It’s quite common in sports to hear a certain declaration or affirmation when it comes to defining greatness. It goes something like this:
We’ll never see another like him again.
And this is often taken and accepted as gospel until one day in the future when greatness comes in another human form and sure enough, we’re witnessing someone like him again.
Therefore, these bold statements simply aren’t true. Well, OK, perhaps in the isolated case of Muggsy Bogues, because it’s hard to fathom another 5-foot-3 player lasting 14 years on the highest level of a tall man’s game. But, sticking to the topic with regard to truly great players, they eventually regenerate at some point, mainly a few generations in the future, wearing uglier sneakers.
So let’s all agree on that much. However, do not wait for the next Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant to come down the lane. None of us will ever be around that long.
Duncan is an outlier because players who stay four years in college these days are lucky to last that long in the NBA. Also: Will the next superstar who doesn’t care about creating a brand or compiling Twitter followers and is willing to take below-market money to keep his team in championship contention for more than two decades please take one step forward? Hello?
Meanwhile, Garnett and Kobe are almost impossible to copy for the complete opposite reason; they bypassed college altogether and yes, there is ongoing discussion in power circles to lift the one-and-done restriction and give high school seniors the right to jump straight to the NBA again. That said, the journey is treacherous; the basketball graveyard is overflowing with teens who tried that leap and missed the ledge completely, let alone found safe landing in the Hall of Fame.
Oh yes, the Hall of Fame. That’s why we’ve gathered here today, to study the slam-dunk inclusions of Timmy, Kobe and KG, and that actually doesn’t involve much brain intensity at all.
These are three players who captured imaginations in their own distinct ways, became all-time greats at their positions and arguably were the league’s finest players from beginning to end of the 2000 decade (for you LeBron James worshippers, remember he didn’t crash the party until 2003-04, so pipe down).
These three won 11 championships, four MVPs, were named All-NBA First Team 25 times, made All-Defensive First Team 26 times and were All-Stars a combined 48 times. Meanwhile, the level of respect they carried can’t be categorized or described using pure numbers or stats.
Duncan was the epicenter of a Spurs’ dynasty that kept the team locked in the championship hunt year after year after year, and from a consistency standpoint was second only to the Bill Russell Celtics. Garnett by himself was worth the price of admission in Minnesota -- even during lean years -- and then proved an instant jackpot in Boston the moment he arrived to bolster the Celtics. Kobe teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to form a historic 1-2 punch and then years later managed to win back-to-back titles without Shaq while setting a high standard for scoring along the way.
While it is proper to scan their careers and regurgitate all the significant data that made them legends, perhaps it’s more meaningful to cite why these three players will be difficult to mutate as the league moves onto the next batch of superstars-in-waiting.
Therefore, we begin …
Had his growth stopped at a more normal height, Duncan would’ve stuck with swimming while growing up in St. Croix in an effort to compete with his two sisters, one of whom, Tricia, made the 1988 Summer Olympics for the U.S. Virgin Islands. And because Tim was reasonably good but not Phelpsian, his athletic life likely would’ve died on the vine right there in the pool.
Also, only a handful of colleges knew of Duncan and none were hoops powerhouses. It’s exceedingly rare, in the age of specialized scouting and AAU travel ball and high school national tournaments, that a future Hall of Famer can slip through the cracks. But here we are.
Because Duncan was not overly gifted athletically, he leaned on fundamentals for survival at Wake Forest. That would serve him well and set him apart from rivals for the next 20 years. Again, it will be some time before a player of Duncan’s level manages to thrive mainly on post moves and a bank shot; those are now considered your grandfather’s style of play.
And of course, Duncan stayed all four years in college. Jerry West said Duncan would’ve been the first overall pick had he left after his sophomore season. That was the unspectacular 1995 draft when Joe Smith, a tweener forward, was taken first overall. One reason Duncan delayed the NBA was a promise made to his late mother that he would get his degree, and he saw a continuation at Wake as a more sensible option, rather than leaving early and returning to campus in multiple summers to get the credits.
