The last time Tim Duncan won a NBA championship Blake Griffin was graduating high school, Kobe Bryant was the scoring champion and Sam Mitchell was Coach of the Year. Seven years later a lot has changed. Blake Griffin is an All-Star. Kobe Bryant’s binges are behind him. Sam Mitchell is no longer a head coach. This has not changed, though. Tim Duncan has not won a NBA title. He has been as close as you can get to winning, within seconds, but he has not won. The years (and disappointments) have piled high. It has been a particularly long drought considering Tim Duncan’s skills, teammates, coach and past history of excellence. The year after he won the title in 2007, Tim Duncan lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers in 5 games. In 2009, he lost in the first round to the Mavericks in 5 games. In 2010, he lost in the first round to the Suns in a sweep. The next year, in 2011, the Spurs had the best record in the Western Conference but lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies in 6 games, this without Rudy Gay playing for the Grizzlies. In 2012, the Spurs won the first two games against Oklahoma City and then lost the next four in the Western Conference Finals. And of course last year’s disaster, losing in 7 games when they should have won in 6.
So here Duncan is, on the verge of his first title in 7 years. Since that Finals sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, Tim Duncan has played in 603 games without winning a title. It is the longest drought of a 4 time champion trying to become a 5 time champion. Kobe Bryant played 96 games between titles # 4 and #5. Michael Jordan played 101 games between titles #4 and #5. Magic Johnson played 96 games between titles #4 and #5. Kareem Abdul- Jabaar played in 189 games between titles #4 and #5. Despite the presence of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan has played in six times the number of games of the greatest champions to get to this point.
Of course he was at this point last year too. That is the cruelty of sports, its greatest illusion. What appears to be the finished line is not a line at all but a cesspool of regret and sorrow and self blame. In game 7 last year Tim Duncan had two chances at the basket to tie the score in the final minute, two shots he could make blindfolded, shots he has made so many times before there was nothing really special about them. Except this time he missed them, one a running jump hook, one a put back. He hung his head burying it in his hands, pounding on the floor. Even he was stunned.
That moment of futility has led him back to this year and this place, playing spectacularly in the playoffs at the age of 38, still able to produce even as the offense no longer centers around him. He is no longer the Spurs best player but he is their most important player.
“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.” Vince Lombardi could have been speaking of Tim Duncan, of his career, of his consistency. He has had one season out of 17 where he took less than 12 shots a game (2010-11). He has had one season out of 17 where he shot less than 48% (2005-06). He has had two seasons out of 17 where he averaged less than 2 offensive rebounds per game (2011-13). He has had one season out of 17 where he averaged less than 7 rebounds per game (2010-11). He has never averaged less than 15 points a game.
Yesterday Tim admitted that as long as he feels like he can contribute he will keep playing. But if he wins tonight the question is what is he playing for? He’s achieved everything there is to achieve. He will be in the rare air of champions if he earns his fifth title tonight. He was Rookie of the Year. He won 2 MVP Awards, 3 Finals MVP Awards. In 17 years he has missed two All Star games. He has been a 10 time, first team All-NBA selection. He has been an 8 time, first team NBA All-Defensive selection. He is 11th all time in rebounds, 7th in blocks, he has made over $200 million dollars and it could have been more had he been in a larger market and had he demanded more. He has played in 1,487 games including the playoffs and played 45,500 minutes in his career.
In this world of over exposure and self promotion, Tim Duncan has done it his way which is a quiet way many find unbearably boring. He was Rookie of the Year and soon after a champion. He almost went to the Orlando Magic in 2000 to join Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill; he was so very, very close. But he changed his mind. It was the right thing to do. Even as he has never missed the playoffs he has also never repeated as champion. Back to back Finals appearances are as close as he has come; last year he should have been the champion. But you live the life that is in front of you. It would have been a nice touch for him to win a title this year and walk away for good. But romance of that sort belong to writers. It is not real life. Players play. Until they can’t. Until they have nothing left anymore. Until the games don’t mean anything to them anymore. Tim has said this is not that moment. This is not his last. But if we know anything about men and sports and age we know that moment is coming.