What if Duncan Never Played Basketball?

In 1989, Tim Duncan was not a basketball player. It took Hurricane Hugo to force him into another sport—and inaugurate a radically altered NBA less than a decade later. That’s right: if not for Hurricane Hugo, we might have a fundamentally different Big Fundamental (Duncan’s nickname).

In 1989, Duncan was a promising young swimmer. Growing up on the Virgin Islands, he was a 13-year-old swimmer who specialized in the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle events. Hurricane Hugo ravaged the Virgin Islands, including its only Olympic-sized swimming pool. Frustrated, Duncan had a choice: either practice in the ocean or find another sport. His fear of sharks led Duncan to abandon swimming in favor of basketball. Duncan’s mother passed away the day before his 14th birthday and he started using the basketball hoop his sister sent to him as a present. In 1993, he enrolled at Wake Forest and essentially owned college basketball for four years. He completed his degree, in psychology, too! Sometimes I think being a psych major led him to develop this famous deadpan* look.

*SIDENOTE: one of the best things about Duncan is his deadpan look. He looks a little like he’s brain dead but actually he’s listening intently. I read somewhere that in school, professors used to think he wasn’t paying attention to lectures but then he’d ace the tests. Greg Popovich has said similar things about Duncan: when Duncan listens, he gets a glazed over look on his face. I saw that look on his face in the early 2000s when a reporter interviewed him after a regular season game. The reporter asked what Duncan did in the offseason for fun. With the same deadpan look, Duncan glanced at the reporter and said, “Play basketball.” She chuckled but Duncan just walked away. I remember laughing hysterically.

We know the rest. The Spurs drafted him after David Robinson sat out in 1997. Duncan went on to become the greatest basketball player between 1999 and 2009(with much deference to Kobe, LeBron, Shaq, and Wade). Seriously, if you had a starting five all-time, Tim Duncan would be your 4. There isn’t another power forward better than Duncan and there are only about four centers better than him (alphabetical order: Hakeem, Kareem, Russell, and Shaq; you might also throw in Moses Malone but he was a head case). Duncan is, without a doubt, one of the best players in the history of NBA and NCAA basketball.

So let’s do a thought experiment, all in good fun: what would have happened if Hurricane Hugo hadn’t hit the Virgin Islands. What if? First, let’s consider Tim Duncan’s career before we consider the Duncan-less NBA. Duncan ends up practicing year round because the Virgin Islands are warm year round. Eventually, he ends up getting a scholarship for swimming from Auburn, Texas, or another ridiculously good swimming school. He finishes his degree (in psychology so he can still do that deadpan look) and competes in the 2000 Olympics. Back then, the best swimmer in the world was Ian Thorpe, but for funsies let’s say that Duncan wins gold* in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle. This isn’t such a stretch because Duncan has size 16 feet and is 6’11” and might have actually be built like Michael Phelps. He might have been washed up by the 2004 Olympics in Athens because he would have been 28, which is old in swimmer years. But probably—given his work ethic that we’ve seen for more than a decade—he’d have reinvented himself and won a few medals. Let’s say he’d have taken Phelps’ spot for the US in the 400 freestyle and so he wins bronze (much like Phelps did in 2004). Duncan doesn’t earn any endorsements and retires back to the Virgin Islands where he ends up playing videogames and swimming because that’s the kind of guy he is. So Tim Duncan the swimmer wins a few medals and retires to teaching swim lessons because there has only ever been one millionaire swimmer and his name is Michael Phelps.

*SIDENOTE: again, could you imagine that glazed over look when Duncan stood on the Olympic podiums? Bravo, imaginary Tim Duncan.

Now, what about the NBA? This thought experiment gets a bit absurd, especially to the extent to which I’m going to take it. Duncan had an impact on everything. There is the 1997 draft, David Robinson, the San Antonio titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014, the Lakers, the Detroit Pistons, the very culture of the NBA, and of course LeBron James. Again, this is going to get a little absurd but it’s fun.

The 1997 Draft. Everyone just moves up a slot but this will have serious implications. Without Duncan, the Spurs take Keith Van Horn #1 overall. Philly takes Chauncey Billups (#3 to #2), and the Warriors get Tracy McGrady, who moves up from #9 to #8. No else in that draft mattered. Seriously. So what happens with these guys? Philly still wants to trade Billups (like they did Van Horn) but can’t because the Nets already have Starbury and don’t need a point guard. So they keep Billups and combine him with Iverson. We’ll return to that in a little bit. Tracy McGrady flourishes for a bad team in Oakland and ends up signing with the Orlando Magic. His career ends up the same.

David Robinson and San Antonio’s Titles. Do the Spurs win any titles without Duncan? I don’t think they’d win anything after 1999, but David Robinson might have taken the Spurs all the way during the shortened season of 1998-9. Having drafted Keith Van Horn, San Antonio is much the same in this imagined scenario as it was in reality. In reality and in our imagination, San Antonio was ridiculously good and lost only one game in the Western conference (to a Minnesota Timberwolves team lead by a 21-year-old Kevin Garnett). Plus, the Bulls left a power void, meaning the 8th seeded Knicks got all the way to the NBA finals. San Antonio beat the Knicks 4-2. For the sake of brevity, let’s say the Knicks took them to Game 7 but Ewing traveled in the waning seconds to give David Robinson his first and only title. Spike Lee explodes with rage. But that’s the end of the titles because Keith Van Horn falls off the face of the earth due to injuries.

The Lakers. Now we’re getting somewhere. They are a genuine dynasty for two reasons: no Tim Duncan and Billups is wallowing away in Philly. In 2003, the Lakers lost to the Spurs in 6 games in the first round. Without Duncan, the Kobe-Shaq combo wins over the Van Horn/Robinson combo. The Lakers win the whole thing, especially because the Nets are terrible without Van Horn. David Robinson retires and Van Horn continues to waste his immense amount of talent. The Spurs miss the playoffs in 2004. But wait, Lakers haters, it gets worse.

