Backpicks GOAT: #6 Hakeem Olajuwon

Key Stats and Trends

  • All-time level defender, anchoring excellent defenses despite mediocre teammates
  • Team and individual metrics improved across the board in the postseason
  • Never played on a great team; isolation game and weak passing make scaling a concern

Scouting Report

If Shaq was Wilt incarnate, then Hakeem was Russell. Standing over 6-foot-10 and weighing 250 pounds, he paired the quickness of a guard with the strength of a big. This allowed him to cover the court with a controlled chaos, helping and recovering almost at will:

Hakeem didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15, but his athleticism made up for any shortcomings. He could bite on upfakes in his early years, but his incredible ability to control his body and recover limited any damage:

Young Olajuwon tried to block just about everything, and thanks to the tighter spacing of the era, he nearly did.1 Hakeem blocked hundreds of high-leverage shots at the rim, and his aggression and perfect timing turned him into a basketball eraser:

Yes, that was the unblockable Sky Hook. Olajuwon’s court coverage was unrivaled among 3-point era centers, so he could briefly lose his man (Bill Cartwright, No. 24 in the next play) before covering enough ground to muck up the dribbler and block the shot:

He was also able to eliminate shots in man defense, using his strength to absorb contact and still elevate to meet the ball:

As he aged, he became a smarter defender, no longer chasing every attempt and minimizing his defensive errors. Here, instead of merely challenging the shot, Hakeem plays some basketball chess:

He seemed to learn this trick around the ’89 or ’90 season, providing lightning-quick help to alter shots, then dropping an arm to guard against a pass if he felt the attacker change his mind. Again, watch his left hand here:

This effectively made his double teams tax free (rebounding aside), because ball-handlers couldn’t hit Olajuwon’s man with his passing wall in the way. He still had the occasional lapse, usually from a preoccupation with the action in front of him:

Yet he was so quick that he could often influence plays even without anticipating them. Here he is pouncing on unsuspecting penetrators:

I tracked over 800 possessions of his for this series, and he transitions from committing defensive errors at a moderate rate in the ’80s to a low rate in the ’90s. Olajuwon’s frequency of “elite” help plays — swooping over in unreasonable fashion to disrupt action near the hoop — is the highest I’ve ever recorded. While his awareness might not have matched Garnett’s, his horizontal game was still excellent; he’s arguably the quickest and fastest center ever, possessing cat-like reflexes and the ability to guard almost anyone.

No film study of him would be complete without mentioning his steals. Hakeem deflected countless balls and topped 2 steals per game in five of his first seven seasons, despite not gambling much. Many of his thefts came from quickly jumping entry passes or flicking at dribblers like this:

On offense, his scoring arsenal was robust when he entered the league. If mid-’90s Olajuwon was firing on all cylinders, late ’80s Hakeem operated at 90 percent capacity. His Dream Shakes and eye-popping moves were there in the early days:

Those weren’t highlights either — those moves were his post game. His strikes were decisive and nearly indefensible; he hit more difficult shots with regularity than anyone besides Kobe Bryant. When younger, Olajuwon would pick up a bucket or two a game just by unleashing his agility and strength on overmatched defenders. Here, he makes like an edge rusher in football, ducking around his man before sealing him for a score:

This repertoire made him an excellent isolation scorer. I tracked possessions where he was in single coverage, and Olajuwon averaged an incredible 1.22 points per play.2 In games from the early ’90s, Houston went to an Hakeem iso 19 percent of the time when he was on the court, more than Kobe’s 2006 rate of 17 percent, per Synergy.3 Of course, he had just about the fiercest spin move outside of Michael Jackson too:

But Olajuwon made these ballerina moves into double or even triple-teams, forgoing easier shots for teammates. This was a major issue, particularly in the first half of his career, and instead of creating high-efficiency opportunities for other Rockets, he launched low-efficiency shots into multiple defenders:

Here’s another example leading to a turnover, in which Hakeem showcases his blazing speed that earned him a number of easy fast break scores during the ’80s:

Based on my sampling, from 1985-92 Hakeem missed an opportunity for creation about as frequently as he actually created one (over 4 plays per 100). This ratio was halved in 1993, as he started playmaking more frequently — around 8 opportunities created per 100, all-time levels for a big man — instead of forcing his own scoring into piles of defenders. In my sample, he shot under 40 percent on these double-teamed shots when he had a clear outlet valve instead.

