Tim Duncan is the greatest gift to coaching

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Something crystallized a bit for me in the final minutes of San Antonio’s destruction of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals this year. It’s probably obvious, but I had never thought about it before. Tim Duncan was out there playing his usual fierce basketball though his Spurs were up by 20 or so and had the thing wrapped up. At one point, he went to the floor after a loose ball and another time he raced down the court to join the fast break, all with the game decided. It was so typical Duncan that it’s almost impolite to bring up that surely no other 38-year-old man has ever played so hard for so little reason. That’s just Tim Duncan.

But here’s what I thought: Duncan has never been easy for us to categorize. Mark Jackson has been calling him “the greatest power forward in the history of the NBA,” and that’s certainly fine with me. But is Duncan really a power forward? Maybe. He’s a 7-foot (or so) shot blocker who plays much of the time with his back to the basket. His game doesn’t resemble many of the other great power forwards in NBA history — it seems silly to compare him to Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Dolph Schayes, James Worthy or Bob Petit. If he’s a power forward, doesn’t that make Bill Russell a power forward too?

Look, it’s fine: Duncan might be more power forward than center but, realistically, he doesn’t play ANY position. He plays Tim Duncan. The rest works around him.

There are those who rank Duncan in the top 10 all-time — and that’s fair but unfulfilling. He’s unique. We can sense intrinsically that there’s something that separates him from everyone, including the others in the Top 10. There are those who call him the most fundamental player ever — and that might be true, but it’s boring. And, by the way, it also might not be true, the game has had brilliant fundamental players — Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuowon, Larry Bird and plenty of others.

More: Spurs owner, Tony Parker expect Tim Duncan will return next season

Anyway, it was while watching those final minutes that this thought occurred to me.

If you are a coach, and you could take any player in NBA history — you would be smart to take Tim Duncan.

I know that sounds like I’m saying Duncan’s the greatest player in NBA history. He’s not, and that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that if you are a COACH, he’s the guy you should take. I’m saying that Duncan is the closest thing to a coach’s perfect player that we have ever seen.

Think about all the things you would want from a player if you were an NBA coach. The first thing you would want is talent; that’s obvious. A basketball coach once told me that if he had the choice to pick two teams and the only thing he knew about them was that one team was “coachable” and the other team was “talented”, he would take the talented team every single time. “You take the coachable team,” he told me. “You’ll have a bunch of good kids to have dinner with after you lose.”

That might be true in the larger picture, but Duncan has amazing athletic talent — it sometimes gets overlooked. He’s tall with long arms and yet he can handle the basketball. He has great touch around the basket and he can make the 17-footer pretty consistently. He still can outrun many big men down the floor. And then, there are those amazing hands — Duncan catches everything.

After talent, the next thing you’d want is probably consistency — you want to know the player will show up game after game. Those players who are great one night, lousy the next, they drive coaches crazy. Well, everyone knows Duncan would be first-team All-Consistency. He never changes.

The Dan Patrick Show: Charles Barkley on Tim Duncan’s place in NBA history

Look at his per-36 minute numbers:

As a rookie (1997-98): 19.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 2.5 assists.

In his first championship season (1998-99): 19.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 2.2 assists.

In his first MVP season (2001-02): 22.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 3.3 assists.

In his second MVP season (2002-03): 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 3.6 assists.

The year he turned 35 (2011-2012): 19.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 2.9 assists.

This year (2013-2014): 18.7 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 3.7 assists.

More: Bill Russell ranks Tim Duncan ‘right up there at the top’

That’s just insane — he doesn’t change. He needs more rest as he gets older. He will miss a few more games with nagging injuries. But for 17 years he has been the exact same basketball player; only a handful of players have been so consistent for so long.

So you have talent and you add consistency. And then, on top of that, you throw in all those intangibles that coaches adore. Name any attribute coaches prize, he has it. Works hard? Yes. Is a good teammate? One of the best. Takes criticism? Like no one else. Holds grudges? Nope. Complains in the press? He hardly even talks to the press. Wants special treatment? Nope. Loyal? The guy has stayed in San Antonio his whole career.