Karl Malone gets a ring because, with Billups wallowing in Philly, the Pistons can’t make it through the East. Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace take the Pistons-Pacers series to seven games, but Reggie scores 51 in game seven on 10-14 three-point shooting (in reality, the Pacers lost in six games). Miller’s Pacers get back to the Finals, only to lose in heart-breaking fashion in seven games. Spike Lee explodes with joy. Robert Horry still manages to get seven damn rings! Lakers win 5 titles in a row. That’s right, the Lakers have won 5 in row in the Duncan-less NBA. Shaq never goes to Miami because, well, why would he? Five titles in a row, no one is going to leave that team. So the dynasty stays together. However, Shaq arrives in the 2005 training camp weighing roughly 500 lbs because he’s so full of himself. So here we are:

Year                In reality:                   The Duncan-less NBA

1999               Spurs                          Spurs

2000               Lakers                         Lakers

2001               Lakers                         Lakers

2002               Lakers                         Lakers

2003               Spurs                          Lakers

2004               Pistons                        Lakers

2005               Spurs                          Phoenix (we’ll get to it!)

Of course, all good things come to an end. In 2005, the Kobe-Shaq feud is still brewing to the point that Miami trades for Shaq mid-season but doesn’t get the haul that it did in reality, so Odom stays in Miami. Miami manages to beat the Pistons because they have Odom and Billups is still in Philly. But Miami doesn’t face the Spurs because without Duncan and a newly retired David Robinson, the Spurs don’t make the playoffs in 2004. (So who did they draft? They draft Dwight Howard, who ends up teaming with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Chaos I tell you!) So who did the Miami Heat face in the 2005 NBA Finals?

Phoenix. In reality, the Phoenix Suns lost to the Spurs in 2005, 4-1. But without Duncan, Phoenix’s run-and-gun offense decimates everyone. The combination of Malone-Kobe-Payton-Fisher-Devean George (seriously people, this is ridiculous) takes Phoenix to seven games, but Amare scores 48 and Shawn Marion scores 37 in Game 7. Joe Johnson nails 10 threes. Steve Nash sets the record for assists in a game with 36, breaking Scott Skiles’ record of 30 assists set in 1990. The Lakers are finally dethroned after being ignited by the best offensive game we ever saw. Phoenix wins 168-155. Kobe scores 79 but we don’t remember it. So that brings us to…

The 2005 NBA Finals. This is an epic battle because neither team bothers to play any defense. It also inaugurates a new era of basketball. If you remember the real 2005 Finals: it was such a defensive battle that only once did a team score above 100 points (Pistons, game 5, and they blew the doors off the Spurs, 102- 71). But in our imagined Duncan-less NBA, the Miami-Phoenix series has a completely different feel. Collectively, the Heat-Suns average nearly 250 points per game! Ultimately, Phoenix prevails because Quentin Richardson, Amare, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, and Nash can’t be stopped. Leandro Barbosa was on that team too, FYI. Shaq wins the MVP in a shocking turn of events, however, after he averaged 50 ppg in the Finals. The only problem is that Stan Van Gundy hasn’t fully integrated Shaq into the team’s playbook and Miami can’t pull it out the win. Phoenix wins in seven games. Game 7 is 178-165, Suns. Nash has 40 assists in the game. But something magical happens….

NBA culture. Without the Tim Duncan 2005 NBA Finals, the entire culture of the basketball is changed by the 2005 Miami-Phoenix Finals. The television ratings are through the roof, which allows David Stern to change the rules to favor offense the likes of which have never been seen. Miami and Phoenix meet again (in reality, Phoenix lost to Dallas, who then lost to Miami) because the rules are now in such favor for offense that Amare and Shawn Marion both average 25 ppg, with Joe Johnson averaging 21.5 ppg. Nash averages 9 ppg but 14 apg. Phoenix wins the title, again in seven games. Nash wins the Finals MVP, averaging 30 apg in the Finals, to go along with his regular season MVP.  A new league style is implemented: no defense and take a shot in the seven seconds of shot clock. Russell Westbrook literally explodes in anticipation of going to the NBA and Kevin Love has to shoulder the load at UCLA. And that finally brings us to the King…

LeBron. Without Duncan and with the relaxed rules on offense, Lebron wins titles in 2007 (No Duncan), 2008 (with the change in defensive rules, the Celtics can’t control the games), and 2009 (without any pressure because he won two titles, LeBron feasts on an overmatched Magic and lays waste to the Lakers, who have since traded Kobe to the Spurs for Dwight Howard and Tony Parker).

So here is what the titles look like:

Year                In reality:                   The Duncan-less NBA

1999               Spurs                          Spurs

2000               Lakers                         Lakers

2001               Lakers                         Lakers

2002               Lakers                         Lakers

2003               Spurs                          Lakers

2004               Pistons                        Lakers

2005               Spurs                          Suns

2006               Heat                            Suns

2007               Spurs                          Cavaliers

2008               Celtics                         Cavaliers

2009               Lakers                         Cavaliers

Of course, this means LeBron never leaves Cleveland, so I have no idea what happens in 2010 or after. What I do know is that without the Spurs, there would be a lot more dynasty (Lakers, Cleveland, Phoenix…haha).


But without Duncan, something is missing. Without Duncan, the NBA would be less competitive and less defensive-minded. Without Duncan, the NBA simply wouldn’t be recognizable. Without Duncan, we’d have to imagine silly fantasies about what would fill the gap left by his greatness.  Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 2.54.58 PM.png