Tim Duncan, and the tale of sustained brilliance

USA TODAY Sports

Tim Duncan came just short of an NBA title 15 years after his first. That's incredible, even if he did come up a few seconds short of a fifth title in his first ever championship series defeat.

Tim Duncan couldn't get the one for the thumb, but at age 37, 15 years after his first NBA championship, he was the primary player on a squad that came a few seconds short of the title. Instead, he's on the losing side of an NBA Finals for the first time.

An errant Ray Allen desperation three in Game 6, or a few points here and there in Game 7, and Duncan and the Spurs would be celebrating their fifth title in 15 years. That's not a feat that's ever really been accomplished by one player with one team.

And Duncan would have been responsible. In Game 6, his 25 first-half points gave the squad a six-point lead at the break, only to see everything collapse in the final 30 seconds of the game. And in Game 7, he was the Spurs' high scorer with 24 points and threw in 12 rebounds, absolutely abusing the more spry Chris Bosh. But LeBron James' 37 points put his squad on top with a few seconds to go, and unlike Miami, San Antonio couldn't pull out the miracle.

After Danny Green's unstoppable early series performances regressed to the mean with a mighty thud, and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker couldn't consistently string together strong games, a Spurs title likely would have seen Duncan earn his fourth Finals MVP, a decade and a half after his first title.

What exactly is a dynasty? Have the Spurs had one? We take the word from lines of kings, lines that when interrupted were finished because one rich dude killed some other rich dude with a sword. We've adapted it to sports to refer to teams that are exceptionally strong for certain periods of times.

The examples are obvious: the Boston Celtics that somehow won year-after-year-after-year for a decade with Bill Russell playing, then playing and coaching. The Chicago Bulls that dominated the sport in the 1990s, only taking a break when Michael Jordan self-imposed his departure from the sport. The Lakers of the early 2000s, who won three straight championships. If the Heat win one more title, they'll get that phrase thrown onto them.

But the Spurs never won back-to-back. The best they did was skip a year, winning in 2003, 2005, and 2007.

I've spent somewhere in the realm of an hour trying to brainstorm players who have been a main cog on title teams a decade apart. Suffice it to say, it's slim pickings. My first thought was Russell, but his first title came in 1957 and his last in 1969, just 13 years apart. Kobe Bryant was a second fiddle to Shaq as a youngster and a winner as an elder, but his first title came in 2000 and his most recent came in 2011, just 12 seasons apart. Robert Horry's differential was pretty impressive, winning his first of seven titles in 1994 and his last in 2007, but he was never a star.

The only player I can think of who pulled off a comparable feat was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The NBA's all-time leading scorer earned Finals MVP just two years into his NBA career in 1971 and again in his fourth of six championships in 1985. He'd win titles again in 1987 and 1988. But to accomplish his feat, he had to switch teams, beginning with the Milwaukee Bucks alongside Oscar Robertson and finishing with Magic Johnson and the showtime Lakers. I daresay nobody has managed to stay as consistently great for as long with the same team as Mr. Duncan.

Duncan won his first championship in 1999, with David Robinson admiralling alongside him. Fifteen years later, either five or six of Duncan's teammates were born after Robinson became the first overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft. (Likely Finals MVP Danny Green, coincidence would have it, was actually born on June 22, 1987, the night of the 1987 draft. I haven't put in the requisite calls to Long Island hospitals to determine whether his time of birth was before or after David Stern got on the podium at Madison Square Garden.)

It's tough to avoid the term "dynasty" when describing team that wins five championships with the same player playing a key role, but the San Antonio Spurs don't fit snugly into our working definition of a dynasty.


But although Duncan's team has remained the same, his teams haven't been the same. After six years without a ring, the stylistic nature of this 2013 outlet is much different from those in past. On the Spurs' first four title-winners, Duncan's teams were ploddingly slow, finishing in the bottom 10th of the league in pace. And they were cripplingly great defensively, finishing first in the league in either points allowed or defensive rating every time. This team was in the top 10 in pace -- sixth, to be exact -- and in terms of points scored, was better offensively -- fourth in the league -- than defensively -- 11th in the league.

Being able to win one title and then come close to another one 15 years later doesn't remind us of the greats of the sport. But Duncan and the Spurs have been around, contending, for 15 years. And among that baseline of greatness, his squads have managed to be sporadically brilliant, nearly establishing a quasi-dynasty with a win in 2013, not as bluntly dominant, but just as fascinating -- and more unique -- than the title strings of some of his forebears.

And judging from how close they came this year, Duncan's time as a contender isn't necessarily done.

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