With Kobe Bryant announcing his retirement at the end of this season after a record-breaking 20 years with the Lake Show and Tim “Old Man River” Duncan engaged in his 19th season as a pro baller with the San Antonio Spurs, it’s a great time to reflect on, contrast and compare the two greatest players of their generation, Black Mamba and Big Fundamental. These guys have won 10 of the last 20 NBA titles.
On Friday night, these two aging future Hall of Famers met for the 80th time and first of the final four final games they will play against each other (50 regular season meetings all-time).
Duncan, who has played a much less substantial role in the Spurs’ overall success the past few seasons, including their 2013-14 NBA championship run, currently has a 29-21 head-to-head advantage in regular-season play after Friday night’s 109-87 victory over a 3-20 LA Lakers team, who if not for Kobe’s farewell tour, would not even be newsworthy. However, Bryant holds the upper hand in the playoffs (18-12).
The game was indicative of both team’s changing philosophies and transformation to a “new” era. The Lakers No. 1 draft pick D’Angelo Russell led the rebuilding squad with a career-high 24 points. The Spurs’ free agent gem LaMarcus Aldridge (24 points) and blossoming star Kawhi Leonard (16 pts, 11 boards) carried the scoring load for San Antonio.
Together, Duncan and Bryant scored just 17 points and combined for 10 rebounds. Shoot...17 points used to be a quarter of work for Kobe and a typical first half for Duncan. Kobe came out firing hitting four of his first five shots, and contributed to a 21-9 Lakers first quarter run that had them leading the Spurs 27-19 with about 2:00 left in the quarter, but just as Bryant's career and surrounding talent has slowly fizzled, his game also wilted as the contest progressed.
Both superstars wear the scars of two decades in the game and are shells of their former selves.Bryant finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting and typically played 29 minutes, which was more than any other Spurs player. Duncan scored five points on 2-of-5 shooting in just 20 minutes of action.
San Antonio has been able to preserve Duncan’s impact and hide his flaws by keeping or adding a group of borderline to official All-Stars around him (most notably Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, more recently Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge). This potent mix allowed the Spurs to grab a fifth and unlikely NBA c’hip two seasons ago.
When all things were even, Bryant's Lakers won four of the six playoff series against Duncan's Spurs. Both players had to plow through one another en route to snagging two of their five championships – Duncan in 1999 (Spurs sweep in the second round) and 2003 (in six games in second round); Bryant in 2001 (Lakers sweep in Western Conference Finals) and 2002 (in five games in the second round). In 2004 and 2008, Bryant's Lakers dusted off the Spurs in the playoffs only to fall in the Finals to old foes Detroit and Boston.
There’s no doubt that both players rose to the occasion against each other in head-to-head matchups.
According to BasketballReference.com, Bryant averaged 28.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per game in 30 postseason games against Duncan. Tim averaged 25.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.3 blocks. Bryant has scored 30 points or more against the Spurs 23 times in his career, and his magical 45-point night in the postseason of 2001 is a franchise playoff record for a San Antonio foe.
The two players have accumulated career accolades at similar rates despite being completely different types of performers. Obviously, they share similar intangibles (nasty streak, heart, leadership, clutch gene) that are consistent in studs who produce championships, MVP’s and unforgettable memories. They both have 5 NBA titles. Kobe has a pair of Finals MVPs and Duncan has three. Duncan has a couple of NBA MVPs and Kobe has 1 (deserves more). These titans also share 21 first team All-NBA selections and 32 All-Star game appearances.
“I think Tim has a quiet passion for the game,” said Lakers coach Byron Scott, “where Kobe is a little bit more outspoken about how he loves to play this game. They have so many things that are similar that you just can’t see with the naked eye. But those two guys are competitive. Timmy is just very quiet in the way he does it. But he’s a fierce competitor. He wants to win every game.”
Black Mamba’s day in the sun is almost done. He finishes as a Top 3 scorer in NBA history and rich beyond belief. Tim’s retirement plan is less lucrative, but also much less stressing and has been more enjoyable.
But which player will go down as the best of their generation?