Duncan stayed with one NBA team his entire 19-year career. Only Dirk Nowitzki (21 years with Dallas) and Kobe (20 with the Lakers) had longer time with one franchise. That singular connection is now almost non-existent in a league obsessed with free agency. Duncan’s loyalty to the Spurs was tested only once, in the 2000 offseason. A grand plan by Orlando to place Duncan next to Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady was nixed when Duncan’s teammate, David Robinson, cut short a Hawaiian vacation to fly home and convince Duncan to stay put.
Duncan also put the Spurs ahead of his financial well-being in order to keep the small-market team competitive in the salary cap era. Well, first, some perspective: Anyone who earned almost $250 million in salary didn’t exactly starve. Still, Duncan was never the highest-paid player in any single season, and in his prime he made less than Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Finley, Rashard Lewis and Stephon Marbury, among others. When Duncan made All-NBA First Team and averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks at the still productive age of 36, he ranked 61st in salary.
Finally, he was refreshingly anti-commercial despite playing his prime in the soaring technology of 24-hour sports TV and, near the end of his run, social media. He never desired to have his own line of sneakers and refused to market himself for endorsement cash. Again, with personal branding and attention-getting all the rage now, he will be next to impossible to replicate.
The only NBA coach he ever knew, Gregg Popovich, said after Duncan's retirement: “I would not be standing here if it wasn't for Tim Duncan ... He's made livings for hundreds of us, staff and coaches, over the years, and never said a word. Just came to work every day. Came early. Stayed late. Was there for every single person, from the top of the roster to the bottom of the roster because that's who he was, in all those respects.
“You don't see Timmy beating his chest as if he was the first human being to dunk the basketball, as a lot of people do these days. He's not pointing to the sky. He's not glamming to the cameras. He just plays, and we've seen it for so long it's become almost mundane. But it's so special that is has to be remembered. He's irreplaceable. It can't happen. We're all unique -- I guess each one of us is unique -- but he's been so important to so many people it's just mind-boggling.”
As the NBA decade left the 1990s and blew into the 2000s, there was a shift in philosophy. The age of specialization took hold and players, especially big men, weren’t required to develop more than one or two skills. The term “one dimensional player” was embraced and often handsomely rewarded; for example, Ben Wallace never worked on dribbling, shooting or passing and made a fortune anyway.
But, KG was having none of that.
His refusal to “settle” is what separated him from many in his generation. Garnett was further along defensively than offensively when he arrived as a raw 18-year-old; surprising in hindsight he only made second team All-Rookie. But within a few years he became a force with the ball. Once he reached his peak years, KG was capable of dominating at both ends — again, quite uncommon among big men at that time.
He is one of only four players to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He brought the same intensity to both ends of the floor; KG could rattle players with a blocked shot and then follow with his own dunk on the other end. At his peak, he led the league in rebounding four straight years. And obviously he rejuvenated the Celtics franchise by becoming the emotional and spiritual furnace in Boston, providing interior defense as a 6-11 power forward not seen in that city since Bill Russell.
What made Garnett truly unique was his NBA launching. The league hadn’t chosen a player straight from high school in 20 years when Garnett was taken fifth overall in 1995. His gradual success was good for Minnesota, but the copycat league quickly became disillusioned with the idea of drafting teenagers. Too many preps were simply not ready physically or mentality for a grown man’s game and a large majority either flamed out or never reached expectations. Basically, teams rolled the dice, paid out big salaries, and wound up cutting their losses.
Here’s the raw data. Before the league and the union instituted age limits in 2005, there were 45 players drafted straight from high school. Only three won MVPs (Garnett, Kobe, LeBron). This doesn’t include dozens of other players who didn’t jump directly from high school but never played college ball, such as Shawn Kemp and Brandon Jennings. It’s hard to place a universal definition on success — does a 10-year-career as a role player count? — but in terms of prep players reaching the Hall, that distinction likely whittles down to a half dozen or so who are either already in (Tracy McGrady, Moses Malone) or on their way (LeBron, Dwight Howard).
