It's difficult to surmise how the NBA of the Noughties will be remembered. It isn't as if the 1990s lacked for storylines beyond the obvious; it's just that the obvious, the dominance of Michael Jordan's Bulls, let little historical, mainstream sunlight reach points outside Chicago.
Our ending decade suffers no such problems. We have dynasties, the Lakers early in the millennium and a Spurs reign we will soon discuss in better depth. But we lack a suffocating talent so clearly better than his peers he renders them footnotes. While LeBron James exits the decade as the game's almost obviously most transcedant talent, the same could have been said of late '80s MJ. It wasn't 'til the rings rained that Jordan really took over the NBA. LeBron has yet to taste the ultimate success, and as such remains mortal in NBA discourse.
Kobe Bryant, of course, has rings ... and so much more. Controversy, both about his personal life and his game. Talent, obviously, with a past-due MVP award in 2008-09 and the decade's top scoring average at 28.7 points per game. Durability, in a neck-and-neck race Dirk Nowitzki this season to claim the decade's minutes played lead. And championships. Four, in fact, since the 1999-2000 season, more than any other star. Kobe was certainly the team's top player in the most recent title run, and was no worse than co-star in the Shaquille O'Neal-marqueed threepeat to open the 2000s.
I have no qualms if you name Kobe your player of the Noughties. But there's one other championship-ridden player I think deserves the honor more.
Tim Duncan also has four titles, just three this decade. (His first came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.) But the story of Duncan goes beyond the Spurs dynasty, of which he is often seen as only the most vital cog and not the overwhelming reason for its existence. Duncan is the dynasty, and in my opinion, the player of the decade.
The amazing thing about Duncan is the breadth of his talent. He is reputed as the era's best defender, and this is absolutely spot-on -- Duncan ranks 26th all-time in block rate (the percentage of opponent shots blocked), sixth all-time in defensive rebound rate and second all-time in individual defensive rating (behind, um, Elmore Smith). That individual defensive excellence has translated to team success, with the Spurs having finished no lower than fifth in defensive rating every season this decade; before last season, San Antonio had finished top three every year.
But that's not the entire Duncan narrative: he also happens to be a superstar scorer. The throwback elbow bank shot is the stuff of legend. Beyond that, Duncan has the 15th best per-game scoring average this decade, above offensive beasts like Amar'e Stoudemire, Yao Ming, Chris Bosh and Elton Brand. While discussion of Duncan's touch typically revolve around the bank shot, don't forget how good a passer he's been, as well. Only three players 6-foot-10 or taller have averaged more assists per game than Duncan this decade: Kevin Garnett, Lamar Odom and Vlade Divac. Duncan rates higher than facilitators like Brad Miller, Pau Gasol and Hedo Turkoglu.
Rebounds like Wilt. Defends like Russell. Blocks shots like Dikembe. Scores like Amare. Passes like Divac. That's Tim Duncan.
Often the past is mistakenly glorified in this nostalgic world. But Duncan is a throwback we should celebrate, not because of his clean-cut image or flashless oeuvre, but because success never goes out of style.