Was Duncan Better Than Lebron?

Full disclosure: I fully believe Tim Duncan is national treasure enough that Nic Cage should be trying to steal him. While LeBron James could save my unborn children from a burning building, and I would still ask him what was up with The Decision? Okay, if he’d gone to Chicago, I probably would’ve forgiven him.

But despite my biases, I have a question I want legitimately answered. I suppose you could make an argument that Duncan is better: five championships, a constellation of 50-win seasons to decorate a Christmas tree, and a cult-like Spurs infrastructure that makes other NBA-lifers wish they were a Level 7 Pop disciple. (Pop-sciple?) He also came achingly close to three more rings: the Derek Fisher 0.4 dagger, Manu’s foul of Dirk, the soul-crushing loss to the James-led heat in 2013. Most people have Duncan as an all-time top ten, no question.

Except if you look at the individual statistics of James, eye-popping is an understatement. Thirteen years with a 27.7 PER average with multiple seasons above 31, career win shares of 192.5. Meanwhile, Duncan clocks in at a 24.2 PER and only 14.1 more WS in six more seasons. Every particle of my body screams at me to push aside human emotion and look at the raw numbers; that’s where the truth usually lies. Even factoring out Duncan’s career tail-end, by advanced stats, per game stats, and the eye test, LeBron is the better player. A terrifying force of devastation: gobbling up fast breaks with chase-down blocks and tomahawking defenders into oblivion. He’s Bird and Magic with superior defense.

His case is an easy one to make: Why should we penalize LeBron for having worse teammates? You just imagine him with a young Tony and Manu in a whirling dervish game of spins and Euro-steps, or a long-armed Kawhi and silky Lamarcus Aldridge jumper, and you know James could have won a few more rings. Tim Duncan wouldn’t have fared so well trying to post up while people sagged off of everyone except someone named Boobie Gibson. Not to mention, James earned a lifetime pass with his historic comeback against the 73-win Warriors juggernaut, a narrative too cheesy even for Hollywood, except it was real life.

Only, you rewind a few months to when James is gushing about best friend Dwyane Wade, glaring passive-aggressively at Kyrie, and Kevin Love is paying rent to live on the trading block. You remember that James picked a number of his teammates, some which paid off–some not so much. I can admire the thirst for self-determination, except when you start to think great player equals great GM. That’s when you wonder if LeBron and Popovich and R.C. Buford would’ve been able to forge the necessary relationship and culture that results in two decades of consistent greatness. But counter-factuals are hard. And it would be reductive to say that James never was an effective leader just as it would be reductive to ignore Duncan’s generational talent.

My distaste for LeBron and his decisions has dulled with time. For much of the time we’ve known him, he was a twenty-something, proclaimed the chosen one as a teen, with millions laid at his feet. I’ve experienced one of those three things, and made similarly horrible mistakes (minus the part where I spiritually murdered Cleveland). James was just a real, flawed human being. The thing about Duncan is that he wasn’t human; he didn’t really make mistakes. He was a robot wrapped in a 7-footer, wrapped in vanilla.

And there’s something satisfying about rooting for an underdog, if an underdog can win five titles. The Spurs obituary has been written half a dozen times. Duncan was old and slow, and could barely jump, but he just kept drop-stepping and hitting elbow jumpers. You believed you could be him–however incorrectly–if only you’d taken a few more growth hormones. To me, LeBron and his ever-rotating band of Big Threes will always be Goliath. And should the aliens come and challenge us to a basketball game for the fate of the world, I’d probably pick him first, and that means something.

But I also think Duncan was the only one who could endure nearly twenty years of consistent greatness. He was a mountain being whittled away by the furious, athletic-fast waters of your Jameses and Durants and Westbrooks and Griffins, but ultimately he stood the test of time. It was a question of classic superstar talent vs. culture, and shockingly, the latter is currently winning 5-3. My head says James is the better player, but my heart rides with Timmy.


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