Olajuwon’s subpar passing compounded the issue. He occasionally spotted cutters or high-leverage passes, but couldn’t always deliver the ball accurately or timely:

By 1993, he was a better, more willing passer, comfortably tossing it back out to his shooters.4 In the second clip below, Hakeem finds a shooter with an unorthodox look-away, then demonstrates his amazing offensive rebounding:

He was a premier offensive rebounder when he entered the league, posting a top-15 rate of all-time in his rookie season. As his athleticism tapered off in the early ’90s, he was still quite good in this area, above the 80th percentile in those years among high-usage big men. He tracked the ball well off the rim, and even tossed in the occasional swim move to outmaneuver opponents on the glass:

To recap, Hakeem entered the league as a skilled scorer and ferociously aggressive defender. He improved his shooting in the early ’90s (translating to even better isolation efficacy) as his defense wised up. In 1993, he shifted his floor game towards creating more, although he struggled with this for his entire prime. In 1994, he was a half-step slower and lacked some of his explosiveness, reflected by a decline in defensive rebounding and blocks. And in 1995, another half-step came off as Father Time wore on him steadily until the end of the decade.

Impact Evaluation

Quantifying Olajuwon can feel like solving physics. He’s essentially the only all-timer to never test his portability by playing with top-end talent, although his brush with other stars in ’97 yielded decent results given that the Big 3’s combined age was 101. When younger, his shoot-first tendencies made it unlikely that he could play a more team-oriented game, although his improved ’90s repertoire should have fit comfortably next to any perimeter star. And most notably, his individual and team offense regularly improved in the postseason, turning Houston from an afterthought into a championship contender despite its marginal personnel.

Before the 1984 season, a rebuilding Rockets team drafted 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and played at a 32-win pace (-3.1 SRS). The next year, they added Olajuwon, upgraded their guards and climbed to a 45-win clip (1.4 SRS). Both sides of the ball improved, but notably, the defensive efficiency jumped about 2 points and the Rockets finished fourth in defensive rating. Given his role and skill set, it’s likely Hakeem was responsible for a good chunk of this improvement as a rookie. In 1986, the Rockets weren’t much better in the regular season (a 47-win pace), although their offense grew as the defense dipped below average.

However, in the ’86 postseason, Houston excelled, improving its offensive rating from 110.2 to 110.7 despite tougher playoff competition. While offensive centerpieces typically decline against stingier postseason defenses, Olajuwon was one of the few who improved, elevating his scoring volume and efficiency. Most NBA mid-level offenses show a natural bit of relative improvement against harder postseason opponents, but Olajuwon’s Rockets were a whopping 2.7 points better.5

In other words, Hakeem’s offenses were inelastic, likely caused by his ability to take and hit difficult shots. This is a double-edged sword; Olajuwon’s poor shot selection and isolation tendencies can prevent an offense from flourishing, but they also made Houston resilient to most good defenses. There was nothing for the opponent to take away because he was already taking hard shots. More on this in a second.

Those ’80s Rockets teams were poorly constructed, bottoming out in 1983, then never really filling the roster with valuable role players. Sampson and Hakeem were supposed to be the future, but injuries derailed Ralph. Meanwhile, because of their immediate success, the Rockets added the following legends through the draft: Steve Harris (1985), Buck Johnson (1986, a rotation player by his third season), Doug Lee (1987) and Derrick Chievous (1988).6 Compounding matters, two rotation players were given a multi-year ban in the middle of the ’87 season for recreational drug use. It wasn’t until they stepped off the treadmill of mediocrity in 1992 that they snagged a worthwhile rookie in the lottery named Robert Horry.

