Playing time key to Tim Duncan's value
Is Tim Duncan in danger of falling out of the top 10 centers in fantasy hoops?
The general consensus in fantasy circles is that Tim Duncan is at or near the end of his run as a top-10 fantasy center. It's an opinion that I will buy but don't necessarily share. I won't deny that it can be supported by Duncan's declining production during the past few seasons. Is he in danger? Absolutely. Am I willing to put money down that he won't be a top-10 fantasy center by the end of the season? Absolutely not.
In fact, in my personal rankings, Duncan comes in at 34th overall and ninth among center-eligible players behind Dwight Howard (9), Pau Gasol (10), Brook Lopez (18), Amare Stoudemire (19), David Lee (21), Chris Bosh (23), Al Horford (29) and Al Jefferson (31).
Of course, there are a few challengers to Duncan's spot in the top 10, including players such as Andrea Bargnani (although he is a much different kind of player), Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Andray Blatche, Nene Hilario and Andrew Bogut. Bogut actually would be ranked higher than Duncan if I weren't terrified of his injury history. Some of these challengers are fairly close to unseating Duncan in the top 10, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
Duncan may be 34 years old with a lot of mileage (entering his 14th season), but he still has something left in the tank, and he's not going to die quickly. You may have noticed that players who rely on supreme athleticism or quickness fade rather quickly when their time is up (think Vince Carter), while players who rely on fundamentals, like Duncan, manage to keep their careers going well into their 30s.
That said, I will not hide that there is plenty of statistical support in favor of the opinion that Duncan is on his last leg. A quick glance at his numbers since 2006-07 indicates a player whose minutes and production are starting to fade:
Tim Duncan's averages, past 4 seasons
As you can see, Duncan's scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking have taken quite a hit in recent seasons. But a closer inspection of the numbers reveals that it's not really his production that has taken the hit; it's his minutes. To help illustrate, let's take a look at Duncan's per-48-minute numbers during the same span:
Tim Duncan's per-48-minute averages since '06-07
That's better, right? Now he looks a lot less like a player who's at the end of his road and a lot more like a player who's simply losing playing time. The only number that really jumps out at me here is his declining blocks rate, but as you can see, this is not really a recent development, as the steepest dip in that area came from 2006-07 to 2007-08.
With all that said, it's not so much Duncan's production that I am worried about. It's his coach, Gregg Popovich, who is more than willing to rest Duncan in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs, just as he does with Manu Ginobili. To make matters worse, for the first time since I can remember, the Spurs actually have some viable big men in DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, who will allow Popovich to rest Duncan even more this season. With Blair and Splitter holding down the fort, I wouldn't be surprised if Duncan finishes the 2010-11 season with just 30.5 minutes per game. Luckily for us, he's still superproductive on a per-minute basis, as we discussed previously.
Pop is notorious for this sort of behavior, by the way, particularly late in the season, when the Spurs have a playoff spot locked up. But at least he's predictable with it. We can pretty much lock it up that Duncan will lose anywhere from two to five minutes per game after the All-Star break. Since 2004, Duncan has averaged 34.4 minutes before the All-Star break compared to 31.1 after the All-Star break. And that's exactly what happened last season:
2009-10 pre-All-Star: 32.1 minutes, 19.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 blocks
2009-10 post-All-Star: 29.5 minutes, 15.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 blocks
Looking at those splits, people wouldn't even dare talk about Duncan falling out of the top 10 if we considered only his first-half numbers last season. And in my opinion, the solution here is clear: We draft Duncan as a top-10 fantasy center, laugh as he "surprises" everyone in the first half when he's getting enough minutes to be productive, then find some unsuspecting owner to take him off our hands late in the season when Pop undoubtedly limits his minutes. Duncan's spot as a top-10 fantasy center is certainly in jeopardy, but not only am I not ready to write him off yet, I'm thinking he'll be a value pick if he falls far enough and you play your cards right in trade negotiations.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @bmckitish.
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