NBA Playoffs 2014: Tim Duncan had a big game, but is he really beating Father Time?

Jared Wickerham

Take a look at the most reliable bigmen performers in the NBA playoffs from the last three decades.

An old proverb suggests that 'Time only fears the pyramids,' but if last night's NBA Playoffs action is any indication then perhaps time should also fear the San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan. Duncan has now played in an astounding 229 playoff games and will be playing in at least another four as his Spurs will face off against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. An entire generation of NBA fans have been raised with an always excellent Duncan performing at an excellent level in the playoffs. Anecdotal evidence, like last night's game, suggest that Duncan is really beating Father Time. But let's investigate this theory and see if the numbers (or in the case for some of the following players, rings around the tree trunk) validate this idea?

Thanks to Basketball-Reference (I site I gladly give money to every year, God knows they've earned it) you can generate a lot of data with a few short clicks. For this investigation I limited the field to player seasons between 1984-1985 and the ongoing 2013-2014 campaign. This may unfairly hurt some players who did make it on this list, but did not have their peak performances during the last three decades. I guess this gripe is limited to just the Big Three who played for the Boston Celtics back in the NBA Playoffs on CBS days. The next filter was to get rid of the players who were not bigmen. Bigs have their own distinct physiology compared to the more lithe wings and point guards who play the game. Also, there's more uniformity in what you expect -- essentially points and rebounds. There could be some level of evolution here ('We like blocks!' 'We like passing bigs!' 'We like bigs who can space the floor!'), but for the most part it's simple, and a somewhat valid situation.

And the big issue here was playoff performance. The following players are ranked by it, and specifically, ranked by the number of 20 point / 10 rebound games they've had in the playoffs. To qualify for this you had to at least have 11 or more such playoff games. I guess you could say that's the critical component. I added it all up, and measured it against the playoff games where the player had a 20/10 (or better) game at the ripe old age of 35 or older.

If you're good, you're on this list. If you're great, you are at the top. If you are beating Father Time, the evidence will support it.

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Players Used:

Active: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O'Neal

Active (Qualified by total 20/10 games, but did not for secondary age variable): LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Carlos Boozer, Kevin Durant, Amare Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh

Retired: Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Terry Cummings, Alonzo Mourning, Robert Parish, Derrick Coleman

Retired (But did not qualify for playoffs at age 35 or older): Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, Ralph Sampson, Xavier McDaniel

Players not used for whatever reason: Scottie Pippen (was a 3/2, not a 3/4), Michael Jordan (wasn't a bigman), Paul Pierce (isn't a bigman), Clyde Drexler (wasn't a bigman), Kobe Bryant (isn't a bigman), Magic Johnson (unfair to use him in any comparison ever), Jason Kidd (wasn't a bigman), Carmelo Anthony (bigmen don't slap a guy and then backpedal 94 feet and then HIDE behind a guy who was not even suited up for that game because of an injury (Nene)).

As the critical component was 20/10 playoff games (the variables being career vs age) the players used make sense. For the young guys I've kept in, they deserve to be listed as players to watch. I decided on them instead of putting in shooting guards who played 15+ seasons. They had remarkable careers, but aren't really apples to apples here.

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The Full Data:

Beware, big chart ahead.

1984_2014_bigmen_father_time

There are 10 guys who have more than 40 playoff games where they subjected the other team to a 20/10 performance: Shaq, Mailman, Tim, Dream, Dirk, Sir Charles, Patrick, KG, LeBron, and Misses Robinson. That's a really awesome group. For the most part they were the biggest threats to go 20/10 on any given playoff night. Shaq had the most, Karl the second, and Tim is two 20/10 games away from breaking 100 for his career. There are only four players who, for their playoff careers, had a greater than 50% chance of going for a 20/10 game: Shaq, Karl, Dream, and Dwight. Duncan is on the wrong side of that barrier, Karl Malone, on the other hand, approaches 60% of all of his playoff games being 20/10 games. If we're looking at ordinal ranks, his #2 in Total playoff 20/10 games (from '84-'14), and #1 in 20/10 Game % mark him as both one of the most consistently reliable and prolific bigs in the modern era.

