The Metronome

The San Antonio Spurs have been a juggernaut in the Tim Duncan era*, winning four NBA titles and finishing with 50 or more wins in every season but one**.

* The 1997-98 season to present.

** That would be the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when San Antonio won 74.0 percent of its games and claimed its first NBA championship.

In the Duncan era, the Spurs have had a winning record 96.5 percent of the time during the regular season. To put that number in perspective, the only other franchise to break 80 percent over that time period is the Los Angeles Lakers, a distant second at 80.8 percent.

And over that same span, the Spurs have had the NBA’s best record on 15.5 percent of all days during the regular season, second only to the Lakers (16.5 percent).

Duncan has never had eye-popping numbers in any one season. For example, his career high in points per game (25.5 in 2001-02) ranks 272nd in NBA history, his career high in rebounds per game (12.9 in 2002-03) ranks 223rd, and his career high in blocks per game (2.9 in 2002-03) ranks 100th.

But Duncan has been very good to great every season of his career. And not coincidently, the consistent greatness of the Spurs mirrors the consistent greatness of their star.

A metronome is a device used by musicians that produces regular ticks, settable in beats per minute. The per-36-minute rates you will see below demonstrate why I like to call Duncan “The Metronome”:

Per 36 Minutes
1997-98 19.4 11.0 2.5
1998-99 19.9 10.5 2.2
1999-00 21.5 11.5 2.9
2000-01 20.6 11.3 2.8
2001-02 22.6 11.3 3.3
2002-03 21.3 11.8 3.6
2003-04 21.9 12.2 3.0
2004-05 21.9 12.0 2.9
2005-06 19.2 11.4 3.3
2006-07 21.1 11.2 3.6
2007-08 20.5 12.0 3.0
2008-09 20.7 11.4 3.8
2009-10 20.6 11.6 3.6
2010-11 17.1 11.3 3.4
2011-12 19.7 11.5 2.9
2012-13 21.3 11.9 3.2
2013-14 18.8 12.2 3.5
Career 20.6 11.5 3.2

There are some really interesting things in that table:

  • Duncan has always averaged between 17.1 and 22.6 points per 36 minutes. If we toss out the high and the low the range is 18.8 to 21.9 points per 36 minutes.
  • Duncan has always averaged between 10.5 and 12.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. If we toss out the high and the low the range is 11.0 to 12.0 rebounds per 36 minutes.
  • Duncan has always averaged between 2.2 and 3.8 assists per 36 minutes. If we toss out the high and the low the range is 2.5 to 3.6 assists per 36 minutes.
  • Duncan’s rates as a 21-year-old rookie (19.4/11.0/2.5) are similar to his rates as a 37-year-old veteran (18.8/12.2/3.5).

One thing that head coach Gregg Popovich — the only head coach the Spurs have had during the Duncan era — has done to help extend Duncan’s career is manage his minutes wisely.

For this first third of his career, Duncan averaged almost 40 minutes per game; in the second third of his career, Duncan’s minutes were reduced to about 35 per game; and in the latter third of his career, Duncan has played about 30 minutes per game.

This has obviously had an effect on his per-game rates (he recently dropped below 20 points per game for his career*), but as you can see above his per-minute production has remained steady**.

* I think it’s safe to say that Duncan could not care less about this.

** Again, he’s a human metronome.

Win shares (WS) is a statistic that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team. On average, a player will earn about .100 win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48).

WS/48 makes it easy to get a rough idea how much value the player is producing over an average player. For example, a player averaging .150 WS/48 is producing wins at a rate 50 percent above the league average.

Only seven players in NBA history have had 15 or more seasons with at least 5.0 WS and at least .150 WS/48:

And just five players in NBA history have had 10 or more postseasons with at least 1.0 WS and at least .150 WS/48:

By the end of the playoffs, Duncan could very well be in a tie at the top of the former list and alone at the top of the latter list, a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Although sometimes it seems like it’s not possible, at some point this will have to end. Duncan will either start to show serious signs of aging or — this is probably more likely knowing Duncan — he will step off into the sunset before that time comes.

Either way, we should all take some time to appreciate one of the greatest players — and perhaps most consistently great player — in NBA history.

2 thoughts on “The Metronome

  1. Another nugget worth noting. He leads the best team (by winning %) in win shares. I can’t imagine there’s much precedent for that at this age.

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