Each generation in the NBA has players that define their era. Wilt and Russell are the 1960s. Jerry West was the ’70s. Bird and Magic were the 80s. MJ was the 90s.
Which brings us to the 200s. While early on it seemed like a decade that would be dominated by Shaq, his play deteriorated. Instead, two men stood the test of time, winning titles early in the decade and staying competitive into the next decade.
Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are the faces of our generation.
Bryant entered the league in the heralded 1996 NBA Draft, while Duncan joined a year later in the 1997 draft. The two have been closely linked, especially considering how often they’ve battled. The Lakers and Spurs have squared off 54 times in the regular season since both have been in the league.
But it’s the playoff battles that will stick in the minds of fans. They’ve battled in 6 different playoff series, 30 total games, with having Kobe having a 22-8 edge (not including this year’s series, since Kobe didn’t play). The games have always been memorable and Duncan and Bryant both were always at the forefront, making game-deciding plays.
Since 1999, only five titles have been won by teams that weren’t the Spurs or the Lakers, with two of those times featuring the Lakers in the Finals. That’s nine titles in 13 years won by two players. In an era with more competition than ever before, that’s a nearly mind-boggling stat.
Since 1997-98, every All-NBA first team featured either Duncan or Bryant, with both on the team five separate times. Only three times in those 16 years were one of them excluded from one of the three teams altogether.
Many have come in gone in that time period. We witnessed the likes of Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, and Yao Ming reach high peaks before suffering severe declines. Only Kevin Garnett comes close to the level of consistency of Bryant and Duncan, but even he has seen significant declines in recent years.
Since 1997-98, only Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett have scored 23,000 points. Of those, Duncan and Kobe came into the league the earliest and have played the most games with 1180 and 1168 games, respectively.
Bryant and Duncan are models of consistency. Since entering the league, no one has played at the level of them for as long as they have. In 20 years, we’ll look at them in the same manner we look at Magic and Bird, Wilt and Russell, or West and MJ. They’ll be who people most associate with their generation.
And they’ve earned of bit of it.