As a basketball fan, it’s easy to realize the individual greatness of an individual player.
Everyone loved Michael Jordan, because he captivated the imagination of everyone who watched him play. Even before he led the Chicago Bulls to six world championships in eight years, people had already anointed him as the greatest player in the game, and maybe even of all-time.
People respect Bill Russell to this day because he was the consummate teammate and greatest winner in league history. Helping him along was a cast of hall of fame teammates and the greatest executive and head coach in NBA history in Red Auerbach.
This is an exciting time in the NBA because there are so many future hall-of-fame caliber players still active.
By my count, these guys will be first ballot elects to the hall as soon as they’re eligible: Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, Lebron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.
That’s not even counting the promising starts to a career that we’ve seen from Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love.
If you’re paying attention, you noticed two big names missing from the hall of fame locks, and that brings us to the point of this column.
Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant entered the NBA one year apart: Bryant in the 1996 NBA Draft and Duncan in the ’97 draft. Since that time, the duo has combined to win 9 world championships and have appeared in 11 of the NBA Finals played in that time.
Read that last stat again.
Bryant has played 16 NBA seasons and has played in the Finals 7 times in his career. Duncan has played in four, but has won them all. Duncan was named Finals MVP three times and Bryant has won that award twice.
Duncan and Bryant have combined for three regular season MVPs as well.
At the end of the day, Duncan and Bryant are the only two acceptable answers to the question of “who is the best player of the past 15 years?”
But which one has had the best career? Bryant’s Lakers have won one more world championship than Duncan’s Spurs, but what does that mean really? Bryant played his formative years in Los Angeles with Shaquille O’ Neal, who at the time was, by his own admission, “The Most Dominant Ever.”
Michael Jordan may have had something to say about that, but the fact remains that Shaq was downright unstoppable at times and was probably the best player in the league after Jordan’s retirement in 1998.
O’ Neal won the NBA’s MVP in 2000, and won three straight NBA Finals MVP awards from 2000-2002. As good as Bryant was during those seasons, Shaq was the best player in the league. Kobe didn’t ride his coattails to those three championships, but he was far from being the league’s alpha dog.
Duncan was his team’s undisputed best player during all four of the Spurs’ championship runs. Tony Parker won the Finals MVP in 2007, but that award could have gone to any of the Spurs starters as they swept the Cavaliers in four straight games, only one of which was even a little close.
Duncan’s team has been coached by Gregg Popovich every season of his career, including during all four of the Spurs’ championship seasons.
Bryant has played for four different coaches in his Lakers career, but every year they won the world championship his team was coached by Phil Jackson, who won 11 championships total in his entire career.
Having that sort of continuity is good for any player, but especially two guys that are as driven as Duncan and Bryant. It was also helpful to any new players that were brought into the system as two of three greatest coaches in history give you instant credibility.
Jackson and Popovich getting different guys to buy in and play their scheme was crucial in their era of getting players with large egos to want to fit in.
Duncan was also named MVP twice in his career compared to just once for Bryant.
The MVP award is definitely flawed, but when you’re comparing two players, it seems relevant to see who writers felt like was the league’s best player in any given year.
The biggest difference between the two in my mind is that while Duncan’s Spurs have won 50 games in 13 straight seasons (and 14 overall) there was a stretch from 2005-2007 that the Lakers barely got into the playoffs, even missing the playoffs completely in 2005.
In 2006 and 2007, the Lakers got into the playoffs as a 7 seed and they lost in the first round each year to the Phoenix Suns.
The Spurs, on the other hand not only own that impressive streak of 50+ wins, but they also had not lost in the first round of the playoffs until 2011 and have made the playoffs every year of the Duncan era.
The explanation for the Lakers’ mediocrity invariably goes back to the trade of Shaquille O’ Neal to the Miami Heat following the 2004 season.
At that point, the Kobe and O’ Neal relationship had reach it’s breaking point, even though O’ Neal was willing to stay. It was actually Bryant who wanted him traded and reportedly gave the Lakers an ultimatum.
Duncan, by contrast has been the ideal teammate for 15 seasons. He fit in flawlessly with the Spurs when he first arrived and settled into the Robin role as David Robinson was still regarded as the Spurs’ franchise player.
Duncan was fine with playing second fiddle to Robinson, where Bryant shied away from such a title with Shaq, even though Shaq was a far more substantial player than Robinson.
In my opinion, if the Spurs are able to win this year, that swings the debate to Duncan in a major way. At this moment, Bryant has won more championships and also won an Olympic gold medal, but if the Spurs notch their own fifth title, with Duncan owning more regular season and Finals MVPs, Duncan wins the debate by any measurable. Unless you’re a Laker fan, of course.
The most fascinating possibility about one last Spurs championship is the idea that the Spurs could win their first championship in 1999 and their latest one in 2012.
That’s 13 years apart with Duncan as the team’s franchise player, which is unheard of in this day and age of free agency in the NBA.
No matter who you believe is the better player with the better career is cause for debate, no matter how big a Lakers fan you are.
At the end of the day, Bryant and Duncan are two of the ten best players in NBA history, and Duncan is the best power forward ever, while Bryant is second only to Michael Jordan at his position.
That’s pretty good company.
The fact is that we’re all lucky to be having this debate, and if the Spurs win it all this season by playing their beautiful brand of basketball, then we all win, especially in this era of the super team.
If Duncan somehow wins another Finals MVP award, then he’s the big winner as he becomes the hands down greatest player of his generation.