As you can see, there was minimal roster turnover, which is stupefying for a non-contender. Instead, Houston spun its wheels for a handful of seasons with a marginally talented group on both ends of the court. The ’80s Rockets never surrounded Hakeem with shooters to punish teams for double-teaming off his guards, and they regularly finished in the bottom-half of the league in 3-point shots attempted.

Olajuwon still left an impact footprint though. With Sampson, Hakeem missed 18 games in 1986 and ’87, and the Rockets were 3.3 efficiency points worse on defense without Hakeem. Then, with Sampson gone entirely, (1987-91), Olajuwon posted the best defensive stretch of his career.7 His court coverage and rim erasures led them to a five-year relative defensive average that was 3.4 points better than the league, finishing in the top five in each season. He did this with moderately strong defensive forwards (Rodney McCray in ’87 and ’88, then Otis Thorpe, who joined in ’89), but lacked elite defensive talent or a notable defensive system.8 During that stretch, Olajuwon led the NBA in defensive rebounding rate twice and block percentage once. Below, you can see how those Rockets stack up against the best unique five-year defensive stretches from 1970 to the mid ’90s:9

Given the makeup of the league in the ’80s, I’m not sure it was possible for anyone to generate a super-team on defense like the 2000s Spurs. Houston never went all-in on that end like Pat Riley in New York, and thus their league-best ratings weren’t statistical outliers. Still, as the above chart depicts, only a few franchises had a better five-year defensive stretch than the Rockets in that period, a feather in Olajuwon’s cap.10

Without a second legit star and a fairly underwhelming supporting cast (apologies to Buck Johnson, Mitchell Wiggins and Sleepy Floyd), Hakeem still led the Rockets to a 52-win pace at full-strength in 1990 and 1991, on par with many notable lone-star efforts in history. His isolation scoring game made him a classic “floor raiser,” ensuring his teams weren’t overrun by stifling opponents. This trait is significantly more appealing in Olajuwon than every perimeter player in history — including young Jordan — because it’s paired with his defense, making it easier to win without offensive dominance. And Hakeem wasn’t just a great team defender, he was an individual shutdown artist of the highest order. Opposing All-Star centers lost nearly 4 points per 36 and more than 5 points of efficiency against him during the heart of his career:

On offense, Houston’s improvement coincided with Hakeem’s personal development as a creator (per the scouting report). The ’80s Rockets were often poorly spaced with idle perimeter threats who watched Olajuwon dance with half of the opponent’s roster. But Rudy Tomjanovich’s Rockets were loaded with capable shooters waiting to hit spot-up jumpers, and the ’94 team set a record for 3-point attempts in a year (at the time).11 Then in 1995, the Rockets increased their 3-point frequency by 36 percent, setting another record for attempts with a shorter 3-point line.

However, efficiency was almost always an issue for Hakeem. Early in his career, his difficult shot selection and poor passing tendencies limited his offensive impact. The Rudy T years tapped into his ability to punish double teams and unleashed a high-variance strategy that was a threat to any opponent in a seven game series. But even with his shift in ’93 to a more willing creator, Olajuwon still took an enormity of challenging, double-teamed attempts, dampening his percentages. Here’s how his three-year peak compares to the other great big men of the 3-point era in the “Big 3” offensive dimensions of scoring, efficiency and creation:12

In the postseason, Houston relied on him even more, and he responded by (amazingly) upping his scoring and creation. Here’s the same snapshot of the 3-point era big men, except this time using playoff data from those same seasons. Notice how Hakeem moves from the weakest creator to the strongest while maintaining his efficiency:

All of this had a profound impact on the Houston offense. From 1993 to 1995, the Rockets were about a point better than the defenses they faced in the regular season, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions. But in 57 playoff games, with Hakeem ramping up, Houston was 5.3 points better than the defenses it faced, posting a 111 offensive rating. So while the Rockets hovered around 50-wins during the season with a small margin of victory, in those 57 playoff games they posted a 7.6 SRS (62-win pace) by maintaining a small margin over the best teams in the league. Hakeem’s inelasticity as a player likely turned Houston into a resilient team.

