A deep dive into the early years of Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs


Turn back the clock to 2000. Tim Duncan and the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs are striving for another deep playoff run. With Sean Elliott out of commission for most of the year, Chucky Brown, Mario Elie, an aging Avery Johnson, and past-his-prime David Robinson would comprise the starters around Duncan. That lackluster group would be the most-used starting lineup for the Silver and Black that season despite suiting up for just 26 games together.

When discussing Duncan's career, you will often hear the hot take that Duncan had an overwhelming amount of help. But those debates don't typically paint a picture of the middling lineups he carried to regular and postseason success. Yet the young man from Wake Forest consistently won with subpar supporting casts in his earlier years. Despite an evident lack of help, Tim Duncan would win the 2003 championship with no All-Star teammates playing alongside him.

No one is implying Tim Duncan dragged the worst players in the NBA to victory every night, but he was carrying the bulk of the load on both ends of the court. Though the rest of the roster wasn't atrocious, there was only so much his teammates could do to provide help. Robinson was a 35-year-old big man with back issues, and Elliott was battling a kidney disease. Avery Johnson was a reliable albeit declining point guard nearing the twilight of his career.

There were worse rosters in the league, but Duncan was essentially winning 50-plus games every season with a team full of mediocre veterans and so-so role players. Duncan earning an All-Star appearance, taking home MVP honors, and securing a title in 2003 when none of his teammates averaged more than 15 points per game is nothing short of astonishing.

What about Hall of Famers like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? Popovich didn't trust Parker to close tight games early in his career, and he often turned to Speedy Claxton when the team needed a floor general in crunch time. The Frenchman was a raw prospect, but he and Stephen Jackson were the second-leading scorers after Duncan, averaging 14 points per game while shooting a below-average 41% from the field. Ginobili would eventually become the best sixth man ever, but he was mostly an afterthought as a rookie.

Ginobili and Parker were supremely talented, but they were far from becoming the All-Star guards that Spurs fans came to know and love. Several seasons would pass before either guard left their mark on San Antonio and the NBA. Let's have an honest conversation before we proceed. The league released a list of the 75 greatest players in basketball history, but Tony and Many were nowhere to be seen. Who were the so-called snubs everyone was talking about? Tracy McGrady, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard.

These are perfectly acceptable names, but this tells me that most media members and fans didn't view any of Duncan's sidekicks during his prime as all-time talents. My friend once said, "Tony and Manu are like Schrödinger's teammates." That idea perfectly encapsulates their situation. How can you argue Timmy had too much help while dismissing how impactful his All-Star backcourt was during the Spurs dynasty?

If two Hall of Famers who failed to crack the NBA's top 75 list are enough to say one player had too much help, wait until you get a load of the superstars who shared the court with Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal at the height of their powers. Those names include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Penny Hardaway, and Dwyane Wade. It isn't that Duncan had no help. He had arguably the best head coach ever and a solid collection of players by his side throughout his career.

Duncan was also the franchise player who took pay cuts for players the consensus doesn't consider all-time talents. You can't fault a player who sacrificed stats and money to maintain a core that most modern-day stars wouldn't be satisfied with. Let's not forget Gregg Popovich took a lot of time to solidify his position as a living legend in the league. At one point, the Spurs were on the verge of firing him in favor of bringing in Doc Rivers. Pop is a genius, but even he will admit his early years of coaching consisted of dumping the ball to Duncan in the post.

Everything would eventually come together with Popovich, Parker, and Ginobili, but they didn't flourish until around 2005. For over a half-decade between 1997 and 2003, Duncan proved he could win titles and compete with the best players in the league without another star. Comparing how much help Timmy had in relation to his superstar peers is a silly exercise. His legacy is partly a product of his circumstances, but all that success was a house built on the foundation he laid in San Antonio. There is no question he should be the one to benefit from a situation he helped create.

So next time you hear someone say stars carried the Big Fundamental, I want you to think: Who on earth is Chucky Brown?