In focus: Tim Duncan
by Arron MacDonald
Coach MacDonald zooms-in on what we can all learn from The Big Fundamental...
I am not a Spurs fan. So for the longest time, I considered their basketball “boring”… and then I watched again, noticing all of the little things that went into the Spurs playing “the Spurs way”, and realised I was VERY wrong.
In a similar vein to the New England Patriots, every player simply did their job. They shared the ball, they talked on defence, they worked hard, they laughed and joked with one another on the bench – and then the cameras rolled and inevitably Tim Duncan was interviewed, or worse – Pop – and it went back to boring.
That was, for the longest time, what the Spurs boiled down to… they were all beholden to an inside joke that we simply weren’t party to.
Tim Duncan was the bedrock of the most consistently-successful franchise in the league for almost two decades, and so was the face I associated with that monotony. Then I started coaching, and I started paying more attention to the ruthless efficiency with which Duncan operated on the low block, his knack for hitting cutters and shooters in-stride and grabbing rebounds at key moments.
Being a fundamentally-polished seven-footer certainly helped things, but there’s plenty that any player can learn from Tim Duncan:
Style points don’t affect the scoreboard
One of the few stats not available on basketball-reference is for bank shots, but if I had to hazard a guess at the career leader, I’d suggest it would be “The Big Fundamental”.
Shaq blessed him with that nickname, as well as anointing him as one of the “family” of all-time great bigs. Shaq summed up Duncan’s grasp of the fundamentals superbly in saying:
“I was probably 80% talent and 20% fundamental. Tim Duncan was 80% fundamental and 20% talent; and he got five rings and I got four. That still bugs the s*** out of me.”
Duncan’s bank shot from the left block was a trademark, but in-fact, he was money from pretty much every angle. He was as much a low post master as he was some sort of genius savant of geometry.
This mastery of angles is not a coincidence. It comes with hours of focused practice. It did not, however, result in a dunk contest win, clothing line, series of posters, etc. In all honesty, I was shocked to even find a bank-shot highlight reel… as it was so very un-highlight worthy.
I would bet my house that Tim Duncan, upon walking in the gym, gets close to the basket and begins his shooting routine close to the basket – he’s not casting up three’s, trying to get an Instagram video with #JellyFam or trying some other random trick shot, he's mastering the angles… and that’s something that any player can adopt instantly.
Know when, when not and how to communicate…
I rarely saw Duncan raise his voice. He was always focused and played with intensity, but was the complete antonym of his contemporaries at the four, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace.
On defence, whenever Duncan was on the floor, there was a constant friendly (but competitive) chatter – like a group of friends around a poker table, with Duncan at the hub of it all, throwing an arm around the shoulder of the team-mate who needed it most in any moment.
His calm demeanour spread along to his team-mates, who never seemed to be panicked on either end of the floor either.
Bruce Bowen – a longtime team-mate of Duncan - said of him “He’s funny, interesting, opinionated. But he wasn’t going to put on a show if he didn’t know you. If there is anything that anyone of stature could learn about his success, though, it’s how to keep your world private. After the cameras and nonstop access, he understood how important it was to have something for yourself at the end.”
Bowen added, “You talk about a guy that made it about team as compared to self, that’s what T.D. did. It was always about team for him. Even in a day and age of promoting the individual, he didn’t allow anything about himself to take away from the good of the group.”
He was a quiet leader, who stuck to his strength as a quiet leader throughout. He also understood that he needed downtime away from the spotlight, not more spotlight. Even now, there’s no sign of a verified twitter or Instagram account from TD.
One of the messages here is to be yourself - but the best version of yourself - to the benefit of your team. In the other message, consider what you need to post on social media… if anything. For aspiring athletes, the “wrong” post could cost you more than a few likes or follows, it could cost you a scholarship, or even a career – Duncan’s route (of ignoring social media entirely) is an option more and more people are taking solace in.
Excellence is a habit…
One of the knocks on Duncan is that he didn’t have a standout season – there were no two-month regular season runs of 40 points, 25 rebounds… just a constant 20-25ppg, 10-12 rebounds and a couple of assists and blocked shots.
His page on basketball-reference has a slight “Groundhog Day” feel to it. Pick almost any of his seasons through age 32 (after which Pop cut his minutes to prolong his career) and you’ll pretty much see that stat line.
Throwing that out there as a “knock” against Duncan is almost beyond arbitrary at this point, it’s almost like looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling to see whether Michaelangelo “missed a bit”.
Duncan averaged the dream stat line for most bigs, while shooting >50% from the field and a hair under 70% from the foul line. He was consistently excellent from night-to-night.
He holds the career record for playoff double-doubles, and you just knew that when the Spurs needed him most, he’d come through for them. Not since Bill Russel had the league seen a big man able to survey his team, notice it’s holes and simply plug them as if they hadn’t existed.
In the “Book of Basketball” Bill Simmons compares Duncan to Harrison Ford – noting that after a fifteen year run everyone suddenly realised that from 1977 to 1992 Ford had appeared in three Star Wars movies, three Indiana Jones moves, Blade Runner, Patriot Games (and more)… only realising his stardom when he carried The Fugitive to on-screen success. As with Duncan, Simmons posited “there wasn’t anything inherently compelling about him. Ford only worried about delivering the goods, and we eventually appreciated him for it.”
When Duncan retired, he was coronated not only as the greatest power forward of all-time, but also as one of the greatest leaders and team-mates. The author Jon Gordon often reminds his followers to simply “show up and do the work”, knowing that the rewards will come – and indeed, in Duncan’s case they did.
When the NBA is celebrating another far-away landmark season, some kid will look up Duncan’s stats and come to the conclusion that Karl Malone was better – and they’ll be wrong.
The stats don’t show you how Duncan won titles further apart than anyone in NBA history (except Kareem), how he anchored a defence, was the team’s emotional leader, their smartest player, crunch-time scorer and most competitive player – his impact could not simply be measured in individual statistics (however magnificently consistent they may have been), but can be measured in the rings he won (one more than Shaq, and a whole handful more than Malone), the way his team-mates felt about him and the impact he left in San Antonio – not to forget the best winning percentage over a 19 year spell in NBA history at .710.
What the stats do show you though, is that Duncan showed up every day ready to go to work, and be the best version of himself that he could be – and that’s a lesson we can all learn from The Big Fundamental.
If you’d like to book a ONE2ONE BASKETBALL coach for a workout to work on your post finishing (or anything else), then please get in touch! We also offer group teamwork and leadership minicamps, and have session plans available to purchase and download, if you’re not based in our area.
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