The Rockets took one last swing in 1997 when they added Charles Barkley to form a “super” (but elderly) team with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. When healthy, that was actually the best regular season team Hakeem ever played on (57-win pace). Ideally, when more talent arrives, stars develop a synergy and create easier shots for each other. That didn’t quite happen, as Hakeem posted comparable scoring numbers with slightly lower creation rates and the Rockets finished 3.6 points better than average on offense at full-strength. Age was certainly a factor at that point, but the results were a tad underwhelming.13

Using Jeremias Engelmann’s three-year APM study from 2002-16, the best defensive players improved their teams by about 4.5 points per game. (The best offensive players approached 5.5 per game). Did the slightly congested spacing during his prime amplify his incredible ability as a help defender? I think it did, and thus his combination of scoring and defense provided a devastating package, even before he started passing more. If his resiliency truly made his ’93 and ’94 teams closer to 60-win competition, then his peak was likely matched by only a few players ever.

Augmented Plus-Minus (AuPM) paints him as a star player who fell short of the elites at the end of his prime. His 1994-95 two-year AuPM average of +4.8 falls in “only” the 95th percentile, but given the evidence, it’s clear that Hakeem was one of the rare players ever to genuinely have a larger impact against superior playoff competition. AuPM also underestimates Tim Duncan — from ’06-09, it’s about 2.5 points short of his APM value every year — the most functionally similar player to Hakeem in history. Both were elite defenders with strong isolation games who created via kick-outs but lacked court vision. Duncan’s passing grew beyond Hakeem’s, but Olajuwon’s scoring game was more robust.

Hakeem’s scaled APM marks from his post-prime years — 1997 and 1998 — land him at +4.0 and +3.4, respectively, with better impact on defense, suggesting that his prime impact metrics could have indeed been elite.14 And multiple game-level plus-minus studies view him as a superstar who’s a rung below the all-time MVPs, which makes sense given some his down years; Olajuwon was caught in a shifting team identity during his injury return in 1991, then feuded with management over contract disagreements in the 1992 season.

I consider him the best defender of the 3-point era, and that value holds on any team. His questionable shot selection and inability to scale on offense are a concern and his team situation creates enough uncertainty that I’m a bit uneasy about his offensive valuations. But I have a hard time slotting him much lower, especially given his similarities to Duncan, and in the most negative light, he’s no lower than ninth. Yet, he has enough longevity and such a high peak that he could easily place fifth. In another close call, he comes in with the sixth-most valuable career in NBA history.

Backpicks GOAT: #7 Tim Duncan

Key Stats and Trends

  • Elite defensive metrics and a key to the best defensive dynasty since the ’60s
  • Strong isolation scoring and good creation helped him carry weaker offenses
  • Mediocre passing and outside shooting limited offensive scalability

Scouting Report

For a decade, Tim Duncan’s game was so similar that his different seasons were only distinguishable by hair style. He was quicker in his early years, allowing Gregg Popovich to deploy him as a small forward during his rookie season on a triple-tower frontline with David Robinson and Will Purdue; Duncan even guarded point guards at times!1 He was mobile enough to contain guards on switches, then recover and protect the rim:

That play highlights his tendency to block shots at their point of release instead of in the air, near their apex. From a psychological perspective, this habit might have cost him a Defensive Player of the Year award to sexier, aerial shot blockers.2 Duncan was still agile enough to tally the occasional Sportscenter block; in the next clip, he tracks the ball before using his length to erase a layup:

Duncan called on his deceptive reach to constantly interfere with shots in the paint. In the first clip below, notice how he’s positioned perfectly, allowing him to impact the attempt with a quick reaction:

Although his reactions weren’t always this quick, when he was locked in on the ball and ready to pounce, he provided elite rotations in his prime. In the next clip, he loiters near the 3-point line to safeguard on Dirk Nowitzki’s trail, then recovers to help at the rim:

I tracked about 800 Duncan possessions from 1998-2008, specifically looking at these rotations, and his tendencies were steady throughout his career. He rotated “well” on 4 plays per 100 and provided an “elite” rotation play, like the previous one, about once a game. For perspective, this was two-and-a-half times the rate of Shaq’s quality rotations but 20 percent below David Robinson’s frequency during their primes.

