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Tim Duncan’s legacy was always understood best by Spurs fans

Whether Duncan marketed himself enough or not, the people who know him best understand his greatness.

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As the Spurs prepare to honor Tim Duncan’s career, Flanns and Zillz runs through Big Fundamental’s legacy and the debate over whether his demure personality hurt the NBA.

ZILLER: On Sunday, the Spurs will retire Tim Duncan's No. 21 jersey in what promises to be spectacle of a ceremony down in San Antonio. That's a joke, but that's also partially why we're here.

Duncan was, by my count, the best big man of his generation. He was an extraordinary player, teammate, and leader. And he's just so incredibly unexciting to most fans outside of southern Texas.

I'm absurdly partial to him, but even I find myself a little bored at the idea of honoring his greatness for all eternity. With Kevin Garnett — Duncan's chief rival — we have gobs of weird stories to share with future generations of fans. What is there to say about Tim Duncan other than he was an awesome big man who was remarkably anonymous off the court? Doesn't that hurt his legacy?

FLANNERY: First we should define his legacy. You just noted that he was the best big man of his generation. That's self-evident, but hasn't always been clear. Toward the middle of his career, there was an interesting academic exercise ranking Duncan and Garnett. Most analysis favored Duncan for the same reasons we're venerating him now — rings, durability — but it was close then and it is not close now.

Duncan wasn't only great, he was great for a long time. That the Spurs had another basketball life beyond their initial run is one of the great NBA stories of this, or any other time. While there was a stable core around him in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, Duncan was the key figure in both journeys. The only player who can compare in terms of longevity and consistent two-way excellence is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That's the company he keeps.

How many people truly know that?

Duncan celebrates Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

ZILLER: Too few. I took a good deal of pushback when I ranked Duncan as No. 3 all-time behind Jordan and Kareem a few months ago. (That was before the NBA Finals — LeBron might have launched himself to No. 2 with that performance.) Some people who are otherwise reasonable, smart folks argue Duncan can't be much above Kobe! The disrespect is incredible. Duncan was easily his team's best player on four title teams. No one but Jordan can match that. There was no greater two-way player in Duncan's generation, and very few ever.

This is where Duncan's disinterest in publicity hurts him. Magic and Bird end up in top-five lists because they were loads of fun on and off the court. There was an aesthetic joy in their games. Duncan's overall basketball performance has been far greater than that of Magic or Bird, but only serious basketball addicts find innate joy in his play. And no one finds joy in his celebrity, because there is no celebrity there.

This is a point our smart friend Nate Jones makes: Duncan and the Spurs may have hurt the NBA by being so allergic to celebrity and, frankly, fun. This is an entertainment business. The Spurs were incredible on the court, but painfully boring. That's not optimal for a league trying to get TVs tuned in and tickets sold.

FLANNERY: No, but let me dwell in a different point that you made. It's not like Bird courted the spotlight, either. He had a few things working in his favor.

First, he had Magic. As compelling an academic exercise as KG-Timmy was, Duncan never really had a natural rival.

Second, Bird had Boston and the national media to aid in compiling his mythos. The Spurs are a wonderfully covered outfit locally that never made much of a dent in the national psyche, no matter how often national writers dropped in to sing their praises (as many of us do). That is on them.

Finally, Bird may have been shy, but he's also sarcastic and possesses a biting wit. Once he got comfortable with the press, he liked to spar with them, as he does now.

Duncan stayed true to whatever sense of self he had when he came into the league and never changed. On the one hand, that kind of consistency is admirable. On the other, the NBA sells stars and that's always been an unspoken part of the bargain for superstars.

ZILLER: Indeed. In that way, Kobe did what Duncan wouldn't. And so Kobe has a globe full of adoring fans while Duncan has universal respect but little energy pushing his legacy. It will be up to writers/talkers to carry that mantle.

I will say, though, that the inner glimpses of Duncan we've been able to snare have been great. The Punisher knee brace, the revelation he played D&D, his subtle embrace of his normcore aesthetic (I've called it "island casual") and his growing body of work texting insults to Sean Elliott during Spurs telecasts. He's a dad to the core, and that's beautiful to folks like me living the Dadlyfe.

FLANNERY: The Spurs are an acquired taste. I've grown closer to them and their ethos as I've aged and entered that dad life myself. I just love their work environment, which I've come to value above most things. As much as we credit Pop and R.C. Buford with creating Shangri-La in the southwest, it's as much about Duncan as anyone. It is always, always, always about the players, specifically the best player. That's why the Spurs are what they are and have continued on even without him.

This is what Pop said about him earlier this season when the Spurs came through Boston:

"Every time we go to a meal, we raise a glass and we toast him. We say, thank you Timmy."

I mean, how great is that?

ZILLER: It's just lovely. Pop knows that he got lucky landing not just an epochal talent in the '97 draft, but the textbook definition of a leader-by-example. What a lucky strike for Pop and San Antonio.

FLANNERY: It's hard to quantify exactly what the Spurs mean to San Antonio, but I spent Game 5 of the 2014 finals at an outdoor bar a mile or so from the Riverwalk in a neat little neighborhood. This was a regular thing, not some one-off event. What struck me the most was how festive and family-oriented the whole scene was. Everyone seemed to know one another and there wasn't an air of boozy menace that you typically find in such gatherings.

I also remember a teenage kid in a Duncan jersey who planted himself right in front of one of the big screens and barely moved throughout the game. He was so tense, even in a blowout. When the Spurs finally pulled away for good, he finally unleashed all of his pent-up angst and started high-fiving everyone in the crowd. You've never seen such unbridled joy. That kid in that Duncan jersey will always symbolize the relationship between the player, city, and team to me.

We're outsiders, and Duncan and the Spurs always kept us at arms length. But down there, they know something we don't.

So, let's raise a glass to Timmy. He did it his way.