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The League

Tim Duncan, the Fidelity Factor & 30 Years of NBA History

 

Photo by BallerBall.com

Photo by BallerBall.com

1.

I have no tolerance for “basketball fans” who love the college game but hate the NBA. “How can you be a basketball fan and hate professional basketball?” They can never give a concise, legible answer: “It’s just not the same, you know; there’s no fundamentals; there’s no competition; it’s all street-ball; it’s all about the money.” Please. If you don’t love the NBA, you don’t love basketball.

I’m not saying it’s better than college hoops—nothing is purer and more exciting than March Madness. Who on earth had UConn winning it all after losing to Louisville by 40 points just two weeks before the big tango? But the NBA has a different quality. It’s the highest level of competitive basketball on earth, and it’s not even close. Even with a dozen or so teams intentionally tanking this season to cash in on the best college draft in a decade, there isn’t a single team in The League that wouldn’t beat UConn, Kentucky and Florida 99 times out of 100.

Think of it this way: Why are college hoopers in such a hurry to get into the NBA? Obviously there’s the financial incentive. But very, very few college ballers can translate their game into the NBA within their first three pro years. The player development process in pro basketball is much more like Major Baseball than the NFL: even the top draft picks need several years of small ball before being any help on the big stage. The gap between NBA talent and NCAA talent is not a step; it’s a gulf, a chasm, a canyon. And anyone who says otherwise does not watch the NBA. Take the shooting component as an example. College players can score 20 points a game without a reliable jump shot, but in the NBA, even the seven foot Croatians coming off the bench can hit three’s—which, by the way, are four full feet farther back than college three’s! When Aaron Harrison or Shabazz Napier hit a 25-foot three-pointer, people go nuts like they just discovered Jimmy Fallon on YouTube. If a 6’10” NBA power forward shoots less than 40 percent on 25-foot three-pointers, he wakes up playing rec ball in the suburbs trying to convince people he once played in The League.

Forget about it, people: the NBA is the most talent-demanding, skilled sport of our generation, it currently features one of the all-time greatest players and teams in sports history, and yet most of America is missing it. But whatever, go on tweeting stuff like, “Now that March is over, it’s officially football season.” There’s no reasoning with stupid.

So, historically speaking, how did we get here—to today’s League?

2. 

Since I’ve been alive, some 30 years, there have been two notable stages of pro basketball: The TV Age and The Internet Age.

The TV Age

The TV Age was roughly 1980 (when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were rookies) to 1998 (when Michael Jordan permanently retired from the Bulls). The TV Age was the great coming of age party for the NBA. It went from a distant third sport behind baseball and football to the fastest-growing sport, in terms of popularity and TV ratings, of those two decades. The exponential growth of the NBA from 1980-1998 was due to three coalescing factors: (1) the explosion of the TV coverage of professional sports, (2) the fast-paced nature of NBA games, which was almost made-for-TV, and (3) Michael Jordan.

The TV Age may have begun with Magic and Bird, but it would have been a fraction of what it was without Air Jordan. I could (and someday will) write an entire essay about Jordan’s transcendence as a basketball player and cultural icon—did you know he has essentially been retired for 16 years yet still makes more money, thanks to his long-standing Nike sponsorship, than any other athlete?—but I want to get to Tim Duncan and the Spurs before you stop reading, so I’ll contain myself.

If there is a single moment or team that best encapsulates The TV Age of the NBA, it’s not a single game or Finals series, nor is it Michael himself. The greatest single thing that happened during The TV Age was the 1992 U.S. Olympics men’s basketball team—The Dream Team. I was only eight years old at the time, and I remember The Dream Team like it was yesterday. One team, eleven Hall of Famers, and an absolute destruction of every other country. Oh yeah, and Christian Laettner, who was allowed to sit on the bench to satisfy the International Olympics Committee (six aging Greek guys eating gyros at the Acropolis)’s requirement of one amateur athlete per team. The Dream Team was the greatest collection of athletes ever placed on one court/field at the same time in human history, and here’s what made them so great: they were fiercely competitive. This is the essence of The TV Age: absolute, unashamed competition. These guys agreed to play together for the good of the nation and sport. But make no mistake: they hated one another. A recent book reveals the inner dynamics: Jordan would only join the team if rival Isaiah Thomas stayed home (Thomas’ coach of the Pistons, Chuck Daly, also coached The Dream Team and agreed to MJ’s stipulation), the team rarely connected off-court through their summer in Barcelona and the practice tapes reveal a group of players who were more interested in proving themselves against their sworn enemies than getting along as buddies. Fierce competition and rivalry. That’s The TV Age of the NBA in a nutshell.