Naturally, he was a low-error defender, with most of his breakdowns coming when he switched onto quick offensive wings. In sampling him for this series, Duncan was in the top quartile of defensive error rates, and in my 2010-11 tracking he was in the 91st percentile.3 He could hold his own against many perimeter players, fluidly switching and then recovering:

Sometimes, he was reluctant to stray too far from the hoop and would often sag back in pick-and-roll coverage, conceding space on outside shots. His on-ball defense was quite good against other big men, as he used his length and lower body strength to hold position and disrupt shots, even against the strongest of giants:

Most wings were reluctant to challenge him in the lane, and his wingspan allowed him to blanket the paint. His only notable defensive weakness was a lack of top-end quickness that prevented him from making certain five-star saves:4

As he aged, more of his rotations were a half-step slow, although he was still better positioned than most. He was also a phenomenal defensive rebounder, posting 11 relative rebounding seasons above the 94th percentile historically (+12 percent or better), peaking in the 99th percentile.

On offense, Duncan was no slouch either. His patented move was, of course, the face-up banker:

But he didn’t call on that as much as advertised. Instead, he owned a full arsenal of post moves from day one, including hooks, fades, and drives:

In those clips, notice how powerful he is, rooting down into the floor and holding positions near the basket or dislodging defenders on his penetration. This wasn’t Shaq or Wilt strength, but at 250 pounds, his sturdy base moved opponents and claimed valuable interior real estate. He had some agility too, and his spin move was one of his most effective attacks:

At times, he pounded the ball too much, symptomatic of the isolation malady of the late ’90s. This slowed down the offense and ate enough clock that, sometimes, no other options were available:

He was also a fantastic offensive rebounder, using his size to carve out space near the rim, then his length to snatch the board:

Among top-1,000 scorers, Duncan’s offensive rebounding rates were above the 86th percentile in every one of his first 13 seasons, peaking in the 93rd percentile. During his prime, he turned this into offense, tapping in his own misses as part of his attack:5

Duncan wasn’t a great outside shooter, as shot-chart data for his career pegs him at around 40 percent from the midrange and 39 percent on long 2-pointers, limiting his value as a pick-and-pop player or finisher. He was never a great passer either, although he improved as his career unfolded. He could hit a basic, first-level cutter, and developed an ability to find skip passes when doubled:

However, he lacked vision to make elite passes, sometimes struggling with double-teams, failing to read the defense correctly:

He was even blind to easy passes early in his career, and although he improved his reads, the poor vision remained nearly a decade later:

In my sampling, prime Duncan made “good” passes on under 2 plays per 100 possessions, slightly more often than he threw “problematic” ones such as those shown above. His creation rates were solid and undersold by the classic Box Creation estimate, more accurately captured using the non-3 version of the metric. In tracking, he peaked around 7 shots created per 100 during his peak years, and was closer to 4 or 5 in the surrounding seasons.

Duncan’s quickness started to fade in 2005 and he battled nagging injuries during that stretch of his career. As he aged, his defense slowed slightly — he couldn’t stay with wings as well, he couldn’t cover quite as much court, and he couldn’t react around the goal quite as quickly. Still, Old Man Riverwalk was so positionally sound and lanky that he remained an impact defender through his final seasons:

He wasn’t quite the same offensive weapon by 2009, still chock-full of post moves, just at slower speeds. He improved as an extra-passer in his final act, serving as valuable connective tissue in the Spurs hot-potato offense. By 2011, his isolation shifted into full old-man mode, relying on guile to provide post scoring in bursts. He slimmed down and was able to play effectively in limited minutes until 2015, his 18th season.

