How Important is Tim Duncan to a Successful Spurs Run?

| by Hoops Karma

In this series, I’ll take a look at modern superstars and examine how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways.

What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.

I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider how many games someone is missing when making these comparisons; if a player has missed only 4 games in his career, not much information can be gleaned from how his team did without him.

Another important consideration is injuries to fellow teammates and the context of the games; if someone is out at the same time as another important starter while they club is sleepwalking through April games because playoff position has already been locked up, that will be noted and considered.

Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Tim Duncan. [The first one covered the career of Dirk Nowitzki: read here.]

Rookie Season (‘97-98)

I want to properly set up the context of what Duncan was walking into as he entered the league in 1997. The Spurs had won an average of 54.7 games per season from ‘89-90 until ‘95-96, never dipping below 47 victories. This stretch of success—although they only reached the Western Conference Finals once in those seven seasons—was chiefly due to the peak years of David Robinson being matched up with peak years from (at first) Rod Strickland, Terry Cummings, Dennis Rodman, (and eventually) Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, and Vinny Del Negro. In ‘96-97, the cumulative injuries to Robinson (missed 76 games), Elliott, and Del Negro, plus some tanking down the stretch in order to land the #1 pick, which was obviously going to be Duncan, lead to a horrendous 20-62 (.244) record.

Duncan was picked up, Robinson got healthy, and the club skyrocketed to 56-26 (.683) in ‘97-98. What’s kind of amazing about this leap was that Duncan, The Admiral, and Johnson were the only three players to start more than 45 games on the year (Elliott and Del Negro were again hurt), with Duncan starting in all 82 and leading the club in minutes played at 39 per game. Duncan had a phenomenal rookie campaign, averaging 21 ppg, 12 rpg, and 2.5 bpg while shooting 55%; he wasn’t quite Robinson’s equal, but he was only barely the team’s second-best player.

SanAn was bounced in the Western Semifinals, a typical finish for those great teams in the early- to mid-90’s despite the relative lack of team health in 1998 (Elliott didn’t appear in the post-season at all). Duncan lead the team in playoffs scoring at 21 ppg, shooting 52% compared to Robinson’s 43%.

Duncan’s impact on W-L’s: His presence was already significant and noticeably positive for the Spurs. Although San Antonio really just returned to their previous glory in Duncan’s rookie season, they did so with prominent players injured, so Duncan was effectively filling in for both the value and team cohesion provided for by multiple veteran starters, which is very impressive for any rookie to be able to accomplish. 

Next ten years (‘98-99 to ‘07-08)

In Duncan’s second year, he was already the team’s alpha dog as Robinson's value and stats slipped, failing to make any of the All-NBA teams for only the second time in 10 years. The rest of the starting lineup wasn’t particularly impressive: Elliott was way past his prime, Johnson was clearly on the way down, and newcomer Mario Elie was the 3-point ace who averaged less than one made 3 per game. The second-year Duncan carried this team to a Championship, averaging 23 ppg, 12 rpg, and 2.6 bpg in the playoffs. On his back, the Spurs were so dominant they lost only 2 post-season games.

The rest of these years were quite similar. Duncan was easily the Spurs’ best player while Robinson faded into retirement and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili took awhile to establish themselves as occasional All-Stars (which I think we can all agree they wouldn’t have been without all the championships Duncan was primarily responsible for). SanAn consistently won 53 to 63 games each year, winning three more titles in that time.

How different was the team with and without Duncan in the lineup? Very. They went 536-207 (.721) with him, yet only 23-22 (.511) without him in the regular season of these ten years. When Duncan missed the playoffs in 2000 due to a meniscus injury, the Spurs lost in the first round despite holding homecourt advantage. Could they have won it all instead of the Lakers that year? They were coming off a title and went 2-1 against LA during that season with Duncan in the lineup, including winning the last two of those matchups by a total of 42 points, so it’s safe to say they could have.

Duncan developed plantar fasciitis during the ’05-06 season. He barely played in the last three games of the season and came out slow and inconsistent in the post-season, yet SanAn still took the Western Conference champion Mavericks to overtime of Game 7 in the second round. It’s not hard to imagine a slightly more healthy Duncan winning that series and eventually the championship since the refs wouldn’t have screwed the Spurs out of the title like they did Dallas.

Nothing’s a guarantee, but you can see how Duncan’s health may have prevented two more San Antonio championships during this decade; he was that important to a team whose sidekicks made a grand total of two All-Star appearances and zero All-NBA teams in those four Championship seasons (really think about that for a second).

Duncan’s impact on W-L’s: There’s no two ways to look at all the facts: his play was massively important to the Spurs’ great run of success during this time. The team won only half their games and were unimpressive in the post-season without him, yet dominant and winning numerous titles with him. It’s this kind of performance and significance to your club that gets you mentioned as a top-5 player all-time.

Slow Decline (‘08-09 to ‘10-11)

After the Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2008, there was no question that Duncan at 32 was starting to slow down, especially when it became known during the ’08-09 season that he was experiencing chronic right quad tendonosis and was forced to wear a knee brace. With recurring lower body injuries over the past three seasons, his minutes per game have dropped from 34 to 31 to 28, with similar drops in ppg (19 to 18 to 13) and rpg (11 to 10 to 9), plus his blocks per haven’t reached 2.0 in four years.

The Spurs' ’08-09 season was also marred by injuries to Ginobili (missed 38 games plus the playoffs – only started 7 games total on the season) and Parker (missed 10 games), plus the supporting cast featured a lot of guys in their mid-30’s such as Michael Finley (35), Bruce Bowen (37), and Kurt Thomas (36). Duncan obviously wasn’t 100% in the playoffs, and the Spurs were bounced in round one. The ’09-10 campaign was marked by a few more minor injuries to Duncan as SanAn made it to the second round with a club made up of aging vets (7 of their top 10 were 29 or older) and first-year contributors (DeJuan Blair and George Hill).

This past year, the Spurs went on an unexpected tear in the regular season, winning the West with a 61-21 record, but rather substantial injuries to Duncan and Ginobili allowed the Grizzlies to knock the contenders out of the playoffs in the first round. It’s been obvious the past few years that Duncan’s play has been slipping, particularly his otherworldly defense and aggression on offense, but the fact the team continues to underperform without him at 100% in the playoffs says a lot. How about their regular season records with and without him these past three seasons? Even though he’s not the player he once was, it’s still clear he’s the player that makes this team good. With Duncan in the lineup, the Spurs have been 156-73 (.681), yet without the aging Duncan they’re only 9-8 (.529). That massive disparity is a testament to the intangibles and on-court leadership Duncan brings to the table that aren’t accounted for in the box score.

Duncan’s impact on W-L’s: I really didn’t expect this to be the case to this degree over the past couple years, but he still has a very significant impact on the Spurs. Beyond just the regular season records that take a huge hit when he sits, San Antonio has yet to accomplish anything in the playoffs without Tim Duncan at 100% at any point in his career, which is noteworthy considering how successful they’ve been with him.


Duncan joined a decent yet underwhelming (in the playoffs, at least) club in 1998 that already had a legit #1 on it. Within one season, Duncan made the Spurs his team and had them turned into legitimate contenders for most of the next 13 years, even with no other top-end talent beside him (which is absolutely amazing in the Western Conference of the 00’s). When he didn’t play, SanAn was ordinary. When he did, they won 4 titles and were close to a few more. Not only that, Duncan’s team was nothing more than fodder for the big boys whenever he was injured in the post-season, which tells you a thing or two about how clutch he was. All that being said, there’s no question Duncan transformed his team’s fortunes in the win column in a way few other basketball players ever have.