Duncan V. Kobe

With Tim Duncan and the Spurs rolling through the playoffs, perhaps on track for their fifth title of the Duncan/Popovich era, ESPN’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” posed the following question to their listeners:  If Duncan matches Kobe’s five championship rings (making them the only active players with that many), does Duncan pass Kobe as the best player of their generation?

To be honest, I was a little shocked by the question.  But probably not for the reason some might think.  I wasn’t shocked, as many were, that ESPN had the gall to suggest that anyone other than Kobe was the best player of that generation.  Rather, I was shocked at the suggestion that Duncan had to do more than he has already done to lay that claim.  To me, regardless of whether he ever matches Kobe’s championship total, Duncan will go down as the greatest player of the last 15 years, one of the greatest players ever, and arguably the best power forward to ever play the game.

While Kobe (currently) has the edge in rings, Duncan trumps him in MVPs (2 to 1) and Finals MVPs (3 to 2).  Duncan was the best player on all four Spurs championship teams; Kobe was only the best on two (MAYBE 3 if we’re feeling very charitably) of the Lakers championship teams.  Kobe has never won a ring without an elite big man behind him; during the years he lacked one, the Lakers were 121-125.  Duncan was the elite big man on his team for the entirety of his career; his team has never had a winning percentage below .610 and routinely won upwards of 70% of their regular season games.

Duncan was the consummate leader of a team defined by their professional, methodical approach to sustained success.  Under his watch, players like Stephen Jackson (he of the Malice at the Palace) were model citizens.  He’s made no bones about transitioning to a more supportive role as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken the reigns of the team.

Kobe sparred with coaches and players, throwing folks under the bus left and right if they had the gall to interfere with his pursuits.  He’s made it clear that he puts himself above the team, shooting more despite diminished skills and emerging young teammates like Andrew Bynum.

And, ohbytheway, there is the fact that Duncan leads Kobe in just about every statistic, both traditional and advanced, besides scoring.

Kobe is a transcendent scorer with a vicious killer instinct and competitive drive that sometime got the best of him.

Duncan is an elite offensive player who anchored dominant defenses and rarely acted in a way that was anything but beneficial to his team’s chances at success.

To me, the answer as to who is the best player of the generation spanning from the late 90’s to the early 2010’s is Tim Duncan and there really isn’t much discussion.

Of course, that won’t stop us from having one in the comments section, now will it?


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.


  1. There are eight seconds left on the clock.

    Do you inbound the ball to Kobe, or to Duncan? Or, to be more fair, since you’d usually inbound to the guard, how have you drawn up the last play? Assume whichever year for the player you think is most advantageous, and the rest of the team is equivalent, and the opposing team has equivalent defenders at their respective positions.

    Here’s the way I would throw down: if the defender guarding the player in question is also of near-elite caliber, I’m giving the ball to Kobe, because the defense is layered and your offensive set can result in peeling off that defender via a pick or whatnot and the down-low defense is probably not good enough to stop Kobe on the cut.

    If the defender guarding the player in question is not of near-elite caliber, I’d give the ball to Timmy since he’s going to take a much higher percentage shot.

    I don’t think that’s a great argument either way for who is “better”. One guy is a forward and the other is a guard, for crying out loud…

      • Burt-

        Indulging the silliness of using fantasy rankings to analyze real sports, that was for one year. At their peaks, Duncan was a perennial top fantasy pick, especially when he had C eligibility.

    • PC-

      I didn’t ASK the question, but merely answerd it. I’m not really partial to that analysis, as it is too micro in nature. Kobe likely is the right choice for an end game shot for a variety of reasons (including free throw shooting, which you didn’t mention), but my argument is that Duncan’s presence makes the need for a last second shot less likely.

      • In the regular season, sure.

        Going to the Finals? Well, there’s not-too-seldom instances where missing that shot at the buzzer in game 4 puts you down 3-1 instead of tied 2-2, and things are ugly at that point.

        It’s a long way to the Finals.

        • Duncan’s statistical edge in the playoffs is even greater than regular season. And Duncan has never missed the playoffs. Kobe can’t say that.

          • Statistical edge in the playoffs doesn’t mean much unless you look at who the guy was playing.

            Now, there were a lot better power forwards in the West than in the East pretty much the *entire* length of the 90s, but I’m not sure who Timmy matched up with, off the top of my head…

          • Garnett, Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Dirk, and Shaq are all guys I remember Duncan matching up against in the playoffs. Dirk and Shaq weren’t necessarily at the 4, but I know Duncan defended and was defended by them at times.

            I don’t remember what 2’s Kobe went against, though the way perimeter guys are defended is markedly different than post guys (Kobe might blow by his defender only to see that same crew of guys standing in his way).

            However, with both guys, we are looking at significant sample sizes, with both having played more than 2 regular season’s worth of playoff games (Kobe is pushing three). While strength of opponent certainly matters regardless of sample size, I think we can take more meaning from Kobe/Duncan’s numbers than most other guys.

          • Well, there’s something to the point, right there.

            Neither Dirk nor Webber plays defense. Shaq is an aberration; Duncan shouldn’t be playing against him. ‘Sheed certainly did play defense, but he’s best inside 10 feet playing against people who are trying to body him, and he’s too short to guard Duncan at 10+. Garnett was a perfect match for Duncan, though.

