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Making the “Greatest” Case for … Tim Duncan?

Duncan Photo via SLAM.com

The NBA finals is in its home stretch and all eyes are on LeBron James to see if he can bring another championship to Cleveland. Aside the in-game drama, there’s another conversation dominating basketball fandom debating who holds the crown of the greatest player of the modern era, LeBron or Michael Jordan.

There IS another player though that’s never in the conversation when it comes to the “greatest players.”

Tim Duncan

With everyone making the Jordan versus LeBron comparisons, I thought I would stir the pot and throw his name into the mix. How does Duncan stack up against two of the greatest players of all time.

Let’s start by seeing how far each player went in the playoffs. I’m going to include Jordan’s two seasons at the end of his career in Washington. After all, his airness was about the same age on those teams as Duncan was in his final season.

Most impressive for Duncan is that in his 18 seasons, he has never once missed the playoffs. LeBron missed them in his first two seasons in the league, and Jordan did so in his last two. Duncan never has. That’s unheard of in today’s NBA.

Duncan ended his brilliant career with five titles, meaning Jordan won his six in fewer seasons. So, although he’s close, Duncan doesn’t quite stack up to Michael. If LeBron is going to challenge either player in the hardware department, obviously he needs to win a few more titles.

Of course championships are won by a team, not an individual person. So will Duncan stack up to LeBron and Jordan when we start looking at some individual stats? Let’s look at the scoring averages for each player. I’m only looking at playoff games, since that’s where legacies are built. I also used points per 36 minutes so that overtime games don’t cloud the results.

Jordan clearly seems like the best player here. His lowest points-per-36 average (his rookie year) is higher than Duncan’s highest average (the 2006 NBA Playoffs when the Spurs beat the Cavs for the championship). LeBron’s a bit harder to measure since he still has a few years left in the league. As of right now though he doesn’t seem to have been able to top Jordan at similar points in their careers.

Another fun fact is that after his first two seasons, Jordan pretty consistently scored close to 30 points per 36 minutes in the playoffs. Meanwhile, LeBron and Duncan have a much higher variability. Even Duncan’s better scoring years rarely top LeBron and never top Jordan.

So far I’ve only looked at what each player has done in the post-season. It would be mistake to completely ignore the regular season though, right?

For this I’m going to use a stat called the Player Efficiency Rating. PER is a measure of per-minute production standardized so that the league average is 15. It accounts for both how efficiently a player scores, and how they do in the “non-scoring” aspects of the game. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the best measuring stick I could find to work with.

So let’s look at each player’s PER in the regular season.

Duncan

Duncan falls short and is clearly in 3rd place here. He was only able to top LeBron’s regular season PER in their rookie season. And the only time he beat Jordan was a season Jordan was with the Wizards, and the season Jordan returned from retirement for 17 regular season games after not playing basketball for 2 years.

Is Tim Duncan a great NBA player? Absolutely. Is he the greatest NBA player? Well … No, not quite. While he has had tremendous success when put side by side, his statistics taken as a whole just aren’t quite consistently on the same level as either Jordan or LeBron.

Duncan was still a once in a generation talent who’s Hall of Fame career , in my opinion, is criminally under-appreciated … but he’s a little bit outside the “greatest” conversation.

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