When asked what has changed about Tim Duncan's game over the past twelve years of his NBA career, the casual observer would remark that little has changed. As oppose to challenging that observation outright, I'll instead say that “little” is a relative term.
If you ask him, I imagine Duncan could give a lengthy list of ways that his game has changed and improved over twelve seasons. I'm sure the things he would talk about would be nuanced, perceived as minute to those of us who haven't experienced them. It's the perspective and attention to detail that only comes with experience, the ability to take something apart and understand how every tiny piece fits together.
When you think about how Duncan's game has gotten better, or changed, the reason why nothing jumps out is because he's never had to make any sweeping changes to how he plays his position. Instead he's subtly been improving all the things he was always good at. The footwork has gotten even better, the follow through on a jump hook smoother, he's learned to position himself smarter defensively.
A retrospective of Tim Duncan's career invariably has to talk about his consistency. With enough thought and some honest recollection, however, I was able to come up with a few items that highlighted some level of change in his game. They are, of course, vanilla – subtle, but valuable and instrumental nonetheless.
The first item is likely the most noticeable – free-throw shooting. Duncan's free-throw shooting has gone through a weird up-and-down ride throughout his career, but ultimately we can say that it's improved. It started around 66% in his rookie season and had a few spikes in his first few years, including 80% in '01-'02, before taking a dive for a career low .599 in 2004. This year he's at a steady 75%.
While his accuracy at the line can still be suspect, the ability to knock down free-throws has been the all important compliment to his dominant inside game. It balanced him out in a way that no other offensive component could have. He's going to get the ball inside and he's going to get fouled, therefore being able to confidently step to the line and drain a pair is exactly the skill he had to acquire.
Another key component of Duncan's growth has been his improvement as a passer. He needed to be better passer, it was a requirement considering the amount of attention paid to him by defenses. He started off unselfish enough, but occasionally lacking in knowing when and where to let off the ball.
He's gone from being a simple passer out of the post to being a conduit of the offense from the block, able to pass effectively out of double teams and know exactly when and where to capitalize off of what the defense is doing. He's able to make things happen for the offense, simply by touching the ball and then redistributing it back out.
Maybe the biggest development of Duncan as a player has been the toughness he's developed and his capacity for leadership. I think it's a consensus that Tim Duncan is mentally tough and that he always has been. Yet for some time early in his career there was a perception that Duncan was soft. It's important to note that most of that was a misconception. People misinterpreted his quiet demeanor and lack of pomp for a deficiency in toughness.
It is fair to say, however, that some of it was warranted. It was clear that as he developed there was a demonstrativeness that came with experience for Duncan. As his skills developed and his confidence grew he started imposing his will on games, demanding the ball down the stretch and generally becoming able to punish entire teams physically on both ends of the floor. There seemed a willingness to absolutely destroy the opposition that was lacking his first few years.
It was most evident in the 2003 NBA Finals. He played the best series of his life, one of the best ever. Duncan's game six performance put him in the pantheon with Magic, Bird, Russell and Jordan – amongst the greatest ever. It was during that title clinching game when I turned to someone and said, “it's like winning isn't enough – it's like he wants to erase the New Jersey Nets from basketball history.”
That kind of determination and thirst for victory, I don't think was there, or at least not as pronounced in the early part of Duncan's career. Furthermore it's been his ability to become a more demonstrative leader that was perhaps the key to the two subsequent championship runs in 2005 and 2007. Another area of his game that was once questioned, it's clear Duncan is one of the finest captains a team could want.
Duncan has without a doubt been a model of consistency, but it's a mistake to think he hasn't grown and developed. He built a game that is cemented in fundamentals and not hinged on athleticism or strength. That's given him the ability to have a long, steady career, one that will likely carry on for some time. The same commitment and work ethic that brought him into the league with a fulling developed, All-Star level game is the same one that has kept him on top of the league and also what's made him able to refine the edges of his game.
For me Tim Duncan is the epitome of self improvement. He's a testament to determined growth and an example for anyone who has ever wanted to get good at anything. Even while at the top of his profession he has continued working to get better.
Without question, we have watched one of the finest basketball players to ever live. We shouldn't let ourselves overlook the mantra that helped guide him:
Good, Better, Best. Never let it rest
Until your Good is Better, and your Better is your Best”
- Tim Duncan