The Internet Age

The Internet Age couldn’t be more different. Beginning in 2003 (with the drafting of LeBron James) and continuing today, The Internet Age has been marked by three new developments: (1) the frequency of superstar players drafted in their teen years, (2) the emergence of 24/7 online access to athletes’ highlights, stats and personal lives, and (3) the transition from high school and college performance to AAU stardom and international development as primary paths to NBA stardom.

First, with The TV Age, all the stars like Michael, Magic, Bird, Barkley, Malone, Robinson, and Reggie had been stars in college for three or four years before jumping to the pro’s. Beginning as early as 1995, stars including Garnett, Kobe, McGrady, Stoudemire, LeBron and Howard were all drafted straight out of high school. (The collective bargaining agreement of 2006 regulated that players had to be 19 years old and a year removed from high school ball to be eligible for the draft.) But how could NBA executives know that these guys would be so good? That’s where the second and third trends come in: now elite players as young as 13 are playing year-round on sponsored AAU teams and getting their own highlight reels posted to YouTube by bored middle aged men. These three trends resulted in a huge loss of competitiveness between players and teams in the NBA beginning around 2000. Now, the college rivalries turned pro rivalries (like Magic-Bird) were being replaced with long-standing friendships between old AAU buddies that just happen to play against each other four times a year in the NBA. I don’t think this is reason enough to say the NBA has lost all competitiveness, but it’s a significant change.

So there you have the two major seasons of the NBA: The TV Age of Jordan-Magic-Bird (1980-1998) and The Internet Age of LeBron-Durant-Carmelo (2003-Current). But what happened in between? And do we have any notable divergent ballers—carry-overs from the bygone TV Age who never have seemed to fit in this new era?

3.  

The two greatest NBA players since Jordan are, without question, the same two ballers that can’t fit neatly into either major epoch of The League: Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. In my humble opinion, these are the only two active players that would be top-10 all-time players no matter what decade they played in. No disrespect to LBJ and KD, but Kobe and Duncan are just on another level—especially with a combined 32 seasons, 30 All-Star Games and nine championships between them. (Since Jordan’s retirement, Kobe and Duncan have won nine of the 15 NBA titles—not bad.)

Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant

Kobe’s career, as a natural scorer, is easy to quantify in terms of its greatness. He’s among the greatest scorers of all time: (1) Michael Jordan, (2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (3) Kobe Bryant, (4) Karl Malone, and (5) Shaquille O’Neal. (Fidelity Note: Wilt Chamberlain is left off this list for having attended kansas as an undergraduate.) Kobe’s currently the fourth on the career scoring list and will pass His Airness next season and finish his career at #2—behind only Kareem. That’s some seriously top-drawer territory.

Further, I consider the five greatest shooters of all time to be: (1) Kobe Bryant, (2) Reggie Miller, (3) Ray Allen, (4), Larry Bird, and (5) Michael Jordan. The fact that Kobe scored 81 points in a single game, and on only 46 shots, guarantees this reality. (The rest of the Lakers scored 41 points on their combined 42 shots that night.)

Black Mamba, self-nicknamed after the main character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, is also a great defender—he’s made the all-NBA Defensive first team nine times. Considering his five NBA titles as well, I consider my boy Kobe to be the fifth best player of all time. (1) Michael Jordan, (2) Bill Russell—the best team player and defender in NBA history, Russell won 11 NBA titles with Boston, (3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (4) Tim Duncan, (5) Kobe Bryant, (6) Larry Bird, (7) Magic Johnson, (8) Oscar Robinson, (9) Karl Malone, (10) Jerry West. (Fidelity Note: Chamberlain is left off this list as well for the aforementioned reason.)

Tim Duncan

So how could Mamba be one of the best shooters and defenders in NBA history, win at least five championships and still not be the best player of his generation? Two words: Tim Duncan. A player so consistently magnificent that no nickname can do him justice.

Duncan’s phenomenal career has been built on team performance, quiet diligence in the little things, and slow and steady effectiveness. (For a detailed review of Duncan’s discreet greatness, see Grantland’s two-part career arc on him.) First of all, it should be noted that Tim Duncan played four full seasons at Wake Forest University in order to graduate with an honors degree in psychology. When Duncan was 13, his mother was dying from breast cancer and made each of her children promise that they would get college degrees. Years later, Tim was projected as a number one overall pick after his first three seasons at Wake, but continued to cite his promise to his mother in his refusals to declare for the NBA draft. Had he declared after his frosh year, he would have added three seasons of scoring to his name and likely would be closer to the top of the lists of career scorers and rebounders—but he may not have landed with the best possible team for his career.

