Tim Duncan willing to pay the price for titles

July, 4, 2014
Jul 4
9:30
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Bryant/DuncanNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhile Kobe Bryant keeps cashing massive checks, Tim Duncan is using salary to "buy" more rings.
Four days after lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fifth time, Tim Duncan quietly opted in to make a team-friendly $10,361,446 next season. Which reminds us: Wait, Tim Duncan made roughly three times less than Kobe Bryant did last season? How could this happen?

The answer to the question of how can Duncan make so much less than Bryant while being more valuable these days is, paradoxically, “Because Duncan earned it.” After he garnered more than $200 million over the course of an illustrious career, Timmy splurged on his own team. Anyone who’s arguing that the Spurs are “built, not bought” ignores how the buying is part of the building. Duncan didn’t “sacrifice” for his squad so much as he used his money the way he wanted.

Duncan didn’t just help buy the Spurs a few more title chances, though. He purchased pressure on other stars around the league, stars who might hear calls to “pull a Duncan” for the good of the team. You can almost hear fans and media chiding, “Why can’t you be more like Duncan?” the way a parent might remind an imperfect son of his perfect older brother.

We’re already seeing this in Miami, where Dwyane Wade’s biggest supporters would urge him to conspire against his bank account. Because of a CBA designed to kill super-teams, big-money players have greater incentive to consider philanthropy as a means to legacy.

With that in mind, the Heat and Wade stand at a crossroads. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade have opted out of their contracts after a Finals in which “Big Three plus scraps” certainly wasn’t up to the task. The first two could recoup their money on the open market, but Wade almost certainly cannot. At age 32, he’s staring down either the Kobe path or the Duncan path. It remains to be seen if he opts for the superstar money that hinders his team, or elects to conserve his body and his team’s cap space the way Duncan has. What Wade chooses might say a lot about how he thinks about himself in relation to his franchise.

The contracts Duncan and Bryant took on the “back nine” of their careers spoke to what made them great in their primes. Duncan was celebrated as the selfless teammate, whose mastery of his craft was viewed as more utilitarian (“fundamental”) than artistic. He is heralded as a man who wins for the sake of winning, as though you would learn some ineffable truth of how a win happens if only you could read his mind. The below-market deal is illustrative of how Duncan was willing to subsume for victory.

Bryant was celebrated for being a brilliant “alpha dog” who won on his own terms. Perhaps Kobe would never have become Kobe if he was so willing to sacrifice. After Shaquille O’Neal left, Kobe fandom replaced some of what had been fandom for a title contender in Los Angeles. The Lakers were hopeless, but entertainment and drama could be found in whether Bryant put together a streak of 50-point scoring performances.

Then the Lakers got Pau Gasol, won two titles, and Bryant’s status reached another echelon. Though succeeding with his team, “The Mamba” developed a cult of personality that was based on self as opposed to team. Bryant’s brand of machismo was about embracing the big shot and consuming the spotlight that came with that responsibility. This isn’t to say Bryant was a bad teammate -- just that a Lakers fan might wear a shirt showing Kobe’s five rings as though his accomplishment superseded the squad’s.

Eventually, Bryant’s body betrayed his brand of triumphant individualism. The Achilles tear took him down, and took down the Lakers. Perhaps his massive post-injury contract can be rationalized as paying a star for past good works -- cue Jurgen’s disapproving glare -- but Bryant had already been well-compensated in his time with the Lakers. The cap-killing extension looked more like a franchise eating itself because it ceased knowing how to be anything other than a vehicle for its star’s fame.

It’s a testament to the power of Bryant’s play and status that the Lakers bid against their own future in paying homage. It’s also a testament to how denial can be corrosive to goals. The Lakers (and Bryant) suffered an inability to accept that Bryant’s body couldn’t cash the checks his legend kept writing. In contrast, the Spurs (and Duncan) have long accepted that Duncan can’t keep functioning as the main reason for success, that his minutes need lessening, that his roster needs furnishing. An acceptance of reality, combined with Duncan’s willingness to play the part of someone who wins at his own literal expense, extended San Antonio’s title window.

With these two examples before them, can the Heat and Wade accept reality? Even if Wade does the hard work of accepting his limitations, there’s no guarantee he blesses that admission by giving up millions. Being a Duncan is hard, expensive work.

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