            Now I want to do playoff research…

  2. Additional note:

    Tim’s more durable at position. And given the value of durability at big man, in particular, it’d be hard not to give him an edge just for that.

    The average power forward misses *a lot* more games, over their career, than Tim Duncan has.

  3. I think Duncan IS the greatest power forward ever, but I still give the nod to Kobe – the second greatest 2 ever, after the greatest player ever.

    Kobe just has that pathological will to win that will make him as much of a sad spectacle as Jordan is now after he hangs up his jersey. Bit it still gives him the edge, imho.

    But I’ll not argue hard against Duncan.

    • Tod-

      I only included the “arguably” because I don’t know all the old timers well… That was more of an “incomplete.”

      Kobe’s drive/killer instinct/ competitiveness is unquestioned. But he seems to struggle to channel it positively the way Jordan always did. Jordan’s drive only ever really hurt him off the court. Jordan wanted to win at all costs; Kobe seems to want to be great at all costs. There is a small but subtle difference there (and I’d argue it is likely at least partly the result of Kobe following Jordan… Jordan didn’t follow anyone even remotely comparable). Kobe, at times, seems to sacrifice winning to prove his greatness. I struggle to get over his handling of that elimination game against Phoenix in ’06 (though that might resonate uniquely since it was the same night I met my wife :-D).

      • Jordan’s drive didn’t hurt him on the court because the refs were more lenient with him than with anybody since Magic. The refs are harder on Kobe.

        Admittedly, this is like saying, “This forty bazillion dollar briefcase doesn’t have as much money in it as that forty-two bazillion dollar briefcase” when most guys are lucky to pack ten grand, but still.

        • Are you referring to “drive” as in “going to the hoop” or as in “determination”? I’m not sure how the refs could impact Kobe if it is the latter, which is how I meant it.

          I think Kobe has a bit of a victim complex. He’s had to play in Jordan’s shadow. Though Jordan came on the heels of Bird, Magic, and Zeke, he was such a different player than all of them that he wasn’t really compared in the same way that Kobe is/was to Jordan. Jordan was singularly focused on dominating, on destroying his opponents, on ripping their hearts out, all in the name of winning basketball games. I think there is a part, possibly a very large part, of Kobe that is focused on proving how he measures up to Jordan and other greats, that is concerned with his legacy and where he stands when it all shakes out in the end. At times, I think this focus overwhelms the desire to win, which is why we’ll see him jack up 40 shots despite all evidence pointing to it being a less-than-ideal strategy for winning. I honestly think Kobe wouldn’t mind scoring 101 points in a loss if it meant inching that much closer to Jordan on the totem pole. And I point to that Suns game because Kobe’s mindset seemed to be, “I’ll show them what they’d be like without me,” again trying to prove the point of how individually great he is. I won’t hang all this on Kobe as a character flaw or anything. It’s part of being human. Couple all that with the fact that Kobe had an NBAer for a father, leading him to have a greater appreciation for the history of the game, and it makes sense. Still, it is a minor but not unimportant factor in the argument.

          But, yes, there is an extent to which we are splitting hairs. I wouldn’t cry if you told me I had to take Kobe on my team. Completely off the top of my head, if I was drafting players from the last 15 years, I’d probably go Duncan, Kobe, Garnett, Dirk, Kidd, and then Pierce. And I am giving Kobe a bit of credit their for “intangibles”.

  4. I will also say this: I can’t remember the last time I saw a team play better ball than the Spurs right now. Maybe the ’01 lakers? If not the Bulls. They are that scary good. I LOVE to watch them play.

    • This team is more disciplined than the ’01 Lakers.

      I’d still take the ’01 Lakers. Shaq.

      • People forget just how good the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were at their best, mostly because of how it ended, I think.

        • It was also the (perhaps false) perception that they didn’t bring it all the time that haunts them a tad.

          • Well, they weren’t the 95-96 Bulls…I don’t think I’ll ever see a sports team that dominant again in my lifetime.

          • 95-96 Bulls got to play in the East.

            And really, the East was *terrible* in the second half of the nineties. That’s worth 10 wins, right there. Granted, it’s going to be a tough record to beat, and ought to be. But that’s a “stars align” record.

          • I dunno, I think if you dropped that team into the modern NBA, they’d win 80 games.

          • No way. 65, maybe.

            Not that 65 is anything to sneeze at.

  5. Let me add that you made this post at the drop of the puck of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup, also involving a Los Angeles team. At a time that the Dodgers are the best team in baseball.

    Despite the Lakers being edged out of the playoffs, and the continuing lack of an NFL team, it’s good to be a sports fan in L.A. right now.

    • I should also say I earlier drafted a post on Kobe being overrated that remains incomplete. The M&M spot made me feel like I *had* to touch on it. If only to piss off the fair-weathered fans of LaLa Land.

      • Fair-weather fandom versus perennial fandom would make for another interesting sports post, BTW. I rather doubt it’s only (some) L.A. fans who are guilty of it.

        • Oh, sure. That was really just a cheap shot at LA, especialy with the Kings winning! Fandom will certainly be a big topic here. That’d make for an interesting exploration.

          • I’d just like to see the Devils lose.