The perennially average Spurs won the lottery of a lifetime in 1997 as Duncan was graduating. If you don’t remember, the Spurs already had one of the game’s best big men in David “The Admiral” Robinson, and won the draft lottery against incredible odds since they weren’t among The League’s worst teams. (Granted, I’m pretty sure every draft in the Stern era was rigged. See “2013: Hornets, New Orleans.”) Duncan and Robinson played together seamlessly for six seasons before The Admiral’s retirement in 2003. When you add this to Duncan’s four-year college career, his career scoring and rebounding stats could never match the likes of high school draftees like Kobe, LeBron and Garnett or even one-and-done’s like Durant and Carmelo.

Nonetheless, committed basketball followers know he is unquestionably the single greatest basketball player of The Internet Age, all while playing a pre-TV Age style of ball. Tim Duncan and the Spurs, together, form the number one reason why real basketball fans are glued to the NBA right now. One of the greatest big men of all time, playing for one of the best coaches and teams of all time, has been playing at an elite level since 1997, and most of the world hasn’t even noticed.

This is probably how Duncan, Coach Popovich and the Spurs want it. They’ve won four NBA championships together over a period of 14 years, and finished the regular season with The League’s best record once again. Duncan will finish his career with some 4-6 NBA titles, 14-16 All-Star game appearances and a career average of 20 and 11. Even though he has never won a single MVP title, Duncan’s stats are annually 10% higher in playoff games than regular season games, he has started over 200 playoff games, and will retire with some 30,000+ points (including almost 5,000 in playoff games alone) and 15,000+ boards. You can use stats to easily place Duncan in the top 10 players in League history, but you can’t talk about Timmy without using words like “character, team, heart, champion, and legend,” and that’s why Duncan is among the four best players in NBA history—placing him on The League’s Mount Rushmore.

4. 

Well, let’s finish out with the 2014 League Playoffs, which are already a couple weeks underway. Since most of you haters are probably unfamiliar with the current NBA teams, let me introduce you to the 16 playoff teams.

The Fidelity Power Rankings

My power rankings are based on two factors: team performance and The Fidelity Factor. Team Performance can be assessed by standard evaluative measures, including wins and losses, strength of schedule, scoring margin, and offensive and defensive efficiency (for a great statistical summary method, check out the Hollinger Rankings).

The Fidelity Factor, however, is a more nuanced, delicate and, well, completely subjective assessment tool. High scoring Fidelity Factor teams prioritize (1) fundamental basketball skills, (2) team play over individual performance, (3) organizational clarity (i.e., how focused the entire organization is on winning a championship), (4) defense over offense, and (5) establishing a balanced team over a single niche. Let’s put it all together.

1. San Antonio Spurs

I’ve already spent a few dozen paragraphs describing the Spurs silent majesty in the Duncan-Popovich era, so there’s nothing more to add here except these three phenomenal stats. First, this season, not a single Spurs player cracked the NBA’s top 40 in scoring. And second, for the first time in League history, dating all the way back to the ABA era, a team hasn’t had a single player register 30.0 minutes/game (each game is 48 minutes long), and that team just happened to finish the season with The League’s best record: the San Antonio Spurs. And third, who do you think finished the season quietly atop the Hollinger Efficiency Rankings? Yup, da Spurs. ‘Nough said? I think so.

2. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers finished the season ranked 12th according to advanced statistics, behind even the Toronto Raptors!, but their high fidelity scores bump them up to number two. The Pacers are a poor man’s Spurs, heir-apparent to the small-market, team-first, built-to-last League crown as soon as Duncan-Popovich ride off into the Western sunset. It’s an understatement to say that Indiana really struggled to close out the season—they finished something like 23-19 if I remember right. But even after losing two early playoff games to Atlanta, they’ll be just fine. They have a great balance among scorers Paul George, Lance Stephenson and David West, and Roy Hibbert will be just fine keeping the Heat away from easy points once again. This is possibly the best opportunity for the Pacers to win an NBA title this decade, since Stephenson will likely leave after this season and George may not be able to be kept in Indy after his contract expires in 2015. But if they can keep George and follow the Spurs trajectory, they’ll manage a few titles before Larry the Legend is done as GM. This year, expect my three-year-running dream Finals to come true: the Spurs against the Pacers. Or as I like to call it, The Fidelity Games.

