For as much fun as certain basketball enthusiasts have debating it, San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan is infinitely better than his rival, Dirk Nowitzki.
It’s rare for a heated rivalry to be based in mutual respect as opposed to disdain, but then again, there was nothing ordinary about the careers of Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. Not only was the Hall of Fame pair pitted against each other at the same position, but they played out their careers as division rivals battling for dominance in the same state. Now that the San Antonio Spurs legend is officially on his way to the Hall of Fame, the fans have another talking point to uphold Duncan’s legacy as the greatest power forward of all-time.
And yet the conversation continues to divulge into nuances as the years go on and we move farther away from Duncan’s peak years in the early 2000s. Great players have their legacies glossed over continuously in this league and now, it seems like Duncan is next in line for that unsavory treatment.
Three of the most loyal superstars the league has ever seen, and one of the best Tim Duncan fits you’ll ever see.
One of my favorite photos in NBA history pic.twitter.com/VMeqBbpcWK
— Hilltop Hoops (@HilltopNBA) May 27, 2020
Whether these arguments are based on boredom or actual assessment is to be determined, but certain patrons of the internet have been challenging Duncan’s spot as the greatest power forward to ever live. They’ve cited Dirk as the superior player without substantiating such claims, leading us back to an argument that Spurs and Mavs fans suffered through for over two decades.
Now that things are all said and done, we have full resumes to comb through to create a definitive case for each side and while Dirk was a spectacle, it’s clear that Timmy is the top dog. His longevity, two-way impact, record-setting ability and sustained excellence are no match for the German sensation.
Nowitzki was a great rival for Tim and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer in his own right, but in his totality, Dirk only scratches the surface of the player Duncan turned out to be.
Next: Dominating the defensive argument
Tim Duncan was in a different stratosphere from Dirk Nowitzki defensively
There’s really no debating it—Duncan’s defensive repertoire far exceeds Dirk’s at just about any point in their careers. While Nowitzki was not a defensive slouch, asserting himself as best as he could in spite of his mediocre athleticism, he simply couldn’t keep up with Tim on that end of the floor. From the eye-test to statistics and accolades, there’s really no case to be made for Dirk here.
Over the course of his career, Duncan made 15 All-Defensive teams to Dirk’s zero. In his best defensive season from 2004-05, Dirk had a 1.5 Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) and a block rate of 2.9 percent, his career-high. In 18 seasons as a pro, Duncan fell below a 1.5 DBPM only four times and never had a block percentage below 3.1 percent.
As an elite rim protector who set the tone for his teammates by example, The Big Fundamental recorded 3,020 blocks in his career which ranks fifth all-time. Having played way more regular-season games than Tim in his career, Dirk is only 51st on the list.
This entire conversation could be summed up in a single statistic: Duncan has the second-most defensive win shares of all-time behind Bill Russell and 43.77 more than Dirk does.
Basketball-Reference lists Dirk as five lbs lighter than Duncan and one inch taller, so their builds were roughly similar, but Duncan was the far superior athlete with a superb defensive IQ. He asserted himself on that end of the floor because he understood the influence that he could have over his team vastly improves if he gives his everything on defense. That’s an area where Dirk fell short time and time again, though it’s often overlooked because of his offensive prowess.
However, when you dig deeper and really look at how their careers played out, the difference between Dirk and Duncan wasn’t all that great in terms of scoring.
Next: Contrasting the efficiency of two greats
Dirk Nowitzki could shoot, but Tim Duncan was more efficient with his touches
The roles that Duncan and Dirk assumed for their teams were very different in the sense that Dirk was the scoring engine for his teams while Tim was simply the engine for San Antonio.
Maybe Duncan had some better help, but it’s widely recognized that Duncan himself dramatically changed the direction of the franchise and made every one of his teammates better. Dirk, on the other hand, rarely helped his teammates be better and instead needed the roster to conform to his needs as the star player.
As a scorer, Dirk was a better 3-point shooter without question. A career-38 percent shooter from beyond the arch, Nowitzki popularized the longball for big men back in the early 2000s. Big props to him for revolutionizing the game, but besides that deep shooting, he wasn’t all that much of a better all-around scorer than Duncan was when given similar attempts.
Offensive rebounding is an important trait to consider when looking at all-time great big men and Duncan has Dirk beat by a landslide in that category. Over the course of his career, Duncan tallied more than double Dirk’s 1468 offensive boards with 3859 rebounds on the offensive glass.
"Where would the @spurs be without Tim Duncan?"
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) May 23, 2020
Each had a signature shot with Dirk’s fadeaway and Tim’s bank-shot, but when it came to post scoring in its totality, Duncan dominated the conversation. Tim shot 3.9 percent better from 0-3 feet from the basket for his career at 68.5 percent from that range and 4.4 percent better from 3-10 feet from the basket at 44.9 percent. For his whole career, Duncan shot 50.9 percent on 2-pointers compared to Dirk’s 49.6 percent. Granted, it’s a small margin, but when Dirk is lauded as such a better scorer, it’s not an insignificant item to note.
Another item to take into account is that Duncan was a far superior passer to his competition, finishing with 574 more assists in his career than Nowitzki. Tim was an unselfish player who did an amazing job of keeping his teammates in mind when orchestrating the offense. Though he took fewer shots than Dirk did for his career, Duncan also made better use of his time with the ball in his hands. This led a boatload of accolades in favor of Duncan that Dirk just cannot compare with.
Next: Comparing the hardware
Tim Duncan’s accolades leave Dirk Nowitzki in the dust
When comparing the hardware that they took home, Duncan beats Dirk in a landslide. Though both are surefire Hall of Famers, Duncan finished his career with 15 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections, and 15 All-Defensive team honors. Dirk went to just 14 All-Star games, made three fewer All-NBA teams, and as I mentioned earlier, never made an All-Defensive team.
In the postseason, Duncan had immense success with the most minutes logged of any player ever. He appeared in 251 playoff games, which is the second-most of any player in NBA history, and won five titles in the process compared to Dirk’s single chip. Each of these all-timers has lost one NBA Finals appearance, coincidentally to the same team (Miami Heat), but Dirk only won one championship and Finals MVP to Timmy’s three Finals MVPs.
Tim has blocked more shots in the postseason than any player ever, leading second-place Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by 92 swats. He’s a decorated college player who won the Associated Press Player of the Year in 1997 for his efforts at Wake Forest University along with two ACC Player of the Year awards and one Naismith award as well.
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I’m not going to hold it against Dirk that he didn’t play in college since he had a long road to the NBA coming from Germany. He’s one of the most decorated international players of all-time, placing his spot in the history books in high regard. However, to say that Dirk even has a case against Duncan is ridiculous and simply false.
Some will cite that Duncan got drafted to a world-class organization, but Dirk and Tim were in very similar situations upon being drafted. They were both sent to big cities in Texas where they were thrust into the spotlight and put a face to their respective franchises. Neither team won significantly without them and now that their careers are over, they’re beloved in what they’ll now consider their respective home.
This isn’t the bitter rivalry that the Spurs and Rockets have because San Antonio and Dallas fans, for as chippy as things could get between the fanbases, generally respect each other. It’s been a long process for each of these franchises and throughout all of the many duels in the regular season and beyond, each city got its own taste of what it means to be excellent. I’m not here to tear Dirk down because personally, I loved watching him play and remember him fondly.
Still, it has to be made extremely clear that Dirk’s legacy doesn’t really come close to Tim’s.