            Kings winning is a secondary concern.

  6. What does “the Lakers were 121-125” mean? I think you are talking about how many games this team played, but what does each number represent?

    After reading the first paragraph, I had to google to make sure you were talking about basketball. I was fairly sure this Kobe fellow played basketball, but I had to check. That is to say, I would appreciate if you would explain this really, really slowly.

    • Hey Mary-

      Great question. Structuring numbers like that can mean a lot of things. Generally when referring to a team, they represent a team’s record or results. The Lakers being 121-125 means they won 121 games and lost 125 games. Some sports will have a third or fourth column if there are other potential outcomes (such as draws/ties or overtime losses). It should also be notd that the Lakers’ stated record there occurred over 3 seasons. A typical NBA regular season involves 82 games. 121-125 would be referred to as a “below .500 (pronounced 500)” record, meaning they loss more than they won. A “500 record” is one where a team won 50% of their games, which is typically represented in the standings as a .500 winning percentage.

      • That is so not what I thought it meant. Thank you for explaining it.

        • Heh. Glad to help. We’ll have you a sports nut in no time.

          Though, now I’m dying to know… What DID you think it meant?

          • I thought the first number was either the number of games the team won or lost and the second number was the total number of games the team played in a season. But 125 games seemed like an impossible amount of basketball to play in a year (or less than a year, how long does a season last anyway?) and that didn’t make sense with your .610 and 70% numbers. 82 games still seems like a lot for a “regular season”.

          • That representation can sometimes mean that. If a basketball player is said to have gone 5-10 or a baseball player is said to have gone 3-4 (though more likely written as 3/4), they likely mean that the former made five out of ten shots or the latter had three hits in four at bats. I do believe there are SOME sports that might also refer to team records in that way, though none of the major American ones do.

            I’d actually agree that 82 games is too many for the NBA. This year they played a condensed 66-game schedule owing to a lockout and, while the frequency of games was a bit intense, the total number seemed better. I think the ideal number would be in the low 70’s, but it’ll never happen; too much money to lose. For comparison’s sake, the NFL players 16 regular season games, the NHL players 82 (I think this used to be 84), and MLB plays 162 (!!!) games.

          • If you shorten the season to 70 games, guys can play until they’re 40.

          • It’s a different thing.

            This isn’t necessarily good or bad. Given the current state of affairs, it still wouldn’t happen the way it ought, because (a) general managers across the league are morons and (b) the players agents are morons and (c) the salary cap.

            Anyone who thinks rational actors exist in a marketplace have not spent any time looking at the NBA. It’s practically a poster child for why markets aren’t always the answer. Wait… no politics. Maybe I can make that into a front page post.

          • PC-

            You might have a better example in baseball, as it is generally the “freest” market off the major American sports. No salary cap, no set salary structures or limits, no hard rookie wage scale (though I think the latest round of negotiations might have changed that)… the only real restrictions are those put in place for young guys and arbitration eligible guys, and even those are bumped up against less frequently as teams began to properly value (and then overvalue) young guys.

            I’d love to see a post on that. As I mentioned in my post on the NBA Draft, I think there are some fascinating conversations to be had about how sports leagues function as markets. I’d love to see the crowd here tackle them, though I do not consider myself knowledgeable enough to do more than ask questions.

  7. This is what I hate about these statistical arguments, which always end up comparing apples and bicycles anyway.

    Duncan’s problem is that he is and as always has been incredibly boring to watch. On most nights with Duncan, you have to be reminded he was even at the game, and, then, when you think about it, you realize he played quite well. Then, when you think about it some more, you think yeah he sure is a darn fine player, one of the best ever, no doubt. In short, he’s great, and he’s had some truly great performances, but he’s not a whole lot of fun.

    Kobe, by contrast, has always been incredibly interesting to watch. I’m a 100% biased Laker fan who has been watching Kobe since when he first came up, but that also means that, from watching the Ls night in and night out, I can assure you that he is virtually guaranteed in any given game to take your breath away at least a couple of times, maybe a bunch of times. On almost every night, and usually more then once, Kobe will take and hit shots that nobody else, including MJ, would ever think of even trying.

    That counts for something, call it the balletic aspect of basketball. In fact, it counts for a lot. It’s not everything by itself, but it’s significant, and needs to be added to his championships, scoring titles, awards, intensity, willingness and ability to take the pressure shot, etc. During the lean years, Kobe was also capable of turning an overall pretty bad team into an at least highly watchable team, and even into a playoff team.

    And, yeah, just to prove I’m not a total Laker-homer, the current Kobe is clearly not what he used to be, and the current Spurs team has been playing on such a high level it does bring back memories of the great teams I’ve ever seen, and not just in basketball, and they’re a joy to watch – just not much because of Duncan.