What other great player in any sport had all of these?

The Spurs have won 70 percent of their games with Duncan, including playoffs, and have never had a winning percentage lower than 60 percent in a season. So much of this, as everyone knows, is coach Gregg Popovich, who is famous for perfectionism and his ability to adapt to the game. There is no doubt about his greatness. But how possible would Gregg Popovich even be if Tim Duncan wasn’t Tim Duncan? How well would his intense coaching work if at any point Duncan turned and said, “Um, what’s your name again?” How many championships would he have won if Duncan had ever gone to the owner and said, “Look, I’m sorry, I can’t play for this guy.”

This is what stars do. All the time.

But Duncan went the other way. He accepted that Pop knows more basketball than he does. He took the blame when Pop heaped it on him. He listened. He learned. If he was angry, he turned it inward into his play. If he was bitter, he let it go.

The other players saw this. Of course they saw. What could they do when Pop came down on them but follow Duncan’s lead? Popovich is a fantastic coach, the best in the business … but there are a lot of great coaches who have been ignored by stars or worn down by players’ unwillingness. Tim Duncan was the greatest gift a coach could get.

And maybe that’s how we should think of him. It is fun to pretend you are a coach and you can choose an all-time NBA team to coach. Most people would choose Michael Jordan No. 1 — but remember Jordan ran off a coach before he won a championship. LeBron hasn’t always been easy to coach, Magic wasn’t always easy to coach, Kobe wasn’t always easy to coach and neither was Shaq. Wilt was pretty tough. You might take one of those great stars and find yourself fired before the team even started winning.

Don’t misunderstand: There have been other great players who were great to coach too. But I still say that as a coach who gets to choose any player in NBA history, you’d want to take Tim Duncan. There have been players who scored more, rebounded more, intimidated more, who passed out of the double team with more panache. But no one ever made a coach look as good.

PBT Extra: How the Spurs won their fifth NBA title

Marc Gasol makes 3/4-court shot just after buzzer (video)

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When Marc Gasol‘s 3/4-court attempt went through the net, it seemed to barely matter the ball left his hands just after the first-quarter buzzer. After all, the Grizzlies led the Mavericks by 15, anyway.

Turns out, Memphis really needed that basket.

Watch Knicks string together 28-0 run against Raptors

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Toronto has been the second best team in the East this young season. Not that anyone is really convinced they will be called that by the time we get to the playoffs (or even the All-Star break, or even Christmas), but for the first 16-18 games of the season their new move-the-ball offense had them at 11-5 and looking solid.

Wednesday night the Knicks dismantled the Raptors.

Especially in the third quarter when the Knicks went on a 28-0 run to blow the doors off the Raptors (video above). The Knicks dominated the third 41-10, when Toronto shot just 1-of-16 from the floor.

New York is gaining confidence with each win this season, they are a fun team to watch that is starting to find an identity (now that a certain three-sided shaped one is not being forced upon them). Kristaps Porzingis is a monster, and while the Knicks overpaid the market for Tim Hardaway Jr. he has lived up to his contract this season. With rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina showing some nice defense and playmaking skills as a rookie (although he is undoubtedly still a work in progress), you can see a path to a strong future unfolding. There are real reasons for hope in New York. Someone just keep James Dolan distracted and away from the basketball operations side of the building.

Devin Booker forces OT with deep turnaround buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Bucks beat Suns (video)

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I’m not sure who benefited from Devin Booker‘s buzzer-beating, overtime-forcing 3-pointer. The Suns still lost to the Bucks, 113-107. The extra five minutes featured more of the same relatively bad basketball we’d seen between Phoenix (bad) and Milwaukee (shorthanded) through 48 minutes.

But darn if this shot wasn’t really cool and clutch.

