There’s been lots of discourse about Anthony Davis’ place in the all-time rankings — We’re here to defend San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan’s legacy.
You all know the story, but allow me to rehash one of the greatest legacies in professional sports. In 1997, the San Antonio Spurs drafted big man Tim Duncan from Wake Forest with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. After an unlikely season riddled with injuries, San Antonio managed to land a player who proved to be the lynchpin in a dynasty.
By this point, former MVP David Robinson was past his prime. Though beloved and well-respected by the San Antonio Spurs organization, Robinson hadn’t been able to lead a team to an NBA championship in his career. After a monstrous Rookie of the Year run and his first taste of playoff basketball, Duncan took the league by storm and won the 1999 NBA Finals MVP.
Fast forward 22 years and a Hall of Fame career later, Duncan‘s legacy is being besmirched by those who never truly understood his greatness in the first place.
As All-NBA power forward Anthony Davis entered the league, Duncan began the quest for his fifth championship. Similarly to Duncan, Davis made an immediate impact in the league, paving the way to an astounding career. This took place in a Southwest Divison where Duncan and the Spurs return to the NBA Finals. The very next season, Davis doubled down on his impressive rookie year and established himself as an All-Star. Concurrently, the legend went on to win his fifth and final NBA title.
Anthony Davis confirmed that he yelled “KOBE!” after drilling the game winning shot. pic.twitter.com/6b8N5Z9J7c
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 21, 2020
Now, in the season in which Duncan returned to the Spurs as an assistant coach and is selected for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Davis is on track to win his first championship. In the final seconds of Game Two of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, Davis drained an off-balance 3-pointer to seal the Los Angeles Lakers’ victory. After failing to make a postseason impact for most of his career, Davis is being inserted into conversations that go far beyond his resume.
Let’s set the record before diving in: Anthony Davis is the best big man in basketball. His talent is undeniable, his work ethic is legendary and his skill set is suited perfectly for the modern game. In terms of raw talent, it’s conceivable to suggest that Davis and Duncan have similarities. Perhaps it’s a conversation that can be reopened once Davis’ story is told.
At this juncture, there is no debate — Davis does not come close to Duncan’s spot as the greatest power forward of all time.
Next: Contrasting two transformative defenders
Anthony Davis needs another decade to touch Tim Duncan’s defensive resume.
There’s a case to be made that Davis can join Duncan as one of the most impactful defensive players in NBA history. Perhaps Davis will continue to improve that aspect of his game, giving him an outside shot to compete with Duncan on the all-time blocks list. With 3,020 swatted shots in his career, Duncan is sixth all-time in blocks. Davis needs 1,756 more blocks to catch up to Duncan, which would take him nine more seasons at his average blocks per game (2.4) without missing any time. It’s a plausible goal to reach but it’s far from a likelihood.
From the very beginning of his career, Duncan was one of the very best defensive players in basketball. At Wake Forest, opposing coaches and players feared him because of his long reach, calm demeanor and innate instinct as a rim protector. The same could be said of Davis, though his impact wasn’t felt nearly as strongly as Duncan was upon entering the league.
Even when eliminating Davis’ first two seasons in New Orleans from the equation (New Orleans missed the playoffs both years), Duncan was still a more impactful player for his team. From 2014 to the current-day, Davis’ teams are 6.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. Starting from Timmy’s rookie year, when he led the Spurs to the playoffs, San Antonio was a whopping 10.6 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor.
This is Davis’ third year in the playoffs and as of now, he’s played 13 games in the postseason. In that span, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and a steal per game. In Duncan‘s 14th through 26th playoff games, he blocked 2.5 shots and added 0.8 steals per contest. He also averaged 2.6 more defensive rebounds then Davis in this run for an 11.7 rebounds per game average. Davis is averaging 10 in his current run. Duncan did that when he was 23 years old — Davis is already 27.
Besides the direct evidence that suggests Davis is not on Duncan’s level, there are many variables to consider. Timmy holds three selection lead over his contemporaries, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, for the most all-defensive team selections in NBA history with 15. It’s seemingly impossible for Davis to catch up in this category with only four to date.
Duncan was the centerpiece of a San Antonio Spurs defense that transcended eras. To have a team consistently build around him as the focal point of a top-ranked defense is something Davis will never be able to match. That’s not entirely AD’s fault, but there was enough talent around him for a reasonably successful defensive team to be built. Now that he left, there’s no chance for him to be as impactful as a defender as Duncan was for San Antonio.
Many great players need to seek better opportunities away from the team that drafted them to build their legacy, and Davis’ accomplishments cannot be discredited for leaving New Orleans. Still, he’s on his first legitimate title run due largely to the fact that he’s playing with LeBron James. If Tim Duncan got the chance to play with LeBron James, no one else would have a chance to win an NBA title for at least five years consecutively. LeBron is a transformative defensive player, even at this stage of his career, based on his presence and absurd understanding of the sport alone.
Duncan solidified himself as a top-five defender of all time when it was all said and done. It will be fairer to compare Davis‘ legacy to that of Garnett. As of now, Duncan is untouchable in this regard.
Next: The pillar of offensive consistency
Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs were transformed by his offense, unlike Davis.
Times have changed and scoring output is different now than it ever was before. With each decade, the pace of play has quickened and scoring opportunities have become more frequent. It’s no coincidence that so many rookie records are being broken in recent seasons — NBA basketball is no longer a slugfest. With that in mind, Davis is scoring more points per game on average than Duncan did in his career.
