When Tim Duncan announced his retirement from basketball in characteristically low-key fashion on July 11, sportswriters launched into the appropriate rhapsodies about the five-time NBA champion’s mastery in the post, the perfection of his bank shot, his defense, his longevity, his consistency, his modesty, and the winning culture of steady, unflappable efficiency that his selfless, undemonstrative approach to the game created in San Antonio, transforming the Spurs into the most successful NBA franchise of the modern era.
The refrain, among professional analysts, fans, and players: Tim Duncan was the greatest power forward ever. Shaq said it; LeBron said it; even Dirk (himself a contender) said it. It’s even at the top of his Wikipedia page: “widely considered to be the greatest power forward of all time.” It was what we knew we were supposed to say upon Duncan’s retirement—a verdict we’d all reached no later than 2014, the place in history we’d all agreed to assign to him. But was Tim Duncan actually a power forward?
I would contend that he mostly wasn’t. At Wake Forest, he played center, and then, by chance, the Spurs—a team led in the 1990s by one of the game’s top centers, David Robinson—held the number-one overall pick when Duncan went pro in 1997. Duncan and Robinson were about the same size, but Duncan was younger and lither, so he moved over to the four (at least in some situations, and more firmly in our minds, as Robinson’s position was already so well established that we couldn’t imagine him as the power forward), and that designation has stuck with him ever since, skewing All-NBA ballots for nearly two decades.
Robinson retired in 2003. Since then, who has been the Spurs’ starting center? You could argue that, at various points, it’s been Rasho Nesterovic, Fabricio Oberto, Francisco Elson, or Tiago Splitter (there are others I can’t recall), but none of these guys ever averaged 30 minutes per game for a season. The Spurs’ dominant presence in the paint has been Tim Duncan for his entire career, and in 2012, with the Spurs ready to face off against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs, head coach Gregg Popovich, when asked whom the Spurs would be starting at center, famously replied, “Tim Duncan, like we have for the last 15 years.”
It doesn’t actually matter what you call Duncan. In an era where the Golden State Warriors can win 73 games largely on the strength of a lineup with tweener-forward Draymond Green playing “center,” what do positions really mean, anyway? When LeBron (who is a point guard, a center, and everything in between) retires, the idea of talking about him as “history’s greatest small forward” (his nominal position most of the time) will surely seem ridiculous. The great players transcend their positions; sometimes even the mediocre ones do.
That’s why this insistence that Duncan’s legacy is “the greatest power forward” strikes me as so strange. I’m not sure that compliment ever would have stood out as a particularly meaningful accolade. Point guards and centers have traditionally been the most distinct entities on the court—their roles the most specialized—while shooting guards (like Clyde Drexler and George Gervin) have frequently doubled as small forwards, and many of the greatest forwards (like Larry Bird and Charles Barkley) have straddled the line between the three and the four. When we assess their respective places in history, it makes sense to compare Shaq and Kareem, Nash and Stockton, but to attempt to qualify the greatness of, say, Julius Erving through a position-based ranking—to put him beside Dominique Wilkins (a small forward like Erving) but not Kobe Bryant (a shooting guard) or Connie Hawkins (a power forward)—seems kind of arbitrary.
Before Duncan officially claimed the title, the NBA’s “greatest power forward” was Karl Malone. So this, apparently, is what we so eagerly want to say about Tim Duncan as he bids adieu: that he was better than Karl Malone. It’s no small feat—even so, who cares? Hakeem Olajuwon is probably a more relevant touchstone in my mind.
Then again, maybe Duncan deserves to be talked about with Jordan and LeBron, among the greatest-players, period, instead of being restricted to some subgenre—especially if the subgenre to which we’re restricting him is one to which he never really belonged. Calling him “the greatest power forward of all time” is a way of graciously removing him from that larger conversation of general greatness (or from the ultra-competitive Kareem-Wilt-Russell-Shaq discussion of greatest centers), a way of creating absolute, unqualified praise for a player who we all feel deserves some version of the phrase “the greatest,” not just “one of the greatest.”
I get it: what does “one of the greatest” even mean? In a sense, everyone who’s ever played in the NBA is “one of the greatest basketball players of all time,” at least when you think in terms of the millions and millions of people who’ve played basketball with passion and commitment without ever getting good enough at it to crack a DIII college roster.
Duncan deserves more than that weak phrase, but the supposedly more precise and definitive praise to which we resort is hollow and ultimately (to my ear) sounds more like an insult, as it’s both reductive and kind of incorrect. If our appreciation for Tim Duncan hangs upon a misclassification, what kind of appreciation is that?
Describe who he really was; describe what he did. “Power forward” doesn’t have much to do with it—neither does “center,” for that matter.