Three Things to Know: Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder against Warriors

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. As a matter of housekeeping, this will be the last Three Things of this week, as we take a holiday break. Happy Thanksgiving!

1) Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder we’ve been waiting for. Don’t make Russell Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Unless you’re a Thunder fan, then you’ll love him. Westbrook came out with an edge we haven’t seen from him this season as he has tried to play nice and integrate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Not Wednesday night. Wednesday night Kevin Durant and his Warriors came to town, and Westbrook was not taking it from anyone.

That sparked the Thunder team we have been waiting for all season. Westbrook finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and he was joined by Anthony with 22 points, and George with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 steals. The Thunder used a 22-10 first-quarter run to take the lead and never looked back, leading by 26 at one point and going on to win 108-91. This was by far the best the Thunder have looked all season as they have stumbled to a 7-9 start before Wednesday. Maybe this game was the spark they needed to start playing well at the end of games — they closed out well against Golden State. Maybe this was what the Thunder needed to find themselves and become the playoff threat to the Warriors we expected.

As for the Warriors… ¯_(ツ)_/¯. We haven’t said this about them this season (only the Cavaliers), but they looked disinterested much of the night (outside of Durant). Give credit to the Thunder, physical and aggressive defenses that can overplay the Warriors (and recover) give them trouble, and OKC did that. The Warriors just didn’t care to counter. They looked like a team coasting through a road trip (2-2 in their last 4), and when they ran into a quality, motivated team they didn’t have the gear. That doesn’t mean anything long-term, but it means they may be vulnerable during the season until they find their edge again. Whenever they flip the switch.

2) Miami ends Boston’s win streak at 16. For a couple of weeks now the Celtics had been living dangerously — they had to come back from double-digits to win four of their last five games heading into Wednesday night.

Their luck ran out against the Miami Heat.

Miami raced out to a double-digit first-quarter lead, pushed that lead to 19 and were comfortably ahead most of the game, and we kept waiting for the Boston run. It came in the fourth, a 13-0 push that made it a game again. However, Miami responded with a 5-0 run of their own, Dion Waiters seemed especially motivated to take on Kyrie Irving, and the Heat held on for the 104-98 win. Goran Dragic had 27 points, Waiters 26 and 6 assists.

Boston’s streak was bound to end, but they established themselves as a strong defensive team during that run, and the squad in the East best poised to knock off LeBron James and the Cavaliers. We’re a long way from the games that matter in that push — the Cavs have won six in a row, and are playing defense again — but we know the pecking order for who gets a shot at the champs. Boston will get their shot, and early on they look like they will be ready.

3) Patrick Beverley is out for the season and the Los Angeles Clippers have some hard questions to answer. For the first four games of the season, we saw the potential of what this Clipper roster could be — four head-turning wins. Then the injuries started to pile up — Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and starting point guard Patrick Beverley — and so did the losses. Nine in a row, until they picked up a road win in Atlanta Wednesday.

Now comes a brutal blow — the Clippers have lost point guard Patrick Beverley for the season. He had microfracture surgery on his knee and will be out until next season.

That’s a real blow to the Clippers, and it means they may need to answer some harsh questions. If the losses continue to pile up and this is clearly not a playoff team by the time we get to Christmas — a reality that became a more possible on Wednesday — do they need to trade free agent to be DeAndre Jordan? Other teams are already calling and asking if he is available in a trade, if the Clippers think they can’t resign him this summer (or at least the odds are lower than they like) they have to consider the move. Los Angeles wouldn’t get a lot back for a rental, but they would get something to help the rebuild they need to consider.

The other question: How much longer is Doc Rivers the coach. The sense from many around the league is the reason he wasn’t let go when he was stripped of his GM powers this summer was he is making more than $10 million a year and had a couple of years left on his deal, and that was too much for even Steve Ballmer to just eat. Plus Rivers has shown he can coach. Whether he can coach this team still is a different question entirely. Right now, this team is not responding to him, and the sense around the league is the question is when, not if, he will be let go.