    • Hi CK-

      Thanks for jumping in here. If I understand you correctly, it seems as if you are appealing, at least in part, to basketball as entertainment. And from there you are arguing that Kobe has an advantage over Duncan as he was a more entertaining player. That is a very interesting angle that was lacking in my piece. Cobbling together a few thoughts in the moment, here is how I’ll respond (for now):
      1.) Though I didn’t explicitly say it, I was defining best in terms of who did the most to help his teams win. Essentially the question as I considered it was, “Which player would you pick if you were building a team and wanted to win the most championships over the next 15 years?” With this in mind, entertainment value really doesn’t matter.
      2.) Another “issue” I have with that position is that entertainment is highly subjective. I won’t argue that Duncan can match the physical marvel of Kobe, especially in their primes. How easy it is to forget that Kobe won a slam dunk contest and used to be much more of a slasher and high-flyer! That being said, I’m a bit of an oddball in that some of the plays I most enjoy watching are not what the typical fan looks for… a perfectly executed bounce pass; great footwork in the post; lockdown perimeter defense. Even with this in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily argue that Duncan is or was more entertaining than Kobe; I only use it to point out that entertainment is a really difficult thing to measure.
      3.) I think your initial point about how much we “notice” Duncan is an important one. Whether it is because of his style of play, playing in SA, or his lack of “star power” (which I think of more in terms of his celebrity), Duncan (and the Spurs) rarely get the credit they deserve. People, myself included, still think of them as a boring team. Did you know they were second in the league this year in points per game? And “only” 16th in points allowed? This ain’t the grind-it-out Spurs that put everyone to sleep when they played the Pistons back in ’05. But they and Duncan are stuck with that narrative, for better or worse. I think that colors how we consider their legacies. So there was probably bit of hyperbole in my piece to counter that.

      Anyway, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate you bringing a different angle to the convo and hope to see you ’round these parts going forward.

      • Subjective, sure, but that’s not the same as unreal, or not relevant to ideas of the best or of greatness.


        Plus game statistics, even setting aside their crudeness, aren’t the only “objective” indicators we have. There are ticket sales, jersey sales, TV ratings, contract clauses, name recognition, appearances in league and network promotional advertisements…

        If you as a GM or owner or fan or merchandiser or announcer or analyst or writer or lover of basketball had to choose which player to have on “your” team for the next 15 years, the next Duncan or the next Kobe, who would you choose, really?

    • I honestly thought Durant and the Thunder were the team to beat in this playoffs…but the Spurs (despite how much I hate their usual style of play) have been convincingly better, to the point where it’s like men vs. boys. Hopefully this changes…but yeah.

      • It will. OKC is a better bunch of raw talent, and the Spurs have not been forced to pay the old man dividend this postseason.

        Generally speaking, when your team starts off the season looking like the Spurs do, late in the playoffs everyone is talking about such-and-so’s knees and how that other guy never really got into the game after the pulled groin late in the season and this is why you can only have so many veterans because these young guys are healthy and they’re running you to death.

        The start of this season… even with the short season… I would not have put future book money on the Spurs. It’s a losing bet, most years.

        • Going into these playoffs, I thought the Spurs would wind up like last year’s Celtics. Good, with a ton of potential to pull it off due to intangibles, but the likelihood of the old man dividend being due in a big way.

          So far they’re weathering it just fine.

          • There is a part of me that wonders if the condensed schedule might have fooled us. The Spurs had a great regular season when they were playing 4 games a week. Now that they are down to 3 games a week, the extra rest might be part of what is propelling them to the next level.

            They really are doing something right now. As one of the announcers during tonight’s game said, if the Heat or Lakers were on a roll like the Spurs, it would be all anyone is talking about.

        • I think OKC has the best chance to become The Team To Beat in the next 5 years. Oddly enough, when it comes to pieces, I’d say the Clippers were number 2 but the Clippers have long demonstrated that they don’t know what to do with pieces except hit the board and scatter them all over the room when they have their latest seizure, which is probably coming up as soon as the trading season opens.

          San Antonio’s exit strategy is better than the Lakers, or basically anybody else in the West because their GM is actually pretty smart when it comes to taking on salary. They could be able to transition to a post-Timmy team without a three year down cycle. The Lakers just had year one, they’ve got two to go.

          I still think the NBA nixing the Big Trade at the start of the season was terribly unjust.

  8. What are we considering the cutoff for “of Kobe’s generation”? Active from 2000 – present?

    • As a body of work, Duncan has had the better career.

      But I’m not sure Kobe and Duncan are actually the two best players of their generation. They’ve certainly had the best careers in that generation, but there were a bunch of peak performers in that period who were for at least one season or two, better players.

    • Nob-

      Great question. Again, I was riffing off a radio spot, which was less than the most scientific setup. Duncan and Kobe came into the league within a year of each other (’96 for Kobe, ’97 for Duncan). I don’t know the best way to define “generation”. For the sake of argument, I’d consider anyone who played the entirety of 2000-2010, giving credit for every and all seasons. That sort of works. I don’t really consider Wade or LeBron to be the same generation as Kobe. Shaq would meet the criteria, in part because of a couple of hanger-on seasons at the end, which feels a bit squishy to me. It is never easy to create generations.

      A former blogger at Baseball-Reference (part of the same group that does Basketball-Reference) used to do studies where he looked at who was the best player over a 3-year span progressively. So he’d look at the best from 2001-2003, and then 2002-2004, and then 2003-2005, etc. You could see a different guy named “the best” of each of those spans or a single guy dominate all three. It was an interesting methodology. And you bring up a great point about peak versus longevity, which is one of the seemingly unanswerable questions when evaluating athletes. As I said to CK above, I tend to think of the question as, “Who would you take to build around for the next X years?” with X usually being between 12-15. But there are so many ways to consider the question. Which is what makes this so fun!

