The Spurs’ Tim Duncan era came to a quiet end on Monday morning, entirely fitting for a player who always shunned the spotlight.
The greatest player in franchise history announced his retirement via an announcement on the team’s website that was followed by a press release.
Though Duncan’s retirement had been anticipated for weeks, it was nonetheless jarring for Spurs fans, many of whom had never known the Spurs without Duncan, widely accepted as the greatest power forward in the history of the game.
Duncan’s longest-standing teammates also had difficulty wrapping their heads around the news.
“Even though I knew it was coming, I’m still moved by the news,” shooting guard Manu Ginobili posted on his Twitter account. “What a HUGE honor to have played with him for 14 seasons!”
Duncan, Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker teamed up in 2002 and quickly became the Spurs’ “Big Three” stars. Together, they won 575 regular season games and 126 playoff games, more than any trio in NBA history. They also shared in four of Duncan’s five NBA titles, the first of which Duncan won in just his second season, 1998-99.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged Duncan’s place in NBA annals in a press release issued by the league.
“Tim Duncan is one of the most dominant players in NBA history,” Silver said. “His devotion to excellence and mastery of the game led to five NBA championships, two regular-season MVP awards and a place among the all-time greats, while his understated selflessness made him the ultimate teammate.”
One of those teammates, starting guard Danny Green, expressed what most felt about Duncan.
“He meant the world to me,” said Green, who came to the team in 2011 as an unproven player who worked his way into a starting role on an NBA championship team. “Just to get the opportunity to be on the same team with him was an honor because of how much I admired watching him play as a kid. I couldn’t ask for a luckier career to be able to play five seasons with him.”
Duncan, who turned 40 during the Spurs recent playoff run, retires after a season in which he became just the third player in league history to reach 1,000 career wins, as well as the only player to reach 1,000 wins with one team. He helped the Spurs to a franchise-best 67-15 record and also became one of two players in NBA history to record at least 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocks in his career, joining Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Duncan is certain to join Abdul-Jabbar in the Hall of Fame in 2021, his first year of eligibility for enshrinement.
San Antonians have celebrated Duncan ever since the 1997 NBA draft lottery drawing gave the Spurs the No. 1 overall selection. Duncan later would admit he also celebrated the Spurs’ luck that May 18, 1997, night. Watching the proceedings on TV in his boyhood home in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, he acknowledged he “got up and ran around the room a little bit” when the Spurs turned up as the team with the right to select him.
Duncan was thrilled by the prospect of joining the Spurs’ All-NBA center David Robinson. Spurs fans were elated because Duncan was the reigning NCAA Player of the Year and had just set an all-time NCAA record for career rebounds (1,570) that would last until 2011. He was a can’t-miss prospect, a franchise changer, the best big man to come out of the college ranks since Shaquille O’Neal, in 1992.
The fans knew teaming Duncan with Robinson was certain to return the Spurs to championship contention after an injury-plagued 1996-97 season – Robinson played only six games – had doomed them to a 20-62 record that put them in the lottery.
But nobody, not even Gregg Popovich, could have known what a transformative player Duncan would be over the next 19 seasons that produced five championships and a record of 1,072-438, a winning percentage of .710 that ranks as the best 19-year stretch in all of the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB.
During his 19 seasons Duncan was selected to 15 All-NBA teams, including selection to the All-NBA third team in 2014-15, when he was 38 years old. He was also on the league’s All-Defensive team 15 times, including in 2014-15.
He was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2002 and 2003 and was NBA Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005. He appeared in 15 NBA All-Star Games. He retires as the Spurs all-time leader in games played (1,392), points scored (26,496), rebounds (15,091), blocked shots (3,020) and minutes played (47,368). In NBA history he ranks fifth all-time in blocks, sixth in rebounding and 14th in scoring.
Popovich long has maintained that his own career, also certain to land him in the Hall of Fame, owes its success to Duncan. The Spurs coach has stressed, over and over, that Duncan “allowed himself to be coached,” something that can’t be said of some superstars.
Make no mistake. Duncan was a superstar, worthy of consideration as one of the ten greatest players in NBA history, a list that includes legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor.
He was a “combo” big man, both a power forward and a center, though he always preferred to be listed as a power forward. One of the most cerebral players in league history, he overcame relatively ordinary athleticism with a remarkable sense of positioning and timing to become the NBA’s No. 5 all-time shot blocker.
“I’m the all-time leader in shots blocked without leaving the floor,” he often joked.
What nobody watching that 1997 draft lottery could have known about Duncan was the competitive fire that stoked his approach to the game nor the self-discipline that would allow him to drive himself through 18 seasons at a level of conditioning and excellence seldom seen in a player of his age.
Consider: As a 21-year-old rookie in 1997-98 Duncan produced a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 22.6, a number that clearly identified him as an All-Star caliber performer. Seventeen years later, as a 39-year-old veteran in 2014-15, he produced an identical PER, 22.6, and was named third-team All-NBA and made the All-Defensive second team.
Only Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time scoring leader, came close to matching the longevity of Duncan’s excellence, producing a PER of 22.7 at age 38.
Duncan’s greatness was evident from the start of his Spurs career and he was a unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year in 1997-98.
He established his championship pedigree in just his second season in silver and black, when he led the Spurs to their first NBA title, named MVP of The 1999 NBA Finals after averaging 27.4 points and 12.0 rebounds against the New York Knicks.
His second Finials MVP Award came in 2003, when he punctuated a dominant Finals against the New Jersey Nets with a near quadruple-double in clinching Game 6: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks.
There was Finals retribution for Duncan in 2014, when he averaged 15.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game in the Spurs’ 4-1 dismantling of the Miami Heat in The 2014 NBA Finals. The Heat had broken the hearts of the Spurs and their fans in Game 6 of The 2013 NBA Finals, overcoming a five-point deficit in the final 28 seconds before winning in overtime to force Game 7 on the Heat’s home court in Miami.
Having missed a layup with 41 seconds left that could have tied the score of Game 7 of that 2013 Finals, Duncan called it a game “that will always haunt me.”
Winning in 2014 eased some of that sting.
Duncan accepted a lesser role in his final season with the Spurs, deferring to their newly acquired big man, LaMarcus Aldridge, a free agent he had helped recruit last summer. A January injury to his right knee that required use of a supporting brace – he had been wearing a brace on his surgically repaired left knee for more than a decade – also limited his productivity. He played a career-low 25.2 minutes per game and had career lows in points scored (8.6 per game), rebounds (7.3) and blocks (1.3).
The right knee injury likely played into his decision to retire after what is rightly being hailed as one of the greatest careers in league history.
“For two decades Tim represented the Spurs, the city of San Antonio and the league with passion and class,” Commissioner Silver stated. “All of us in the NBA family thank him for his profound impact on the game.”