Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. The Black Mamba and the Big Fundamental. Two of the greatest players to ever grace the NBA have finished their respective careers. They leave two bygone decades of rivalry and championships behind. Both players are headed in the same direction, destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame. These legends dedicated their entire career to a single team, each bringing five championship rings to the respective cities of Los Angeles and San Antonio. They played multiple games together as Western Conference All-Stars. But the similarities end there. Their exits from the grand stage of the NBA could not have been more different, providing the perfect microcosm for their careers.
Remembering the Careers of Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan
From the very start, the careers of Kobe and Duncan were starkly different. Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 as a high-school player before being immediately traded to the Lakers. Kobe was taken as the 13th overall pick, a decision which seems incredulous in hindsight. One must remember it was at the time when the league was unsure if a rookie high-school player could be impactful at the highest level. Duncan was drafted the following year, taken as the number one pick by the Spurs. A four-year player at Wake Forest, Duncan entered the league ready to make a contribution immediately as a skillful and fundamentally sound college veteran.
So what can the statistics tell us about their careers? Basically, Bryant scored more points and Duncan won more games. Duncan won 72% of his careers games, while Bryant only won 63%. In fact, in Duncan’s worst season, he still won 60% of his games, which is only 3% less than Bryant’s career average. Duncan made the playoffs every year he played. Bryant missed four different playoffs, including in the prime of his career. With five NBA titles a piece, Duncan won three Finals MVP compared with Bryant’s two. Duncan is a two-time NBA MVP while Bryant only achieved that accolade once in his career. On the other hand, Bryant has played as an NBA All-star 18 times in his career compared to Duncan who only played in an All-star game 15 times.
Kobe Bryant has been viewed as a “clutch” player, a “killer” as his nickname suggests – highly emotional with a “win at all costs” mentality. Tim Duncan was often viewed as more stoic and fundamentally sound – getting the job done with ruthless efficiency. Consistent but never exceptionally elevating his game. When it came to big games, statistics show that the inverse is true of both the players. Kobe Bryant typically scored more and shot better in less important games, while scoring less and shooting worse in more important games. During his regular seasons, Bryant averaged 25 points per game from 44.7% shooting. In game 7’s he averaged 21.4 points per game from 39.5% shooting. Conversely, Duncan averaged 19 points per game from 50.6% shooting during the regular season. He elevated his game 7 scoring to 25.9 points per game from 50.7% shooting.
Exiting the Big Stage
The retirement of both players could not have been more different. While Bryant “reluctantly” agreed to an extended retirement party, meeting the media willingly after his final game in every city, Duncan announced his retirement shortly after the postseason via a press release from the team. While Bryant is attributed for doing whatever it takes to win, Tim Duncan truly embodied that spirit. In 2015, Bryant took a “pay cut” when he signed a 2-year $49 million contract, although still ensuring that he was the highest paid player in the NBA. On the other hand, Tim Duncan took massive, almost insulting, pay cuts to ensure that his Spurs team stayed relevant for the foreseeable future.
Over his final four years, Duncan’s contract secured him $35 million. As well, for the first time in his career, Duncan played off the bench to help his team beat the Warriors earlier in the season. Bryant started every game and played the same way he always had done. Indeed, for his final year Kobe Bryant helped his Lakers team to a franchise record of 17 season wins. Duncan also aided his Spurs team in achieving a franchise record by winning 67 regular season games.
Their Final Games
Their final games also provided the perfect microcosm for their careers. Kobe Bryant ran the show for his final game as a Laker. He scored an impressive 60 points in typical Kobe fashion – making 22 shots from 50 attempts. Duncan’s final game was to be his best performance of the 2016 playoffs. He scored a tidy 19 points on 7 makes from 14 attempts. Both players have been showered with accolades throughout their careers, albeit as completely different players. From a business and marketing perspective, any GM would take Kobe Bryant to lead their squad. His legacy has inspired immeasurable fans around the globe, constantly drawing flattering comparisons to the legendary Michael Jordan. From a winning, team-chemistry perspective, Tim Duncan would be the first name on many coach’s team-sheets. Known as the greatest teammate of all-time, Tim Duncan has surely provided the blueprint to success for generations to come.
As we salute both of these heroes in their final voyage, let us look at what each of the players had to say about each other in their final year. Kobe Bryant made it clear after Tim Duncan’s retirement announcement that they had huge respect for each other, telling Marc Stein of ESPN that Duncan was “more cutthroat than people give him credit for”, going on to say that “I loved everything about him on the court.” In typical Duncan fashion, after beating the Lakers in Bryant’s last regular season game against San Antonio, he told reporters that “[Kobe’s] a great competitor over the years, but this wasn’t about him.” When asked whether he felt sad that he would never again share the court with Bryant, Duncan responded “No. We played for many years. It’s been great. We’re moving on.”
Main Photo via Getty Images Sport.