Tim Duncan: (Still) The Best Center in the Game...

May 20, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan (21) reacts during game four of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. The Spurs defeated the Clippers 102-99 to win the series 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

The discussion happens ever year around the all-star game, when Tim Duncan inevitably (until this year) makes the team as a power forward. But is Tim Duncan a power forward at all? It struck me last night as I was watching the Spurs dispatch the Clips in game four... that Duncan is, quite simply, not a power forward at all, but a center. Now, I understand a lot of you might be saying, "Did this just dawn on you? How long did it take for the light bulb to go off on this one?" But we've been listening to a lot of arguments lately, about how Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard are the two best centers in the game, blah blah blah...."

But last night I realized the argument was wrong. As Tim Duncan led the Spurs to an almost four game dismantling of our beloved LA Clippers, the fallacy of the Bynum/Howard argument hit me. Can either one of those guys touch the hem of the great Saint Timmay?

Now apparently Duncan doesn't like to be called a center, so he gets called a power forward, but is he? In the way we traditionally divide the roles basketball players play on the floor is Duncan a forward or a center?

  1. He's always the tallest guy on the floor for the Spurs. Always. He jumps for tipoffs. Always.
  2. He often plays with his back to the basket in traditional center style. His footwork in the paint is impeccable either way, facing the basket or fronting the defender.
  3. Yeah, he drifts out for long jumpers, but that's because his skills are so universal, not because he's weak inside (see Dirk Nowitzki for comparison).
  4. He plays great defense... and it's almost always against the team's best big man, who is often a center. He was often covering DeAndre Jordan playing against the Clips, but also often had Blake Griffin. And Duncan's fearless in the defensive paint. Over his career he averaged 2.2 blocks per game. THE SAME as Dwight Howard.
  5. The beauty of Duncan's game is that he really is gifted enough to play any of the three front court positions. You can't say that about Bynum or Howard.
  6. At thirty-five, he made 24-year-old DeAndre Jordan look slow-footed. And Duncan often shot OVER Jordan.
  7. He's the best passing big man in the game, with higher per-game assist averages this year than Bynum and Duncan (though he played far fewer minutes).
  8. He's a better free throw shooter than Bynum by a percent point or two... but he's better than Howard by twenty points... and though Howard's overall stats are better (this year) than Duncan's, it's perilous to put Howard on the court in the last few minutes of a game because of his sub-50% free throw shooting.

Go here for a Duncan-Bynum-Howard comparison of the 2011-12 numbers via Basketball-Reference.com. Sure, Tim Duncan's 35 years old and while his overall numbers (per 36) are clearly behind Howard's this season, and just a tick behind Bynum's, Duncan's on court contributions, even in limited minutes are undeniable. He's better or equal to either of those guys in three critical areas: blocks, assists, and turnovers... and you can give him the ball at any point in the game without fear.

And then there are the intangibles. Duncan appears to not simply be the best player on the team (though Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren't exactly chopped liver), but he is also perhaps the most well-liked and unselfish player. And his leadership, in his soft-spoken style is palpable.

It's undeniable, that if the three players (Duncan, Howard, and Bynum) were the same age, you'd take Duncan before the other two... but even at thirty-five, in a critical game, wouldn't Duncan be your first choice as a starting center? He is still, to me, the best center in the league... even if he calls himself a power forward.

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