Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan are unquestionably the two greatest players of their generation. In the 17 years they have played together in the NBA together – Kobe entered the league 1 prior to Duncan leaving Wake Forest for the draft – one of their respective teams (i.e. Kobe’s Lakers or Duncan’s Spurs) have represented the Western Conference in a staggering 13 out of 17 NBA finals series. Of those 13 Finals appearances they took home 5 championship rings apiece, which means they have won nearly 60% of possible league titles during that span. Collectively Bryant and Duncan have amassed 29 All-NBA honors (voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters), earning them 1st and 2nd positions respectively for the most all-time selections. They’ve won 3 MVP awards and have been in the top-5 in MVP Award voting 20 times in their combined 35 seasons; fans have also voted them to a combined 29 All-Star appearances.
When comparing two incredible players like Kobe and Tim, what is the best way to measure and contrast their greatness? Many statistical figures could be employed to make an argument for either Tim or Kobe, however I want to focus simply on one overarching category: Value Added. Which player adds a greater amount of value as a result of their defense, offense, and leadership over the course of their career? There are several key metrics to help illuminate our search.
Kobe came into the league one-year prior to Duncan, so the respective length of their careers is easily comparable. The first major metric in our comparison study is Win Shares. Win Shares simply measure the percentage (or overall number if taken over the course of an entire season) of wins a player directly contributes to their team – the league average in Win Shares per 48 minutes is .100. Kobe Bryant’s career mark is well above the league average at .182, only to be eclipsed by Duncan’s career average at .211. If we break these figures down even further, we see that on average Duncan has contributed 16% more win shares to his team than Bryant during the regular season. When we extrapolate these numbers for the playoffs, Duncan’s figures outshine Bryant’s by a significant 25% more win shares than Kobe during their respective playoff careers. Duncan exceeds Bryant in Defensives Win Shares (an estimate of the number of wins a player contributes based on their defense) by a 2:1 margin while Bryant overshadows Duncan by a 4:3 in Offensive Win Shares. All this to say that Duncan has contributed more value as measured by wins he has contributed to his team over the course of his career, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Since Duncan plays closer to the rim, you would expect him to exceed Bryant in the following statistical categories: rebounding percentage (18.5% – 8.2%), rebounds per game (11.1 – 5.3), block percentage (4.6% – 1.0%), and field goal percentage (51% – 45%). On the flip side, Bryant is the more dominant offensive talent – he ranks higher in points per game (25.5 – 20.0), assists per game (4.8 – 3.1), and free-throw percentage (84% – 70%). These stats tell the same story that most casual sports fans assume to be true when thinking about a side-by-side comparison of these players. However consider the following numbers…
Duncan’s player efficiency rating (a measure of per-minute player production) is 1.2 points higher than Bryant’s for over the course of their careers in the regular season and this gap widens to 2.2 points during the playoffs. On the offensive end, Duncan’s effective shooting percentage (adjusts for the fact that 3-point shots are worth more than 2-point shots) is 2% higher in both the regular season and playoffs.
While many people assume that Bryant has been the far more dominant player throughout his career, we can see that Duncan’s value on both the offensive and defensive end not only competes with Bryant’s, but overshadows it in several categories.
Bryant and Duncan have both won 5 championships, but who had the greater impact on those particular championship teams? Let’s take a minute to find out.
In Bryant’s 5 championship-winning seasons he never led the team in Win Shares. From 1999-2002, Shaquille O’Neal held the top spot while Pau Gasol contributed more wins than Bryant for his last two championships from 2008-2010. In contrast, Duncan led his team in Win Shares for 4 out of his 5 championships, with Kawhi Leonard eclipsing him at the top only in this last championship. Shaquille O’Neal was clearly the best player for the Lakers in their 3 consecutive championships; Shaq maintained a higher scoring average and player efficiency rating (by wide margins) over Kobe in all three championship seasons.
Paradoxically, Duncan led his team in Player Efficiency Rating in all 5 championships seasons while toping the scoring column for the Spurs in 3 out of 5 years. Although Duncan’s raw offensive numbers were never as good as Kobe’s during their championship years; Duncan was undoubtedly the more efficient and dominant player during their respective championship runs while the argument could be made that Kobe would only have 2 rings without Shaq.
The Value of Greatness
Through this brief statistical comparison I am convinced that Tim Duncan is the greatest player of his generation. The value he has given the Spurs over his 17 years is unmatched by any other player during that time. His unique and powerful contributions make his impact on the Spurs greater than Kobe’s impact on the Lakers.
Duncan was unquestionably the best player on 4 out of 5 of his championship teams, while Kobe was the best player for only 2 of the Laker’s 5 championships. Duncan was also the more efficient player who consistently contributed more wins to his team than Bryant; in addition, Duncan always raised his level of play during the playoffs while Bryant’s key metrics (FG%, PER, and Real Shooting Percentage) tended to dip during the most important games of the season.
Tim Duncan was a dynamic package of killer efficiency that adapted his game to his teammates instead of forcing his teammates to adapt to his style – one can only imagine how many championships Kobe could have won if he and Shaq had learned to coexist. Duncan’s value never resided in gaudy stats or eye-popping numbers; rather his greatness was always about something bigger than himself. The real value of his game always resided in his mind numbing consistency and determination to raise the level of his team in whatever capacity he could. In this refusal to elevate his personal desires above the mission of the team he has elevated himself to one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen. Tim Duncan never set out to be the greatest player of his generation, all he wanted to do was just “make a difference”, and that is the true value of greatness.
*** All stats and figures taken from Basketball-Reference.com