I’m reading a lot of lists of the best NBA-related things from the first decade of the 2000s. ESPN has their list. The Painted Area has a team of the 2000s. NBA.com is counting down the best plays, the best games, the best playoff series, the best dressed wives that have been hit on by Karl Malone in a giant cowboy hat. It’s been a fantastic decade!
I’ve been making a lot of lists of my own, going back to 1980 and looking at the best players by year, in increments of 3 years and 5 years, so I have the tools to check out one little 10 year period. I did some basic research into a decade’s worth of regular season and playoff stats. I used my classic PER + Win Share per 82 Games for the regular season rankings. I did the same for the playoffs but added extra points for making the finals (+1 win or lose), making multiple finals (+2), winning finals MVP (+2), and winning multiple finals MVPs (+3). Rationale? Winning the finals is the point, and being the MVP is (usually) a decent indication that a player is lifting most of the load for his team.
Quick recap of the decade. Laker, Lakers, Lakers (Shaq crushes all opposition when healthy), Spurs (Duncan has his finest playoffs), Pistons (Kobe and Shaq disintegrate before our eyes), Spurs (Horry saves another series), Heat (Wade has best PER for a Finals series), Spurs (LeBron can’t make a jumper. Tony Parker can), Celtics (Ubuntu!), Lakers (Kobe Bryant graduates to Finals MVP).
Now when I look at that and let my mind drift back here’s what I see:
But really that’s not the right call for the whole decade. Check out the numbers:
Look at them a little closer than that. Yeah. It’s like that. Groundhog Day. Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental. I figured it would be Tim before I started looking, but I thought the production drop off might have been too big. I figured I’d be building an argument around decision-making and defense (I will too), but he doesn’t really need it. I mean Kobe keeps getting slower, losing range on his jumper, elevating a little lower, and becoming a better basketball player. He’s incredible. But he’s never been that efficient. And of course there’s Shaq, who completely owned the first 3 playoffs of the decade, put up one of the best seasons ever in 2000, made the finals 5 times, and won 4 titles with 3 Finals MVPs. But O’Neal really did suffer a pretty drastic drop off in production in the second half of the decade, mostly due to health.
Then of course there’s the new breed. King Bron and Chris Paul have the best regular season averages, but of course they haven’t had any time for their skills to deteriorate yet and haven’t been around that long. Chris Paul hasn’t even played half the decade. LeBron has, and he made an NBA Finals as the best player on his team along with several incredible playoff series. But Timmy’s got 4 seasons on him and beat him head to head in a Finals. Garnett might have an even better argument than LeBron. His regular season stats are impeccable, and he brought the defensive intensity and accountability to Beantown with him. Title time!Tim Duncan’s got the stats. He’s top five in the regular season and number two in the playoffs (#1 with his multiple MVP extra points). He’s legit on pure production and accomplishments, but just in case that’s not good enough, he’s also the best defender of the decade (pure opinion), possibly the best leader of the decade, and one of the top 2 or 3 decision-makers of the decade. Tim Duncan has that Larry Bird-esque understanding of when to pass to whom and when to look for his own offense. He’s got great range and versatility in his game but is disciplined enough to fight for position on the block and get the Spurs the tough post points they needed without demanding touches or getting in the way of his creative perimeter teammates.
Longevity. Consistency. Leadership. Sacrifice. Playoff dominance. That’s what makes a decade’s best player. In the words of Matt and Trey, “TIIIMMMMYY!”