There’s no denying that San Antonio Spurs franchise player Tim Duncan is one of the greatest defenders in league history — So why didn’t he win a DPOY?
Of the many great achievements by San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan, earning that coveted Defensive Player of the Year award never came to fruition. There’s no denying that Duncan is one of the single greatest defensive forces in league history. His rim-protection and shot-blocking were hugely influential for the Spurs until the day he retired, but there was more than meets the eye.
Duncan set the tone for his teammates defensively, taking on the best big man on opposing teams just about every time he took the court. His communication as a backline defender helped to uplift everyone around him and position them for success defensively. As he matured into the league, it was clear that Duncan saw the game differently from everyone else and instilled what he picked up on with the entire lineup, serving as an on-court coach for 19 seasons.
Last year’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo joined a historic group of players by earning the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year trophy. He joined an elite class led by the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan along with Spurs great David Robinson, his rival, Hakeem Olajuwon and Duncan’s rival, Kevin Garnett. This incredible achievement brings about the question: How did Duncan walk away from the game with 15 All-Defensive selections without a single DPOY?
But first, let’s look at some of the historical numbers that Duncan posted in his run as a pro.
Next: Duncan's candidacy by the numbers
Numbers suggest the San Antonio Spurs legend should’ve won a DPOY.
Let’s start with the easiest stats to suggest Duncan deserved a DPOY selection: He’s the all-time leader in All-Defensive Team selections and tallied 3,020 for the sixth-most by any player in NBA history. His 4.58 percent block percentage puts him at 25 despite playing the 13th most minutes of any player in league history. Even as Duncan grew older and less athletic, his mind and long reach guided him as a rim defender.
At 95.57, Duncan ranks third all-time in Defensive Rating — The statistics that are widely accepted as the best metric to gauge a team’s defensive prowess. He built this Spurs dynasty by anchoring the defense and making his teammate’s jobs easier.
When guards got blown by, Duncan was their insurance policy at the rim. As the modern era came to fruition and 3-pointers began to hail, wings could focus on the perimeter without worry knowing that Timmy was backing them up. Duncan’s defense was transformative and arguably as influential as any player that came before or after him.
At 106.34 defensive win shares, Duncan lays only behind the great Bill Russell, who dominated the late fifties and sixties as the most athletically and physically gifted player until Wilt Chamberlain. Duncan did this in a modern era in which the competition was bigger, stronger faster and deeper than ever before, further solidifying his greatness.
At 2.34, Duncan’s defensive box plus/minus ranks 12 all-time. Again, this is a stat he maintained despite playing more minutes than all but 12 players in NBA history. From the day he first stepped onto an NBA court to his final game in Oklahoma City, Duncan’s defensive prowess was influential to his team. He went out as one of the most feared rim defenders in the sport — A reputation he built for 19 years despite never being recognized for it with a DPOY selection.
Next: When would it make sense for Duncan to win DPOY?
Duncan’s best chances of bringing a DPOY trophy to the San Antonio Spurs.
During Duncan’s prime years as a primary rim defender and overall player, two men stood in his way most often: Ben Wallace and Dwight Howard with four and three DPOY selections respectively. Their selections were deserved as each of these players were truly influential defenders who paved the way for modern defense by undersized centers.
However, it’s not fair that Duncan didn’t get at least one DPOY. The Spurs’ defense ranked near the top of the league for the entirety of Timmy’s run in silver and black, effectively making him the most important defensive player in the sport. His teams were noticeably worse defensively with him off the floor despite being chock full of talent and extremely well-coached.
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The best case for Duncan to win a DPOY trophy is in the 2003-04 season in which The Big Fundamental averaged 12.4 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 0.9 steals per contest. Of that massive rebounding average, Duncan had 9.9 boards on the defensive end and led the Spurs to a 93.1 Defensive Rating, which was the best in the NBA by far.
San Antonio was one of the best overall defensive teams in basketball and there was no David Robinson on the team to take defensive assignments. The team started Rasho Nesterović, who was a serviceable center for a short run before fizzling out a few years later. He was a solid rim defender, but benefitted from Duncan being the go-to guy defensively and capitalized on that opportunity.
Instead of Duncan, the DPOY went to Ron Artest, who averaged 2.1 steals and 5.3 boards. There’s no denying that Artest was one of the greatest defenders in the league at that point. His physical nature and quickness on the perimeter gave problems for any opposing guard or wing. However, that output doesn’t compare with one of the 10 greatest defensive players of all-time.
Other seasons when Duncan got snubbed include 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2013.