Tim Duncan was an all-time great defender who just might be the greatest of all time. Duncan put up outrageous career defensive statistics. While he never won defensive player of the year, Tim Duncan was a remarkably consistent defender who made 15 all-NBA defensive teams.
Tim Duncan on Defense: Stats
If you have had even one sports conversation in a bar, or listened to sports talk radio even in passing, you know sports guys have opinions. Some are grounded in evidence and sound thinking. Others make you scratch your head.
Using stats to look back at a player’s career can be a good way to make sure you are basing your opinions in some real evidence. Most people, including me, have positive memories of the Big Fundamental.
But it is still good to look at some stats to make sure those memories are not overriding the facts of a player’s career.
Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in another section, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions. I will dive into each of those numbers individually for Old Man Riverwalk below.
When taken together, the numbers tell a pretty clear story: Tim Duncan was an elite defender who belongs in the conversation for greatest defensive player of all time.Embed from Getty Images
Rebounds, Blocks and Steals
Tim Duncan had a defensive rebounding percentage of 26.5% for his career. This is a good number for him and left him 13th on the all-time list. You expect your power forward/center to get boards and Duncan did.
I don’t immediately think of Tim Duncan when you say NBA shot blocker. Pure centers who swatted everything do come to mind. People like Hakeem Olajuwan (5.39- 14th all time), Duncan’s teammate David Robinson (5.69% – 10th all time) and Alonzo Mourning(6.57% – 4th).
But Duncan, despite being more of a hybrid center/power forward, blocked a ton of shots. His career block percentage 4.58% left him 26th on the all time list. He is similarly placed at 22nd all time on the blocks per game list.
Duncan did not get a ton of style points for his blocks. He often played with his arms down and raised them to meet the ball. There weren’t many dramatic swats into the third row, but he was an incredibly effective shot-blocker.
While Timmy got his share of blocks, he did not set the world on fire with steals. As a backline defender, you would not expect him to get a ton of steals. And he did not. Duncan’s career 1.1% steal percentage is the only statistic I will look at where he is not ranked in the all time top 250.
Overall Defensive StatisticsEmbed from Getty Images
Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. Tim Duncan’s is unreal. He finished with a 96 career defensive rating – good for 3rd all time.
The only players ahead of Duncan are Gar Heard and Dave Cowens. And it is extremely close. Defensive rating is a pretty good overall measure of defense and almost no one had a better rating than Tim Duncan.
Defensive box plus/minus is a similar attempt to gauge overall defensive effectiveness. Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team.
Tim Duncan finished his career with a 2.3 rating good for 11th all time.
To give some context to that number, while I believe he was quite overrated on defense, Kobe Bryant had -.1.
Defensive win shares is a complicated stat that attempts to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor.
Tim Duncan finished with 106.3 defensive win shares, good for 2nd all time! The only player ahead of Timmy on this list is Bill Russell – certainly good company when measuring defense.
Tim Duncan’s career defensive statistics are amazing. The single skill numbers are good with Duncan being both a very good rebounder and shot blocker. But the big picture numbers are crazy: Duncan ranks as one of the very best, if not the best, defender of all time based on his stats.
Comparing Tim Duncan to Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki
Rather than looking at a players’ stats in isolation, it can be helpful to compare them to other players. In this first comparison, I show Tim Duncan in comparison to two great power forwards of the same general era: Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett.
I am choosing to compare Duncan to both power forwards and centers. He played both positions in his career and it is the best way to get a look at different types of players.
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|26.5 (13th)||21.9% (85th)||26.0 (15th)|
|4.6 (26th)||1.9%(150th)||3.0 (81st)|
|1.1 (NR)||1.2% (NR)||1.9 (200th)|
|96 (3rd)||104 (186th)||99.1 (19th)|
|2.3 (11th)||.35 (228th)||2.09 (20th)|
|106.3 (2nd)||62.6 (25th)||91.5 (7th)|
Since Duncan’s numbers are completely amazing, it is not a surprise to see them hold up well in this comparison. Nowitzki was not noted for strong D, especially early in his career, but he became passable through experience and effort.
KG was, of course, another all-time great on the defensive end. It shows in the stats above. But even in that comparison, Duncan holds up. KG, more of a real forward than any kind of center, got more steals. But Duncan had more blocks.
And in the big picture stats, Duncan had the edge in every category. How much of that can be attributed to the stronger defenses Duncan played on throughout most of his career? I’ll leave that to the scouts.