Garnett dodged all the traps. Fortunate enough to play in small market Minneapolis, he was able to mature without much media glare, and he took care of his body. He had solid mentors, most notably teammate Sam Mitchell, who steered him straight.
And Garnett also had a second act. Once freed from the chill of Minnesota, where he stayed 12 years with the Timberwolves but was never blessed with enough help to win a title, Garnett paid off instantly in Boston. The Celtics won a championship in his first year and arguably could’ve had multiple titles had it not been for other mishaps, most notably when Garnett suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 2009 playoffs.
Here’s his coach in Boston, Doc Rivers, after the Celtics announced his jersey retirement: “I’ve often said about him, he’s the greatest superstar role player ever. He was a superstar, but he played his role for the team anyway, somehow. I don’t know how he did that, but he did it. He changed the culture of the Celtics franchise. He really did. We needed a guy like that to come to the franchise, and he did that and it’s still there. It hasn’t left since. That was all Garnett.”
In a generation that began to gravitate not only towards the NBA but certain players who came with identifiable swagger and an “it” factor, Kobe connected on multiple levels. He was a teen idol at first, then someone who tried to be like Michael Jordan and damn near succeeded, and finally an icon known for a combustible mixture of talent and tenacity. That’s a lot to digest and tough to duplicate.
Basically, Kobe was a big winner and an international box office smash. Many players in the Hall of Fame are one or the other, not both.
That’s only one reason why “the next Kobe” is so far in the future you’ll need to squint. Here are other reasons: Skipped college, two decades with only one team, three straight titles and five overall, 81 points, 60 points. Sadly, his appeal was so vast that he had millions around the world dropping tears when he died Jan. 26 in a tragic helicopter crash.
Plus, it’s fairly accurate to say Kobe had only one season out of 20 that could be considered a down year. That was his rookie season when Lakers coach Del Harris wanted to bring him along slowly, so Kobe only played 15 minutes a night off the bench and averaged 7.6 points. Imagine, discounting the 2013-14 season when he tore his Achilles, each of his other 18 seasons ranged from supernova to very good. How many others have had that success percentage? How many will match in the future?
Kobe rarely distanced himself from the moment or the ball with the game on the line. Even Hall of Famers aren’t wired that way. He was willing to accept the grief and fallout that came from missing the big shot; actually, none of that factored into his thinking with the game clock winding down. That’s one of the ingredients that separate all-time greats from the rest.
Despite the slow start to his career, Kobe still finished third on the all-time scoring list when he retired (since passed by LeBron) and made All-Defensive First Team nine times. That two-way balance is enjoyed by a select few.
Also consider the depth to Kobe’s game. He had few if any weaknesses, none that made him vulnerable at either end of the floor. He could finish at the rim with his left or right hand. He was an emphatic dunker. His turnaround jumper was solid from mid-range. While his career three-point accuracy of 33 percent is considered average, Kobe was better from that distance in his prime years and always seemed to make them in big moments. On defense, he cut down passing lanes with his quickness and almost always ranked among the league leaders in steals.
In his 17th season, before his Achilles injury, Kobe averaged 27.3 points on 46% shooting, 5.6 rebounds and six assists while burning 38 minutes a night. That’s a workload beyond many 34-year-olds, his age at the time.
Finally, keep in mind that Kobe was just 6-foot-6 and 212 pounds. On the all-time scoring lists and also among most players who are considered the greatest of all time, Kobe comes up small in terms of size. Inch for inch and pound for pound, he has few peers.
The coach for much of his career, Phil Jackson, had battles with Kobe, but said: “I've always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent guy and a remarkable person. He was often misunderstood, but there was no doubting his competitive fire and his desire to win games.”
And so: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan up for induction to the Hall of Fame in the same year?
We’ll never see anything like this again.