The NBA celebrates NBA 75 players almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s winner is Tim Duncan, the Spurs icon, who was expected to be “at least” a multiple NBA star in an early report on college scouting in The Sporting News. That was an underestimation. This story, from the May 26, 2003 issue of The Sporting News, announced Duncan as TSN Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
When Tim Duncan was new, the Spurs coach team gave him a series of exercises. The coaches wanted to test his jumping hook, shooting, footwork, agility and strength movements. They had the same reaction after each movement: wide smiles
Six seasons later, Duncan’s coaches are still smiling. And why not? Led by Duncan, the Spurs won the championship and won or share four division titles. They have completed at least 24 games over 0.500 each season. Duncan, meanwhile, has risen to the top of the NBA and is accumulating awards at almost the same pace as he collects points and rebounds. If he is no longer one of the top 10 players of all time, he will be after the next season or two as the last six.
Duncan, 27, has another Player of the Year trophy from SPORTING NEWS that he can add to his hardware collection. He became the seventh player to win an award in successive years, receiving 12 votes from 20 NBA staff managers who took part in the vote. Kevin Garnett was second with five votes. Kobe Bryant (two) and Tracy McGrady (one) received additional votes.
Already this season, Duncan became only the eighth player to be voted the league’s most useful player in consecutive seasons. He was named the first All-NBA team to become the sixth player to be named to the first NBA team or one of its predecessors in each of his first six seasons. For the fifth season in a row, he was also named to the All Team Defensive Team. The only team you won’t find him in is the All-Interview team, as he is as adept at keeping his personality out of the public eye as he is able to hit a 15-meter bullet. Sample quote after the MVP was named: “I played to win matches and be the best team in the league, and that was it. It doesn’t matter who gets the fame.”
This season will be remembered as a season when many young stars have moved their games to new heights. Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki enjoyed one or two sections as the league’s best player. Duncan, meanwhile, disconnected at his usual pace. The only thing that is breathtaking about his game are the results: 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and of course 60 victories. As his teammate David Robinson said, “He’s not one he always talks about, but when you watch his game, you can’t deny he’s the most effective player on the court.”
It’s been every season in a career that few can do more than just dream: Wake Forest Senior Player of the Year, first draft in 1997, Rookie of the Year in 98, MVP final in ’99 and League MVP and TSN Player of the Year in 2002 and 2003.
Duncan was still in Wake Forest when the league announced its top 50 players, but if the vote took place today, it would be a lock. “I would vote for him,” said NBA Scouting guru Marty Blake, who was on the jury that selected the top 50. “I remember seeing him as a sophomore playing for the United States at the Goodwill Games. I said to my wife, ‘Well, we don’t have to look at him again.’ He was so great, he likes to play, he likes his teammates and like the really great ones he makes the people around him better. “
Aside from the inconsistency on the free throw line, Duncan was the only criticism anyone criticized for being too quiet for a superstar. Popovic wants his best player to show that he has command, not to sit quietly in the shadows. In the last few seasons, Duncan has become louder on the court
“When Avery (Johnson) left, our club management was empty,” says Popovich. “We had to talk to Timmy about it at first. He’s an introspective man and likes to lead by example. But he learned a lot from Avery. Slowly but surely he realized when he needed to say something during the games. He learned how to share himself, not like cheerleader, but as a good teammate. “
Duncan also improved his own game, although one scout says, “He was so damn good when he came, I don’t know if he can say he’s improved.”
The improvement is subtle. Duncan, for example, learned how to pass from double teams. He also knows how to take over the game when he needs to.
“Before, no matter what we ran on the floor, he did it and said nothing because he is respectful,” says Popovich. “Now he feels he wants the ball at important moments in the match, and he’ll tell me.”
And what he does with him is usually very pleasing to Popovich.