Impact Evaluation

Duncan’s polished game made an immediate impact in San Antonio. His team defensive metrics were historically good, as were his individual plus-minus metrics. When asked to carry the load, his postseason scoring was excellent, but San Antonio’s offenses really took off when Duncan’s role diminished, a testament to the unparalleled coaching of Gregg Popovich.

Duncan joined San Antonio in 1998 in one of the great turnarounds in NBA history. With David Robinson returning from injury, the Spurs added 11.3 efficiency points to their relative defensive rating (rDRtg), by far the biggest single-season improvement ever.6 Per the scouting report, Duncan was an immediate impact defender, and despite logging time at small forward, he still posted a block rate in the 84th percentile as a rookie.

Teams struggled at the rim against the Spurs with Robinson on the court, but according to rim protection metrics, they were even worse with Duncan in the game. Opposing field goal percentage is a noisy stat, but it supports Duncan’s dominion over the lane that we saw in the scouting report:7

Duncan’s arrival spawned the most dominant defensive dynasty of the 3-point era. While credit must be given to Popovich and studs like Robinson and Bruce Bowen — two of the best defenders ever at their positions — Duncan was an impressive centerpiece on San Antonio’s backline for more than a decade. The ’98-02 Spurs authored the second-best five-year defensive stretch of the 3-point era, with an rDRtg 5.6 points ahead of the league, slightly behind the ’90s Knicks’ mark of -6.1. (The lower the rDRtg, the better.)

When Robinson retired after the 2003 season, the Spurs paired Rasho Nesterovic alongside Duncan in the middle and improved by 4.9 points on defense, finishing with the best rDRtg in the 3-point era (-8.8) in 2004. This kicked off a new, five-year run that bested their ’98-02 mark, in which San Antonio’s average relative defense was an incredible -7, making Duncan a linchpin on the best regular season and postseason five-year periods of the modern era:8

In 2004, the rules (and officiating) rewarded physical defensive styles like Bowen’s and Duncan’s, and Popovich was a master of exploiting the rulebook, bringing in Robert Horry and upping Ginobili’s minutes — both savvy plus-defenders. (Horry was known for clutch shots, but he was an excellent team defender and strong passer during his prime.) The Spurs posted an impressive -6.3 rDRtg in 13 games without Duncan that year, so the defense was elite without him, but he also made a sizable impact.9

Since he played his entire career in the play-by-play era, we can corroborate Duncan’s defensive impact with plus-minus data. He holds three of the top-50 defensive adjusted plus-minus (DRAPM) seasons ever recorded, and his scaled four-year peak ranks second, behind only Kevin Garnett. If we weight values by minutes per game — accounting for years in which his per possession impact was lower but his overall game impact was higher — Duncan’s four-year peak ranks second to only Dikembe Mutombo. Here’s how Duncan’s minute-weighted defensive APM compares to Garnett’s throughout their careers (individual seasons and their all-time rank are included in the background):

Duncan’s drop-off on the back nine of his career coincided with his gradual loss of movement that is noticeable on film. Still, his ability to maintain defensive prowess for nearly two decades is astounding. Excluding their injury-plagued 1997 season, the Spurs have posted an above-average defensive rating in 27 of the last 28 years (!) and in 22 of those seasons they were at least 3 points better than league average. With Duncan, their only seasons worse than -3 came in 2011 and 2012, before a slimmer Timmy bounced back with new defensive talent like Kawhi Leonard.

Offensively, Duncan’s assemblage of scoring moves and moderate creation moved the needle as well. While he never crafted a huge scoring season — his career-best rate of 25.1 points per 75 ranks 280th all-time —  Duncan’s post game was the centerpiece of the Spurs offense during his peak years, and the team finished with an above-average attack in each season from 1999-2003. However, they never created too much separation with this approach, topping the +1.5 rORtg mark only twice (when healthy) in Duncan’s first seven seasons. Those early teams were constructed for defense while Duncan kept the offense afloat.