      • A statistical stretch of three years is pretty common for good players. That methodology makes sense.

      • See if we’re dealing with the 2000s, then I think the debate has to be Kobe and Duncan.

        But if we’re going by 3 year periods, there’s a whole lot more names that come onto that list. Shaq certainly had a very dominant 3 year stretch. Same can be said for the likes of Allen or Garnett.

        • When you say Allen, do you mean Ray Allen or Allen Iverson? Or is there another Allen I’m forgetting?

          I’m still trying to dig up the three-year-stretch blog post. I’m not sure if it was on BR or the new site their blog moved to, High Heat Stats. I’ll email the main blogger and see what I can dig up. I think they used WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as their metric. Win Shares or Win Shares/48 would probably be the most analogous stat for basketball, if we’re sticking to using just one metric.

          • I was thinking Ray Allen when I made the reply, but Allen Iverson perhaps exemplifies peak performance, but short career.

          • I also think there is a tendency to downplay the peak of a guy if it isn’t a sharp peak.

            For instance, using a scale of 1-10 to measure success, if player A’s career trajectory looks like:
            7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 8, 7
            versus Player B’s:
            5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 10, 10, 8, 7, 7
            we sometimes tend to think that Player B’s peak was better than Player A’s because, relative to the rest of their career it was, but in totality, it wasn’t.

            So in mentioning Allen Iverson and Ray Allen, we see that Iverson has one season ranked among the top 250 (123rd) and Ray Allen has zero. So, in reality, there didn’t even exist a single-season, let alone a multi-year stretch where either player surpassed Duncan. But because their career arc has a higher spike, we don’t always think of it that way.

            (PER is far from the best measure, as it doesn’t really account for defense; I was really just using it for illustrative purposes.)

            But while we’re at it, here are the active players with seasons that rank ahead of Duncan’s best:
            James: 6
            Wade: 4
            McGrady: 1
            Paul: 2
            Garnett: 2
            Dirk: 2
            Amare: 1
            Kobe: 1

            So, again, in a metric that doesn’t account for defense (which is one of the things Duncan truly excelled at), he still comes out looking pretty damn good.

          • Allen Iverson is a player who had a huge impact factor for three years and who I would not under any circumstances ever take as a player on my team.

            The guy is a team chemistry bomb.

          • There was a ton to admire about Iverson as a basketball player. Being good at winning basketball games was not one of them.

          • I’m a fan of WS/48 as the primary metric on judging players…and what amazes me about WS/48 is just how badly Kobe fares when you judge him by that metric.

            I think Duncan and Shaq were the two best players in the decade of 2000 – 2010.

            Past that statistically it’s clear this decade’s gonna belong to Lebron. I don’t think it will in terms of championships (at least I hope it won’t), but the man’s a statistical monster.

          • My only hesitation with WS/48 is that it risks overvaluing guys who play fewer minutes and who likely couldn’t keep up their production over a larger workload. That’s not really an issue when you are comparing 40 minute/game guys like Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, and LeBron. I think it can (slightly) overvalue a guy like Manu. For instance, this year he was far and away the leader for the Spurs, but he only played 800 minutes over 34 games, compared to 1900 over 60 for Parker and 1600 over 58 for Duncan. It also will inflate a guy like LeBron, who is still in his prime and hasn’t gone through the downside of his career yet, which will likely lower a rate stat like that. Of course, we can make the necessary mental adjustments to account for that.

    • Nob, you should check that one out too 🙂

    • I saw that…I kept thinking “92 Dream Team”.

    • Quickly perused it… I probably wouldn’t be able to offer a ton in large part because I’m not as much of a historian as many others. However, I think about this all the time. For instance, I thought the 2008 Olympic Team’s inclusion of Jason Kidd at PG was brilliant. Not because he was the best American PG at that point, but because he was happy to deliver every player the ball exactly where he needed it and never take a single shot. That made more sense for the construction of that team, with it’s plethora of offensive weapons, than a guy like Russell Westbrook would have.

      I could probably come up with a squad, but it would be almost all recent guys and likely wouldn’t improve on what was offered. Also, I’m not sure if it was addressed there, but the evolving nature of athletics makes such exercises hard to do in an overly serious manner. For instance, few people outside of Mr. Green’s family would argue that Gerald Green was better than, oh, say, George Mikan. But if George Mikan got out of a time machine from the 50’s and jumped onto a court today against Mr. Green, he’d probably lose, if only because Green could run and jump circles around him. It’s sort of like how in football, safeties nowadays are bigger than lineman from the 30’s.

      • But, yea, that post looks awesome and I intend to read it fully. Sorry I missed it back then!

      • Tod made that point in the comments (relative athleticism). I think it’s something to consider, but Dr. J didn’t have much trouble doing things that most guys today can’t do, so even though I’d probably revisit some of my choices in this post, I don’t think relative athleticism is a nuclear weapon difference. But it’s a trump suit, all other things being equal.

        The flip point is, “Who’s calling the game?” Because if you’re playing with 1970 rules, everybody today will get called for traveling every time they touch the ball.

        Pure shooting, on the gripping hand, transcends age.