But it is clear from this comparison that Tim Duncan is an all-time great on defense. His stats stand way out from a great offense/weaker defense player like Nowitzki while holding up even against one of the best defensive forwards to ever play in KG.
Comparing Tim Duncan to Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson
Since Duncan got his share of time in the middle, it is only right to compare him to some other great centers of this general era. These three are among the all-time elites at the position.
The most obvious conclusion from this chart is that Shaq, undeniably one of the greatest centers to ever play the game, did not play anywhere near the kind of defense that the other three played.
Beyond that, it is tough to make definitive conclusions. Duncan was the better rebounder than the Dream or the Admiral. But, somewhat surprisingly, they both got more steals than him. The difference in block shots is real but not very large.
Groundhog Day had the best defensive rating and win shares but the worst box plus/minus of this trio. So, overall, it’s close. But even it being close speaks volumes about Tim Duncan’s defense.
When you compare Tim Duncan to average (maybe even slightly below average) defenders like Dirk Nowitzi, or even good defenders like Shaq, the comparison is laughably in Duncan’s favor.
When you compare him to some of the best defenders to ever play the game in Kevin Garnett, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan comes out slightly ahead or it’s really close.
Duncan is one of the best defenders to ever play and his stats show it for sure.
Did people think Tim Duncan was great on defense while he was playing?Embed from Getty Images
Tim Duncan was widely viewed as a great defender even while he was playing. Incredibly, he made 15 NBA first or second All-Defensive Teams. That is the all time record for the league.
The first came in his rookie year when he made the first team All Defense. The last came at age 38 when Duncan made the second All Defense team.
The span of these awards is incredible. Duncan was playing great defense the moment he set foot in the league and he was still playing great defense when he was almost out of the league.
That is a rare quality for an NBA player. Larry Bird, for instance, played really good D as a young player but injuries robbed him of his quickness and he was less and less effective on defense as his career went on.
Others, like Magic Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki, played fairly poor defense as young players but grew into better defenders with experience in the league.
Not Tim Duncan. He played great defense the whole time he was in the league and people noticed. He was consistently voted one of the league’s best defenders throughout his career.
I argued in my article on Kobe Bryant’s defense that the voters can be wrong. In Kobe’s case, I argued the voters can be consistently wrong. That happened because of a near-perfect storm of reasons in Kobe’s case. See that post for the full explanation.
But there are some glaring differences between Kobe’s case and Duncan’s. Tim Duncan has stats that blow you away. If you did not see one of his games but read the stats from above, you could know he was an amazing defender.
Kobe does not have those kind of stats. I discovered that, to my surprise, in writing about Tracy McGrady, who was no great defender but has slightly better career defensive stats than Kobe.
The point here is that, sure the voters can be wrong, but in this case the evidence supports them strongly. Duncan put up incredible stats year-to-year and overall.
The NBA writers and broadcasters who vote for league awards were not alone in thinking Duncan excelled on defense.
While Phil Jackson criticized Kobe’s team defense in his book, Duncan’s mentor Gregg Popovich could not, and cannot, find enough nice things to say about the Stone Budha (Duncan’s nickname in China, apparently).
Popovich called Duncan the ultimate team player and winner summing him up simply, by saying..
“No Duncan. No Championships.”– Gregg Popovich
While Dunan never won the Defensive Player of the Year, he was close a number of times. Many made the argument in different years that Duncan was deserving of the award. Here is the first in a 3-part series of posts arguing in real time that Duncan should have been the DPOY in 2013.
Ultimately, winning DPOY comes down to some degree of luck. Duncan had multiple years where he was worthy of the award – maybe even ten of them. But he never quite got the nod. The voters, again, can be mistaken.
And being the single best defender in the league for one season is not the only measure of great defense. I would argue that being in contention nearly every year of his career is a more impressive feat than winning it once and being in contention 3-4 years.
Most everyone who watched him play from opponents, to his coach and teammates, to the voters who covered the league recognized Tim Duncan as an absolutely great defender. He played that great defense for an incredibly long period of time.Embed from Getty Images
Summary: Tim Duncan on Defense
Tim Duncan is one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NBA. He was named to 15 all-nba defensive teams and was considered the ultimate winning and team player both by his coaches and his opponents. Duncan put up remarkable career defensive stats finishing near the top of the all-time lists in nearly every advanced defensive category.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Modified from:“This planet needs more folks like Tim Duncan.” by Howdy, I’m H. Michael Karshis is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.