Timmy became the offensive focal point in 1999, leading them in load as Robinson dialed back his attack. The Spurs offensive rating improved from slightly below-average to slightly above-average en route to a 61-win pace (7.1 SRS) and a title. Those teams lacked a perimeter creator, so they played an inside-out game, with 3-and-D wings like Jaren Jackson and Mario Elie flanking Duncan. Then in 2001, they leased Derek Anderson for a year, who was a perimeter threat that served as a low-grade second option. The team shot a fiery 40.7 percent from downtown and produced what was easily the best offense of Duncan’s prime (+3.6 rORtg).10

Like a handful of other greats in this series, Duncan’s arsenal was resilient against stingier playoff defenses. In the single postseason he missed (in 2000), the Spurs rORtg was -8.1 for four dreadful games, the only year of his prime that his team’s playoff efficiency fell below average. Below, I’ve compared him to the other great modern bigs in the Big 3 box categories during their three-year peaks, first in the regular season, then in the playoffs. While his regular season scoring efficiency never stood out, he maintained it in the postseason when most trailed off:

At his apex (’02-04), he actually upped his efficiency and creation in 44 playoff games. That’s not a cherry-picked sample, either — any three-year playoff stretch until 2006 would look similar. Duncan’s often lauded for his ’03 season, but his 2002 season may have been more impressive. The Spurs posted a +4.4 rORtg in 60 games with Robinson, Tony Parker and sharpshooter Steve Smith (who shot 47 percent from 3) while Duncan posted career bests in scoring volume and efficiency. These are commendable results, consistent with Duncan’s package; his isolation scoring and post-creation lifted San Antonio’s floor, even if his game didn’t scale too well.11

When Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili emerged in the middle of the aughts, Duncan slid into a costarring role before taking on a tertiary part in 2008. And the more the Spurs moved away from Duncan-ball, the higher their ceiling climbed. After leading San Antonio in offensive load from ’99-04, Duncan slid to fourth on the team in ’06 while struggling with nagging injuries like plantar fasciitis. Yet, the Spurs registered an impressive +4.8 rORtg when healthy that year (a figure that dropped to -1.4 in 17 games without Ginobili). At full-strength, the similarly constructed ’07 team finished with a +4.1 rORtg. Later, the Spurs offense jumped another level behind Parker, Ginobili and a collection of skilled role players, posting jaw-dropping full-strength ratings of +9.1 in 2012 and +7.6 in 2014.12 Duncan deserves credit for scaling down his isolation on these teams in exchange for valuable extra passes.

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge Popovich more, who, for my money, is the greatest coach in NBA history. He transitioned the Spurs from a defensively-oriented team that orbited around its twin-towers, to a perpetual motion, Euro-style offense built around perimeter players who could pass and shoot. This morphed into a brief offensive dynasty, peaking in 2014 with one of the greatest teams of all-time, unheard of for an ensemble production that lacked a troupe of stars. Popovich’s success on both sides of the ball does take some of the shine off of Duncan for me.

Duncan is one of the favorites of the plus-minus family. In every scaled season from 2001 to 2008, he falls in the 99th percentile historically, and each of his first 14 seasons is above the 95th percentile. He is the only other player besides Kevin Garnett with top-50 APM peaks on both sides of the ball. While his two-way value is excellent by any assessment — plus-minus, box stats or game-level regressions — teasing out his impact from Popovich’s is not trivial. Unlike a great teammate on the court, plus-minus data doesn’t “see” Pop’s value.

Duncan’s portability isn’t top-notch either; he’s savvy enough to scale down his offense (as he did in later years), although his limited passing prevents him from matching Garnett’s impact in a secondary role. His longevity was fantastic, tallying 17 All-Star seasons by my valuations, tied for tops in this series. He, KG and Wilt all have similar peaks and era-adjusted career value, and thus feel nearly interchangeable in these slots. So, while Garnett and him are neck and neck, if I were forced to choose, I’d oh-so-barely side with Duncan. (Are ties allowed?)