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At 36, can Tim Duncan be DPOY?

At 36, can Tim Duncan be DPOY?
Spurs' aging star enjoying a rebirth and putting on clinic in blocking shots

Updated: December 21, 2012, 11:49 AM ET
By Tom Haberstroh | ESPN Insider

Even if the Mayans had turned out to be right, I'd have been half-expecting Tim Duncan to find a way to continue to put up double-doubles on a nightly basis. That's how ludicrously consistent the Big Fundamental's career has been.

Seriously, here were are, just a few days away from 2013, and Duncan ranks as the NBA's top big man in player efficiency rating (PER) at 25.2. This is a guy who made his NBA debut in October 1997 just after Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond blew out the candles at his fourth birthday party. There's more: Duncan was playing in the NBA at the same time as Charles Jones, who used to be Dr. J's teammate.

Yes, Duncan is 36 years old and still dominating the league, 45,000 minutes later. Here's a long list of players who have averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks at age 36:

Tim Duncan.

And that's it. No one else.

Chris Bosh called Duncan a "timeless classic" earlier this season, effectively making Duncan the "Citizen Kane" of basketball. The Heat center has a point; it feels like we can always count on Duncan for a good ol' 20-and-10 and a few swats on the side.

Chris Bosh called [Tim] Duncan a "timeless classic" earlier this season, effectively making Duncan the "Citizen Kane" of basketball.

And it's those swats that has made this Duncan season as remarkable as any.

As startling as it sounds, Duncan, a 13-time all-defensive big man, has never had a better shot-blocking campaign in his career. He's currently collecting 2.6 blocks per game with an average of only 30.6 minutes of playing time. In other words, he's blocking more shots per 36 minutes (3.0) than at any point in his 15 seasons in the league.

And the best part? He probably hasn't left his feet for most of those blocks.

He certainly didn't leave his feet on Tuesday when he blocked the 7-foot-2 pogo stick JaVale McGee. Duncan barely left Earth to pin Corey Brewer's reverse layup to the backboard on Tuesday as well. Duncan just casually rotated over, reached up with two hands and stopped the ball dead in its tracks against the glass and descended to the ground with the rock. Before Brewer saw what happened, Duncan had already raised the ball above his head to distribute the outlet pass.

This is where the beauty of Duncan's game lies, the same technical mastery that gave him the Big Fundamental moniker. Rather than swat it like a volleyball spike as so many young players tend to do, Duncan politely rejects the shot attempt with a certain delicacy that undoubtedly loses him macho points. More importantly, Duncan's compassionate blocks allow him to easily snatch away the possession.
Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw
Derick E. Hingle/US PRESSWIREDuncan could show youngster Anthony Davis a thing or two.

Duncan is particularly adept in this underrated realm of block recovery. Research from has found that only 57 percent of blocks are recovered from the defensive team and one of every six blocks is sent out of bounds in vain. But a quick viewing of the tape shows that the Spurs recovered 16 of Duncan's last 25 blocks, which is a 64 percent recovery rate. In Tuesday's game against Denver, he reeled in four of his five swats.

Another hidden value of Duncan's blocks: He stays home rather than chase rejections all over the floor. In fact, 83.6 percent of Duncan's blocks come within five feet of the basket, which is the highest rate among the 17 players with at least 40 blocks to their name this season.

Contrast that with Dwight Howard who registers a lot of blocks, but only 67.6 percent of them come in the immediate basket area, which means that Howard spends much of his time blocking lower-percentage shots that probably won't go in anyway.

In some ways, Duncan's lack of athleticism is a blessing in disguise; it keeps him in close proximity of the rim and prevents him from block hunting on jumpers like others. Seen another way, the average shot distance of a Duncan blocked shot is 2.9 feet. Among the top 25 shot-blockers in the league, only Bismack Biyombo posted a shorter block average (2.7 feet). Compare that 2.9-foot average with Anthony Davis, who's often hailed as the next Duncan. His average blocked-shot is 7.1 feet away. Andrei Kirilenko? 8.4 feet. JaVale McGee? 5.2 feet. Duncan probably silently scoffs in their general direction.
Shortest blocked shot distance

(minimum 30 blocks)
Player Feet Blocks
Bismack Biyombo 2.7 39
Tim Duncan 2.9 67
Serge Ibaka 3.3 80
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 3.3 34
Josh Smith 3.6 48
Average 4.8

Duncan isn't cherry-picking against lesser players either. Duncan remains the only player in the NBA to block MVP candidates Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony each on multiple occasions. Poor Al Jefferson has been victimized by Duncan six times this season; Paul Millsap and DeMarcus Cousins have been rejected by Duncan three times.

More evidence of Duncan's subtle dominance on defense: He almost never fouls. As an illustration, let's compare him to his contemporaries. Serge Ibaka, Larry Sanders, Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard are the only players who have more blocks than Duncan, and they've received 3.5, 4.3, 5.7 and 3.7 whistles per 36 minutes, respectively, this season. Duncan's foul rate? 2.1 fouls per 36 minutes, almost half those shot-blockers collective rate of 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes. Again, the Big Fundamental.

It might be too early to talk about defensive player of the year candidates -- then again, this is the Internet - but the Spurs have been defending like mad this season. They're currently ranking seventh in defensive efficiency on that end of the floor which is the team's highest ranking since 2008-09. Looking at the list of top defensive teams, it's hard not to at least consider Duncan as an early favorite, especially when you consider that he also has the fourth highest defensive rebound rate in the league as well.

As crazy as it sounds, Duncan's path to his first defensive player of the year award could be clearer than ever. Howard's balky back has drastically limited him this season, and Tyson Chandler's candidacy is hurt by the fact that the Knicks currently rank as a below-average defense in efficiency (16th), a ranking that could only get worse when Amar'e Stoudemire returns.

No one has ever won the top defender award after age 34, but that shouldn't stop Duncan from accomplishing the feat. When it comes to basketball, nothing seems to stop Duncan from accomplishing anything.

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