3. The Former SuperSonics

The OKC Thunder had a chance to take over from the Spurs as the best team of the next generation, but their management pissed it away when they let James Harden walk two years ago. The team formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics, may they rest in peace, literally had three of the five best players under 25 in Durant, Westbrook and Harden, and despite the press release that OKC executives hoped you’d believe, they absolutely could have afforded to keep all three. And they would have legitimately been a threat to the title for 10-12 years. But instead they chose to give up Harden to provide a greater financial return (based on hard-to-understand NBA policies on taxes) and be content with an annual conference finals exit.

I’m not high on individual performance, of course, but I just want to point out that right now, in the spring of 2014, that Kevin Durant has surpassed LeBron James as the NBA’s best scorer. He won’t reach the level of Kobe or Duncan, but KD will put up Jordan-like numbers for 15+ seasons and retire with three or four rings. LeBron will have a similar career, though as a more complete player and better defender, but in twenty years, it will be Durant that’s remembered as the more dynamic scorer. Consider Durant’s career scoring as compared to three other greats—career points at the end of the season that ended with them at age 25.

Kevin Durant: 15,851 points
LeBron James: 13,597 points
Michael Jordan: 11,263 points
Kobe Bryant: 10,658 points

4. Miami Heat

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I threw up in my mouth during The Decision—where LBJ announced, via an hour-long live broadcast in suburban Connecticut, that he was taking his talents to South Beach, even though League sources had already leaked that decision days earlier. Ughh. Low scores on the Fidelity Meter there, Bron Bron. He’s played hard and played well the last two seasons en route to a couple NBA championships, but the whole thing smells like sell-out to me. “I’m only going to play where I can be surrounded by elite talent willing to play for peanuts instead of balancing The League out by leading dozens of small-market teams into the playoffs.” Sheesh. The Heat are the get-rich-quick team of all time and will go deep in the East, but this year, they’ll lose to the more-balanced and younger Pacers in Game 7.

5-10. The Rest of the Western Conference

The following teams fill out the #5-10 spots: the Portland TrailBlazers, LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Dallas Mavs. That’s right, these six teams would beat any of the remaining six Eastern Conference teams without breaking a sweat. The Blazers are probably the hottest team in The League right now, so you can’t rule out a run from these folks. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge may even reach a Durant-Westbrook level in a year or two. The Clippers probably would have had a chance to reach the Finals if it wasn’t for three unfortunate breaks: (1) playing in the West during the Duncan-Pop era, (2) drawing the streaking Warriors in the first round, and (3) having the sleaze king Donald Sterling on top of the empire.

The most exciting team to watch this year? The Warriors. Every time Steph Curry steps foot on the court, he’s looking to score. Probably not since Jordan in Chicago has a fan base so embraced a single player as San Francisco has with the undersized, small college grad Curry. He has a chance, and this is way premature, to crack the top five all-time shooter’s list. For now, he’s just a ton of fun to watch—especially on his home court.

11-16. The Rest of the Eastern Conference

The Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Washington Bullets/Wizards, Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats, and Atlanta Hawks are all basically wasting their time. Not a single one of these teams would have made the playoffs out of the West, but here they are, taking up precious cable TV time. They probably would have been better off pulling a Milwaukee/Philly and tanking from the get-go to land a Jabari Parker or Julius Randle.

Nonetheless, the Bulls get high scores across all Fidelity categories, boasting The League’s best hustle player and defender, Joakim Noah. Joakim should not be an NBA player, but he simply outworks everyone else. He’s like Dennis Rodman without the tattoos and the soft spot for North Korea. The Raptors had a respectable year behind DeMarcus DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, but are still a long way from having a real shot at a championship. The Bullets/Wizards have two of the best young stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and if they wouldn’t have spent an entire decade suffering under Michael Jordan’s insufferable leadership and bankrupt draft picks as GM, they’d be in Indiana/Miami territory right now.

*** 

A few final observations and predictions for The League in 2014.

The Pacers will beat the Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Spurs will again win the West—over the Former Sonics in six. The NBA Finals, a.k.a. the Fidelity Games, will be the best series ever, and the Spurs will edge the Pacers in Game 6. Then, Tim Duncan and Coach Pop will shock the world by announcing their retirements.

See, only a few great men get the opportunity to walk away from their careers at the top of their industry, but Tim and Pop will enjoy that long ride into the sunset. In that moment, casual basketball fans will realize they completely missed 16 great years of basketball in San Antonio, will begin to tune into The League and will pretend like they saw the whole thing all along. That’s alright; whatever helps the game thrive. Just know that you read it here first.

This is a great time to be a true fan of the League, it’s undeniably the Spurs’ nearly mythical moment in the sun, and, to borrow the old phrase, we are all witnesses.

 

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