 6-foot-11 and weigh 250, but to overemphasize that is to miss the point. Duncan is one part psychologist, one part physicist and one part NBA center – he reads people, he projects plays and he makes intuitive moves to capitalize. Duncan didn’t dunk on Chris Bosh because he’s a mammoth. He did it because he’s a wizard.

This has always been the case, more or less. Perhaps Duncan was a little more “athletic” during his first championship run when he was 23, but it was never his calling card. His smarts and instincts have always won him championships.

There’s a common trope that if you’re born with the disposition to be 7 feet tall, NBA success is an automatic thing, and you can take it for granted. No one ever attributed the achievements of Andrew Bynum, for instance, to his intelligence and hard work. But Duncan – praise all that is holy – is not Bynum. And he doesn’t need to be. You could make a very good argument that the Spurs’ big man would still be one of the greats if he were undersized and scrappy, if he looked like Udonis Haslem.

I think that’s the more honest Duncan narrative. But that doesn’t get a lot of clicks or retweets or what have you, because we’ve been espousing it for 17 years and no one wants to read the same old story. In its own way, though, I think that storyline is interesting. Duncan’s success – and by extension, the Spurs’ – is the product of tiny marginal advantages.

All those little things that separate a good basketball play from a bad one? The ability to watch a shot out of a player’s hands and read where it’s going, to read the defense and predict an opposing player’s movements, to tap into hand-eye coordination and mind-body coordination and turn all of these minute calculations into instant action? Duncan’s just a tiny bit better than everyone at all of them. Those little edges have added up, over the course of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of possessions, to produce four rings and possibly a fifth.

Those edges don’t show themselves every time. Occasionally, you’ll see Duncan have entire quarters where he isn’t “producing” much – notably including the fourth quarter of Game 2 on Sunday. But we can’t judge Duncan the same way we do a super-athlete like LeBron James, because he doesn’t function the same way. He can’t spring to life and take over games on cue with his physical prowess – his game is contingent upon little opportunities presenting themselves. At times, they don’t. But when they do, it’s a joy to watch.

That’s probably the least sexy thing in the world to write or read or talk or tweet about, but I think it’s the way basketball works for Tim Duncan. And Duncan’s calculating approach, just as much as the athletic brilliance of LeBron or Dwyane Wade, is a driving force behind these gripping, wonderfully watchable NBA Finals.

Evans Clinchy

  • Daniel Robinson

    I think that you make a mistake in confining your definition of “athleticism” to include merely leaping ability and speed. Hand eye coordination, balance, bodily awareness, vision, strength, et cetera, make an athlete. Otherwise, you’d have track stars, not ball players.

    • Tess

      Well, right. But when we think of great contact hitters, or offensive linemen with great footwork, or really savvy 3-point shooters, what makes them great is actually *contrasted* with athleticism. LeBron James is both an All-World athlete and a player that excels at other things like vision, coordination, balance, and an arsenal of mastered skills. Guys like Magic, Hakeem, and Jordan got to be all-timers this same way. Duncan is more like guys like Bill Russell, Kareem, and Bird, players with a solid but not overwhelming base of athletic talents, but whose complete mastery of other aspects of the game carried them to this same rarified level.

    • Bryan Routon

      Couldn’t agree more. Athleticism is physical talent, everything but conscious thinking.