By any rational metric, San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich have worked together to achieve amazing things. During their 16 years together, the Spurs have won four championships and typically been in the thick of contention. Few teams in history can match that kind of longevity.
However, the Spurs have not always been the most thrilling team to watch during that time. For many fans, that's because of Duncan's general lack of flamboyance. Whereas most superstars err on the side of self-promotion and on-court brashness, Duncan goes about his job and keeps the drama to a minimum. It's not my personal preference in players, but given his success it's difficult to argue too much with the process.
What we don't always recognize, though, is that Duncan is an absurdly talented player with an astonishingly varied skillset. During Thursday night's game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Duncan led a 3-on-2 fast break with the grace and decision-making prowess of an All-Star point guard. Popovich, who was mic'd up for the TNT broadcast, reacted with a joke:
Proof that I've held him back his whole career. Point forward. Nellie [i.e., mad scientist Hall of Fame coach and Popovich mentor Don Nelson] would've used him better than I did.
This comment is meant to be funny, obviously, because Duncan is one of the best big men in NBA history and has no real reason to feel regret over the path of his career. On the other hand, Popovich's bit of humor serves as a reminder that Duncan's career could have gone very differently. With a different coach — or maybe just by not playing next to another stellar center in David Robinson — Duncan may have played as more of a facilitator of the offense, or focused more on using his athletic gifts to dominate himself instead of becoming one extremely important part of a well-oiled machine. If circumstances had been different, he could have been one of the most stylish players in the league.
Again, I don't mean this to come across as a value judgment. But it's important to remember that players develop and change — and also define — the systems they play under. Tim Duncan wasn't always destined to become the player he became.