Tim Duncan didn’t want to play center, the legend goes, so he measured out at 6-11 barefoot before the 1997 NBA Draft and left it at that, even though most listed heights are with shoes. He was entering a league of dominant centers — Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were aging, sure, but Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning were in their primes — and likely to be drafted by a team with its own, David Robinson.
So it was that Duncan began his career as a power forward and, through nearly two decades of stubborn resistance to reclassification — Matt Bonner is listed as a center to keep Duncan at the 4 — he now is recognized as the greatest power forward in NBA history.
And that’s where we come to the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs. And that’s where we talk about perhaps the greatest challenge of Duncan’s career and the first time where a positional label might matter.
The Spurs won this NBA offseason handily. They re-signed Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the exact deals they wanted, ensuring continuity and youth on the wings. They brought in the offseason’s biggest catch, four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, on a four-year contract that should help keep this long, successful run going. They convinced David West to take a veteran’s minimum salary (about $1.4 million) after he opted out of a $12.6 million final year with the Pacers. Manu Ginobili announced his return. And Duncan did, too.
The Spurs, though, had to make concessions for all that to work. Starting center Tiago Splitter was traded to the Hawks to free up enough salary cap space for Aldridge. Cory Joseph (Raptors) and Aron Baynes (Pistons) were let loose in free agency. The final five or so roster spots seem up for grabs, even with a 10-man rotation in place.
At every turn, Duncan sacrificed. He’ll give up big money even after an All-NBA season (his record-tying 15th selection) and massive financial losses in a scam. He’ll give up offensive touches to a player who grew up idolizing him (Aldridge). And he will have to play center, in name but even more in style.
Aldridge and West are very good power forwards. They shoot well and rebound well and defend well. What they don’t do well — and what fourth big man Boris Diaw certainly doesn’t do well — is defend the paint. Per Nylon Calculus’ rim protection statistics, Aldridge, Diaw and West all gave up more points at the rim than they prevented. That makes sense for Diaw and West, both somewhat undersized at 6-9, but Aldridge’s 6-11 frame and 7-5 wingspan belie his reticence in help defense.
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Duncan makes up for that. He’s a brilliant defender on or off the ball, in the paint or out of it. Along with his basketball intelligence, his height, wingspan and conditioning all[……]