        • If we’re doing that sort of hypothetical, I think it might be helpful to assume the players would have access to super modern training regimes which would likely fill that gap pretty well.

          • I don’t really know what 70’s basketball looked like, but if it was anything like 80’s basketball… someone would die. If Dwight Howard could foul LeBron James the way Bill Laimbeer would foul Kevin McHale, someone is going to die. Guys are just too big and too strong and too fast nowadays.

            I know a lot of folks decry the current state of the NBA/American basketball and point to things like lower scoring and slower pacing as evidence that the game and its “fundamentals” have declined. Honestly, I think that is hogwash and mostly concern mongering and hand wringing. The reason scoring is down relative to the 70’s and 80’s is because guys actually play defense. Hard. And physical. Go back and watch tape of games from the 70’s and see how many uncontested lay-ups and jump shots guys take. We also have to remember how the 3-point line has changed the game. The notion that the “mid-range” game is lost might be true, but that is because many players replaced it with a long range game. There used to be no reason for a guy to shoot from 25 feet out if he could get a shot from 18. But the 3-point line changed that. Shooting 35% on 3’s is better than shooting 50% on 2’s. It is certainly not a bad thing to have a mid-range game and many of the greats still do, but most guys realized if they were going to work on their jump shot, it made sense to take a couple of steps back and increase their output by 50%, even if their overall shooting percentage went down. And even if other “fundamentals” (a term I feel has more to do with faux nostalgia and resistance to change than any explicit basketball skill) have been lost, they’ve been replaced by new skills, which have likely made today’s players not only better, but more effective and efficient. Why should we care if a guy can’t make a lefty layup if he can dunk from both sides of the rim? The ball went in, didn’t it? Fundamentals are largely aesthetic and if that is your cup of tea, so be it. And while I realize to generalize from this one data point would be unfair, I can’t help but think of that A-Hole who tried to start an all-white basketball league (which he naturally called the All-American Basketball League because, ya know, white = American) under the guise that white players were being excluded because fundamentals were devalued in favor of street ball. Or something. Again, I’m not saying anyone here is longing for “fundamental” basketball and that even if they were it would mean they were harboring secret racial resentment… only that we tend to evaluate the past with rose colored glasses and engage in a certain faux nostalgia that romances things in very silly ways.

            Hmmmm… that got a hell of a lot more ranty than I intended. Oh well.

            Disclaimer: All discussion of style of play ignores the mid-to-late 90’s Pat Riley teams of the Eastern Conference. That never happened. That was really just a prototype for MMA. That wasn’t basketball.

  9. On a random NBA related tangent…

    Can we please stop the charade that the lottery isn’t rigged? I mean c’mon!

    • I was tempted to say something, but David Stern grew up in the same town as me, which means I am within range of his stinger missiles.

      I’m just mad they didn’t rig it for Brooklyn. COME’ON!

  10. Fascinating topic (for sports fans!). It’s a tough one because Kobe is clearly the Best Basketball Athlete of His Generation. And he has the ego to go with it. So there is a tendency, even I feel it, to give him more credit for the Lakers success than he probably deserves (for some of the reasons you mentioned in the OP). But here’s my decider in the debate: Kobe will lose his teams ballgames that they should win precisely because he’s got the ego of the Best Basketball Athlete of His Generation. He did that this year in games against the Nugglies and in games against OKC. And lots of times in the past. (Kobe show starts at the 8 minute mark of the 4th quarter! Don’t be late!) Everyone talks about what a great closer he is, and what a great scorer he is, but until this year (hat tip Charles Barkley) I hadn’t heard anyone so clearly say that the specific reason the Lakers lost a playoff game was because of Kobe. (Charles also criticized him for taking turrible turrible shots and then blaming Gasol for not being more aggressive on the offensive end, which expresses the type of team player Kobe really is.) On the other hand, Duncan consistently puts of big if not dominant numbers, plays in the system, makes those around him better, and most of all, he wins.

    • Dammit, Still… why does it take me three times as many words to say the exact same thing???

    • Yes, the rationale for Kobe retiring sooner rather than too much later has now been clearly evidenced and sighted, but, since you appear to argue on behalf of Duncan’s theoretical superiority, I’m going to paste a comment from my own blog, where this theme was also taken up, providing a second dimension, if you will, to the “entertainment” argument I made, which overlaps with Best Basketball Athlete (which could be argued independently as the authentic question):

      Scott Miller says:
      May 31, 2012 at 8:37 am

      It is very hard for a team to win a championship without a big man. The issue has to do with fouling. Refs call less as the championship nears and big men can still get their shots off when that time comes. Note MJ’s famous shot. He pushes off to get a shot but that’s really the only way it was going to happen. No cheating. Just a championship shot. MJ was a kind of big man. Stronger than anyone guarding him and as strong as the big men. Kobe is strong but not big man strong. Duncan is a funny one. He’s a bit more like Garnett in that many of his shots are not big men shots. But at the same time he’s never been a truly reliable foul shooter either, so it’s dicy to go to him at the end of games. Plus, he never really had a killer instinct. So, I think it can be argued that Ginobili was the key to the Spurs success. He’s a freak like Kobe–with the kind of killer instinct that even works in a championship game when the refs don’t want to make calls. He could somehow always make them make calls. It was so perfect when G and his new clone Harden did the same flop to each other at the exact some time. A perfect mirroring and who won? The ref called Harden for the foul, so much as saying, “you’re not the real thing, dude. Only a clone.” So once G was in the mix things changed for the Spurs. They went from a team that good lose games like the one when Derek Fisher beat them to a team that could close. Duncan doesn’t get credit for that. He could never close. He’s really really smart, but not only part of the reason the Spurs had their real winning years. Obviously, Kobe has always been the Ls closer. Even with Shaq there, he was the closer, not because he was strong but because he is just so damn willful, smart, and tenacious. And he could also hit clutch free throws. So, sorry, Timmy, no contest. Kobe is the best player of his generation hands down.