Even with that being the case, these two players are on-par terms of their scoring repertoire. When Duncan was Davis’ age, he pulled off his second NBA Finals run. Timmy averaged 24.7 points per game across 24 games as opposed to Davis‘ 28.5 so far in this run. The entire offense was being run through Duncan at this point, establishing him as the team’s lead playmaker in addition to being their leading scorer. He averaged 5.3 assists per game in this span compared to Davis‘ 3.7. These are impressive averages from both players, but the fact remains that Duncan was the focal point of his offense. In Davis‘ case, most of the game is run through LeBron James.
On the glass, Duncan asserted himself and sacrificed his body for the betterment of his team. During the 2003 title run, Duncan averaged 15.4 rebounds including four on the offensive glass. Davis is only averaging 10 boards with 2.6 on offense. Timmy created more second-chance opportunities for his team, effectively generating a greater offensive impact.
It was uncommon for big men to shoot 3-pointers at that time unless it was their specialty. Had Duncan played in today’s game, he assuredly would’ve shot threes more often. Based on his exceptional mid-range field goal percentage, Duncan would’ve been able to hit them at a similar clip to Davis‘ 35.3 percent.
On many occasions, Duncan sacrificed his scoring output to position his team for success. That selflessness and leadership are what made him the focal point of five championship teams. Davis has never shown the ability to be a true leader.
Next: The longevity and the hardware
Davis is far from the accolades Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs achieved.
If you want to be in a conversation with the greats, you need the accolades to back it up. During Duncan’s 19 year NBA career, he never strayed from who he was — A winner, leader, fighter and humanitarian. All the while, Timmy earned the hardware to establish his legacy.
Let’s begin with the most obvious: Duncan won two MVP awards during his playing days. So long as LeBron James is on his team, Davis has very little chance of winning a single MVP trophy. Even when LeBron begins to decline, if he ever does, it’ll be hard to give the second fiddle on that team an MVP award unless James gets injured for a substantial amount of time.
Assume LeBron plays three more seasons, all with Davis and the Lakers, before retiring. That’s when the window truly opens for Davis to win the award.
AD is an incredibly talented player, one of the best in the league right now.
He’d need to play out of his mind for the next decade and lead 3+ title runs before I would allow a person to MENTION him in the same breath as Tim Duncan without challenging them to trial by combat. https://t.co/9MkxqhP3os
— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) September 23, 2020
If you look at the last three MVP winners, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden, earning that honor took unprecedented production in addition to great team success. Does Davis have the capability to meet the criteria? Of course, but he’s not likely to sway voters so long as he’s playing with a top-three player of all time. Even after LeBron retires, the window for Davis to win an MVP award will be slim. By that point, The Brow should be in the second act of his prime.
Especially with the Lakers fans in his corner, Davis could probably catch up to Duncan’s 15 All-Star appearances. However, reaching 15 All-NBA teams and 15 All-Defensive teams may not be as likely. Despite making the All-Rookie team, he’ll never have a chance at earning Rookie of the Year as Timmy did back in 1998.
If Davis makes the All-NBA teams for another decade, his case will become stronger. At this point in the debate, there are too many “if‘s“ to honestly open the discussion. AD has 11 more seasons to go before matching TD’s time in the NBA — That’s when we can truly evaluate the comparison.
Next: The best is yet to come
Tim Duncan’s legacy reigns supreme, but Anthony Davis’ can follow shortly after.
Of current NBA players, the one who has the strongest opportunity to catch up with Duncan in the All-Time standings is Antetokounmpo. He’s already got the two MVP awards to his name at only 25-years-old, putting him in great company. Objectively, the current players who could make that leap into the top 10-15 of all-time are Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Giannis. This, of course, is under the assumption that LeBron is already in the top three.
Before forcing his way to the Lakers, there was a path in which Davis never earned the accolades to back up his talent. Now that he is in Los Angeles, AD is positioned to compete for titles — But as a Pippen, not a Jordan. When you look at the broader picture, the relationship between Jordan and Pippen was symbiotic in that they needed each other to build a dynasty. The same can be said of LeBron and Davis, but there’s not enough room for them both to be regarded as Alphas.
Now let’s examine Kobe Bryant; a man who defied all odds. After winning three titles alongside Shaq, Kobe had to go out and prove he could do it as the team’s unquestioned leader. Likewise, Duncan had to prove he could win titles without Robinson and did it with three different iterations of his team.
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The trajectory of Davis‘ career transformed dramatically when he was traded last offseason providing a chance to catch up with some of the greats. Unfortunately, the slow start to his career may be his downfall. Had he been drafted into a situation as Duncan did with the San Antonio Spurs, maybe he’d have a chance. However, the strength of the system was overstated in Duncan’s case because he effectively became the system. If it were as simple as placing an All-Star in the Spurs’ system, LaMarcus Aldridge would’ve been a Finals MVP by now.
Setting aside all of the external factors, talking points, career statistics and accolades, Davis‘ talent is comparable to Duncan’s. In many ways, Davis is the modern iteration of Tim Duncan in both playstyle and underrated dominance. However, there’s a strong reason why we compare Davis to Duncan and not the other way around.
Just as LeBron himself was said to be chasing the ghost of Jordan, Davis has to chase Duncan‘s legacy and quite frankly, he may never get there. The fact that AD’s willing to do everything in his power to get to that point is what makes him a great player. We already know what Duncan‘s legacy is. There is no taking that away from him despite what some uneducated fans may think. Now, it is time for us to appreciate what Davis is bringing to the game. He’s probably not going to catch up to Duncan, but that is okay.
No matter what comes next for him, there is an important place in NBA history for Anthony Davis.