There’s been a lot of talk lately about who the best player of this current era was and much of that has to do with Tim Duncan and the Spurs being back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007. Some were genuine in their support for Duncan and others just seemed to be inflating his accomplishments and downplaying his shortcomings in what seemed like a blatant attempt to diminish Kobe Bryant’s legacy more than trying to make the case for Duncan’s.
The truth is that I have the utmost respect for Duncan as a player, a teammate, and as a champion. I would not hold it against anyone who would rather have Duncan on his team over Kobe. And while you won’t find many Lakers fans who would trade what either Kobe or his teams have accomplished for what Duncan and the Spurs have accomplished, you probably won’t find many Spurs fans who would do the reverse either.
That being said, there isn’t a stronger argument that can be made for either the Lakers vs. the Spurs or for Kobe vs. Duncan than that made by the amount of dust that had to be cleaned off of it. When was the last time we were having this debate, in 2009? Between then and now, was anyone outside of Texas trying to make the argument that either Duncan was the best player of this era or the Spurs were the better team?
The case for the Lakers and Kobe Bryant is a very simple one. Kobe’s Lakers made it to seven NBA Finals, winning five, and repeated as champions three times. In the two Finals that Bryant lost, in 2004 and 2008, the Lakers defeated Duncan’s Spurs en route to the NBA Finals. I’d welcome anyone who wants to refute and make the case that a year in which the Spurs were defeated by the Lakers was a more successful one than one in which the Lakers lost in the NBA Finals after beating the Spurs.
The argument made most often in favor of the Spurs and Duncan is that they’ve won at least 50 games in each of Duncan’s seasons as a pro, except for the abbreviated 50-game season in 1999 when they won 37. That’s an incredible feat. The problem is that it’s a diversion. You know who touts 50-win seasons? Teams and fans who want to distract you away from what it is they failed to do. In the Spurs case, what they don’t want you to notice is just how many times they were eliminated from the playoffs and failed to meet expectations.
Even if you exclude the playoff that Duncan missed in 2000 with a torn meniscus, there are still six other instances in which the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs with home court advantage: in 2001, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2012. Look closer at those six series and you’ll see that they were swept in 2001, lost a Game 7 at home in 2006, were eliminated 4-1 in the first round to sixth-seeded Dallas in 2009, lost to the 8th-seeded Grizzlies in 2011, and were defeated in both 2004 and 2011 in series in which they led 2-0 before losing four straight games. It would be irresponsible for me not to mention that the sweep in 2001 and their six-game loss in 2004 both came against the Lakers, but the one in 2001 was the only one that came against a team that went on to win a championship.
I’m not trying to make the case that the Spurs weren’t great or that Duncan isn’t one of the greatest players in the history of the game because both would be untrue. I’m just trying to remind people that more often than not, and especially over the last five years, they have underachieved. I don’t care how you spin it. Losing a series with home court advantage in a season in which you won 58 or more games and were the first or second-seed is underachieving. And it happened far too often during the Tim Duncan Era to give him a pass.
Now compare that to Kobe and the Lakers who were only defeated in the playoffs with home court advantage twice — first to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals and then to eventual champion Dallas in 2011 — a sweep that came after three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
**So if you’re scoring at home, Kobe’s Lakers teams have not only repeated as NBA Champs three times but have also repeated as Western Conference Champions four times — both feats the Spurs have failed to accomplish even once.
Going back to Duncan’s rookie year and excluding this year’s Kobe-less series, the Lakers and Spurs have met in the playoffs six times, with the Lakers winning four of the six meetings. So while Duncan’s Spurs can boast a 39-38 edge in regular season wins, Bryant’s Lakers hold a 16-12 lead in playoff games. If you exclude the Spurs sweep of the Lakers in the 50-game season of 1999 with Kurt Rambis as interim coach, they are 16-8 vs. the Spurs in the playoffs since 2001. That’s eight total victories in six series against the Phil Jackson-coached Lakers, an average of 1.33 wins per series.
So even if the Spurs win a fifth title, you’d still have to give the edge to the Lakers because they’re the only team to successfully defend their title this century and they did it three times. You also can’t ignore that, unlike the Spurs, all five of their titles came during 82-game seasons.
As for the Kobe vs. Duncan debate, that one seems crystal clear to me. And again, I’m not diminishing Duncan. But Kobe has finished in the top-5 in MVP voting every year but one since 2002. As for Duncan, even though he finished in the top-5 nine times from 1998-2007, it hasn’t happened since. He finished seventh in 2008 and 2013, 11th in 2009, and 14th in 2012. When comparing their careers, are we supposed to forget about everything that happened between 2008-13?
As for All-NBA selections, Kobe has been a first-team selection in 11 of the past 12 seasons. Duncan earned his 10th first-team selection this season, but it was his first since 2007. For argument’s sake, we can all pretend that Dwight Howard’s surgically-repaired back and torn labrum had nothing to do with that.
Next Page: But What About Tim Duncan?