      So, in summary, Duncan has some crude statistical arguments on his behalf, and this notion that he’s an ideal basketball citizen. But Duncan has always had to rely on someone else to deliver those championships, in whatever 4th quarter of whatever decisive close games. Game statistics may never capture these dimensions, and certainly not on the level that most people are prepared to make the statistical argument. And he’s boring.

      Kobe has entertainment value, athleticism both pure and cultured, and, by the above argument, concrete ability to win games. Also, the ball-hogging criticism meant to subtract from Kobe’s citizenship claim has always been countered, in recent years quite strongly, by player-coaching and exemplary work ethic.

      No contest.

      • This is a very interesting perspective, but I think it indulges in a bit too much narrative (as opposed to hard analysis) and takes too micro a view.

        First off, the idea that Duncan was not an effective player in the clutch, that he could not be counted on to close games, is false. Since 2000, Duncan is tied for the best shooting percentage in clutch situations (last 5 minutes of regulation and OT, neither team ahead by more than 5) amongst players with at least 650 shots (LeBron is the guy he’s tied with). They both shot 46% on such shots. Kobe, who took nearly twice as many of these types of shots as Duncan, shot 40%. The notion that Kobe is a killer closer is as much bred out of the fact that he takes so many of those damn shots as it based on his actually ability to convert them. Also, Duncan won his 1st Championship without Ginobili or any other real elite offensive perimeter player. He was the primary scorer for that squad. And Ginobili was a role player during Duncan’s 2nd win, averaging just 9 points a game during those playoffs.

        Second, I think that looking at game winning shots in the Finals is too micro a view. That is a tiny fraction of what guys do that impacts winning championships. If I had to draw up a last second play to win Game 7 of the Finals, I might go with Kobe. But, again, that is now how you draft a team.

        There are no doubt a great number of things that Kobe does on the basketball court better than Duncan. I just struggle to see any hard evidence that suggests that Kobe did more to help his teams win over the course of his career than Duncan. The stats overwhelmingly favor Duncan. As do most scouting reports. The biggest things in Kobe’s corner are the narratives constructed around him and the fact that he fits the Jordan mold closer than anyone since MJ retired.

        (By the way, are you new to these parts? If so, welcome! Please don’t read my disagreement as unwelcoming… that is part of the fun. I look forward to checking out your blog.)

        • I’ve been around in other Leaguealites for a while, sucked into the orbit initially by some posts by Mr. Isquith months ago. And I don’t feel unwelcomed by your disagreement. I live for danger.

          Not sure about those scouting reports, but otherwise I don’t take the crunch-time stats seriously – too many factors that cannot be captured in the raw numbers. For instance, if a player takes a shot and misses, has he done worse than a player who in roughly the same game situation or predicament wouldn’t even get a shot off or even be a threat to shoot (either through lack of skill or because not a dependable foul-shooter)? What if the player, because he cannot get the shot off, much more frequently passes to lesser players (or turns the ball over)? What if the team lacks dependable other alternatives, forcing the player to put it all on himself? What if the team has a distinct offensive rebounding advantage, through talent or strategy, in effect converting missed shots into opportunities or even virtual assists?

      • Hmmm. Not persuaded. Was Bill Russell a closer? Kareem? Magic? I mean, this idea of a closer came about because of MJ, it seems to me, so it’s only a relatively new metric, one which Kobe has really taken to heart. (It’s also important to remember that even tho MJ was a closer, his first priority was to make the right basketball play.) Seems to me Kobe would rather lose the game as ‘the closer’ than win the game by passing. And fortunately for laker fans, he has the talent to get it done often enough. But so do alot of other players, I think, players who are more inclined to make the right basketball play instead of ‘the closer’ play.

        Also, when Duncan made that run in the early oughts, was that team overachieving? Do Kobe’s teams ever over-achieve? It seems to me that Kobe’s teams under-achieve given the talent level on the floor. Something I attribute to his inability to make those around him better.