What about 20/10 games when a player is 35 or older? Only one player has more than ten, and that's The Mailman with 15. The next bests are Hakeem, KG, and then Duncan. Duncan has played the most playoff games of anyone on this list (for the time period selected). He's played nearly 100 more than KG has, yet has fewer 20/10 games at the advanced age group. If anything, you could argue that Father Time is going easy on Duncan because of the beat down KG put on him. Really, 20% of all of KGs 20/10 games in the playoffs are games where he's 35 or above. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that he didn't make the playoffs frequently at all as a younger player, and retained his future Hall of Fame ability in his advanced age. If his team was better he would have had more 20/10 games in the playoffs (total), and as a result, his 20/10 @ 35+ percentage would be lower as well. I guess the inverse is also true, if Duncan didn't play his entire career with a combination of THREE OTHER HALL OF FAMERS (Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili) he may have missed the playoffs more. But as it stands, KG's 20% looks a lot better than Tim's 8.2%.

If we use that comparison, the percentage of ones 20/10 playoff games that are from the 35 and up group over the total sum, then Duncan is up there ... but ... you know ... lesser than Derrick Coleman. KG is tops, the next best, is duh, Karl Malone -- but there's a huge drop from #1 to #2 here. Other players who break 10% are Robert Parish and Hakeem.

The least useful data, in my mind, is the last column. The percentage of all playoff games that were 20/10 games where the player was 35 years old or older is such a bugaboo because sometimes good players play well but don't make the playoffs often. In the case of The Mailman, who has played in the playoffs 19 times in 19 NBA seasons, this data is useful. For a guy like Sir Charles, or Ewing -- guys who missed the playoffs 3 or more times -- it's less rewarding a statistic. But still, here, Karl Malone is tops, and does so with the largest sample size in playoffs or seasons played. Parish played more total seasons, but was in the playoffs 3 times less than Karl.

Duncan is less than half of what Karl is here, 3.5% vs 7.8%.

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Flaws:

  • The time frame of 1984-85 to 2013-14 is subjective. Maybe, but limited to the box scores that we have available. I'd love to have this for guys like Wilt or Bill Russell. But I do not have access to those things.
  • The inclusion of players who did not quality is based on a shaky ground. I disagree with that here. A guy like KD or LeBron who is killing it in qualifying playoff game performance need to be recognized for what they're doing at a young age. A guy like DeMarcus Cousins has a lot of 20/10 games, but his team is crap. History shouldn't remember him, but we should these active players who are getting it done right now.
  • Why no Jordan / Pip / The Truth? Sorry, they're not bigs. At least a guy like LeBron and Marion approximate that as much as possible in the changing NBA they've played within. (Man, LeBron played point guard in his rookie year? Maybe I should just move him to that Magic Johnson category?)
  • Critical component (20 points, 10 rebounds) is not a good metric. Should instead look at something like 10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks -- this complicates things by adding a third stat to track. Where does it stop? A "good game" for a bigman has to be 8 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, and 1 steal? The lowest common factor here happens to be points and rebounds. The values I selected show a player is a 2-way player, and doing so at an elite level. Not everyone averages 20 and 10 for a season, few do it for a career. We're charting greatness here, not anything else. Well, we're also charting longevity too. But still! GREATNESS!
  • This is only useful for 'stat queens', player X is better than player Y because of non-stat ideals and concepts. Bravo. Good job. Thank you for reading this far though.
  • Karl Malone isn't good. Duncan and Shaq and Hakeem, and Dirk have the rings. Sir Charles was better too! That's not the purpose of this exercise. It was to see which guys had the most 20/10 games in the playoffs over a three decade time frame, and see how many of them were at an older age. It's about beating Father Time, not beating the "Karl Malone is a loser" dead horse. He's not. He's a multimillionaire with a family that loves him, and is all the more richer after adding his out-of-wedlock kids to his daily lives.
  • Still though, 20 points is hard! Okay, practice your free throws.

Looking ahead:

For me it is going to be interesting to see where the currently active players end up. Dirk may never make another playoff team. Tim could easily break that "100 playoff games with 20/10" barrier this season, which would be cool to see. He may have to do just that if Parker is injured in a serious way. KG may retire, and guys like Dwight, Gasol, Z-Bo have at least 5 seasons left to make their marks on the NBA history books.

In the case of Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, Ralph Sampson and Xavier McDaniel we can see that Father Time beat them. You could argue that Shaq let Father Time win, but he had proved his worth by then. Karl, Hakeem, KG, and Robert Parish all look to have beaten father Time.

I'm still on the fence about Duncan. By the metrics presented he may not be the best at beating Father Time there ever was, but he's one of the best. Regardless of my investigation here and arbitrary quantitative values, he's still among the best, most successful centers in NBA history. He's had a long and excellent career that has been littered with playoff successes and numerous NBA Finals trips. He's four wins away from a fifth championship. And he's playing very well.

And his performance last night would make Father Time himself smile. I assume. You know, because Greg Oden could not be reached for comment.

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