        • The early oughts belonged to the Ls. The 1999 Spurs championship team had the following line-up:

          33 Antonio Daniels G 6-4 195 March 19, 1975 1 Bowling Green State University
          21 Tim Duncan F-C 6-11 248 April 25, 1976 1 Wake Forest University
          17 Mario Elie G-F 6-5 210 November 26, 1963 8 American International College
          32 Sean Elliott F 6-8 205 February 2, 1968 9 University of Arizona
          10 Andrew Gaze G 6-7 205 July 24, 1965 1 Seton Hall University
          2 Jaren Jackson G-F 6-4 190 October 27, 1967 8 Georgetown University
          6 Avery Johnson G 5-10 175 March 25, 1965 10 Southern University and A&M College
          4 Steve Kerr G 6-3 175 September 27, 1965 10 University of Arizona
          25 Jerome Kersey F 6-7 215 June 26, 1962 14 Longwood University
          54 Gerard King F 6-9 230 November 25, 1972 R Nicholls State University
          41 Will Perdue C 7-0 240 August 29, 1965 10 Vanderbilt University
          50 David Robinson C 7-1 235 August 6, 1965 9 United States Naval Academy
          31 Malik Rose F 6-7 250 November 23, 1974 2 Drexel University
          11 Brandon Williams G 6-6 215 February 27, 1975 1 Davidson College

          Pretty deep team, if you ask me. The ’03 Spurs champs were:

          34 Mengke Bateer C 6-11 290 November 20, 1975 1
          12 Bruce Bowen F 6-7 185 June 14, 1971 6 California State University, Fullerton
          23 Devin Brown G 6-5 220 December 30, 1978 R University of Texas at San Antonio
          10 Speedy Claxton G 5-11 166 May 8, 1978 1 Hofstra University
          21 Tim Duncan F-C 6-11 248 April 25, 1976 5 Wake Forest University
          35 Danny Ferry F 6-10 230 October 17, 1966 12 Duke University
          20 Manu Ginobili G 6-6 210 July 28, 1977 R
          5 Anthony Goldwire G 6-1 182 September 6, 1971 4 University of Houston
          3 Stephen Jackson F 6-8 218 April 5, 1978 2 Butler County Community College
          25 Steve Kerr G 6-3 175 September 27, 1965 14 University of Arizona
          9 Tony Parker G 6-2 180 May 17, 1982 1
          50 David Robinson C 7-1 235 August 6, 1965 13 United States Naval Academy
          31 Malik Rose F 6-7 250 November 23, 1974 6 Drexel University
          8 Steve Smith G 6-7 200 March 31, 1969 11 Michigan State University
          42 Kevin Willis F-C 7-0 220 September 6, 1962 17 Michigan State University

          Not too shabby either, the beginning of the Parker-Ginobili-Duncan Spurs, though I don’t remember how much G was playing as a rookie that year, or Parker as a 2nd year man. But they still had Robinson and a good mix of veterans and top-flight playoff role players like Bowen and Smith.

          I don’t know whether any team overachieves. As a close-up observer of the Ls, I think he clearly “makes the team better.” As I was arguing originally, he without question makes the “team product” much, much better. The fellers with the money on the line think so, too.

          • The LA Kings are overachieving. As we speak.

            Oh. And the Mavs last year.

          • And I’ve been thinking about those rosters. You’re right. Those teams are pretty effing stacked. Lotta depth. So I retract the over-achieving claim. They were primed and ready. But! Most of those guys were roll players with Duncan as the center piece. He still is to a certain extent. So that part may be a wash regarding the Kobe v Duncan debate. And! Shaq admitted that they only won those first three rings because the roll players made big plays when they were called on. So maybe my view of this amounts to how well the superstars incorporate roll players into the game. I think on that score Kobe is … deficient.

          • I think it is worth noting that, based on regular season stats, Kobe was clearly a second fiddle on three of his championship teams and was really a co-leader on the last two. He was actually better during the first three while playing Robin to Shaq’s Batman, which is nothing to be ashamed of. I realize it might seem blasphemous, but the advanced regular season stats show him and Gasol being a wash during the last two, though the playoffs obviously are a different animal.
            Duncan was the best player on three of them, with Robinson leading the way the first time. Manu was a close second during the most rcent one, while Duncan had a clear edge during the middle two. Should they win this year, Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were all pretty even when you factor in Manu’s missed time.

  11. A bit of amateur analysis…

    I ran a query to find the players that led over consecutive 3-year-periods in WS, to get an idea of who the dominant players were over a given stretch. I started with the 96-97 season, Kobe’s 1st in the league.
    97-99 – Malone, 42.7
    98-00 – Malone, 41.2
    99-01 – Shaq, 42.6
    00-02 – Shaq, 46.8
    01-03 – Duncan, 47.5
    02-04 – Duncan, 47.4
    03-05 – Garnett, 50
    04-06 – Garnett, 49.3
    05-07* – Dirk, 49.7
    06-08 – Dirk, 46.9
    07-09 – Lebron, 49.2
    08-10 – Lebron, 53.9
    09-11 – Lebron, 54.3
    10-12 – Lebron, 48.5

    A few takeaways…
    – The * indicates the first season where Kobe ranked ahead of Duncan; he would lead Duncan in each 3-year period going forward
    – Kobe never appears. Hard to argue he is the best player of a generation where there isn’t even a single 3-season stretch where Kobe was the best player (at least using WS).
    – Kobe has actually never led the league in even a single-season in WS. His best finish is 4th (twice) and he has “only” been top 10 seven times; compare this to Duncan who has led twice, been top 5 eight times and top 10 nine times
    – This makes me wonder if Garnett and Dirk should be part of the conversation. The biggest knock on either of them is a lack of Championships, which I struggle with since basketball is a team game.

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