What Can Tim Duncan’s Career Teach Us About Ours?
Following the news that Tim Duncan—the ageless man; the guy who’s been pulling down rebounds and hitting bank shots for the Spurs since I was five years old; the guy with championships in three different decades—had retired, I couldn’t help but think, amidst the flurry of tributes, articles, and reactions, that we can glean a great bit of advice for our own careers by examining his.
Employers talk so much about wanting “dependable” people that it almost becomes devoid of meaning. But it is an important trait. You can’t do really good work sometimes. You can’t be a productive worker when you feel good. To really have great careers, we need to be reliably consistent.
Everyone knew what to expect from Timmy every game, every season for 19 years. He rarely had true off days, he never had major cold stretches, and never had a bad year.
There are plenty of NBA players who can score 19 with 11 rebounds in a game. But Tim Duncan averaged 19 and 11 over almost two decades (22 and 12 for the first decade). Being that dependable has a multiplicative effect on an organization.
Perhaps more important to the Spurs than Tim’s points and rebounds was the assurance, the absolute knowledge that Tim was going to score at least in the high teens, with double digit rebounds, and minimal turnovers or mistakes, every single night. That assurance allowed them to focus their attention on building a complementary team around him and a legendary offensive system.
Likewise, in the work world, you can provide your organization with benefits far beyond your tangible inputs if they know they can depend on you like that. Every minute they don’t have to spend worrying about you or covering for your lapses or mistakes is a minute that can be spent improving something else.
Yes, the Spurs are a classy, well-run organization. But they were able to operate like they do because of Tim Duncan. Gregg Popovich is a brilliant basketball mind. But he was only able to execute such a great offense because he knew exactly what Timmy would bring every night.
Master the Fundamentals
Timmy was the Big Fundamental. He didn’t have a signature move like Karl Malone mailman dunk, Jordan’s fadeaway, AI’s crossover or James Harden’s Eurostep. If he had a signature move, it was a textbook bank shot.
The lesson here is to get so good at the basics of your trade that you don’t need to do anything flashy or fancy to be dominant.
Tim was plenty athletic, but he was never the type to show off if it didn’t help the final score. He understood that every bucket was worth two points, and that in the end, success would be measured in wins and losses, not Sportscenter highlights.
Tim Duncan was all substance, with almost no attention paid to style. However, he had so much substance that it eventually became stylish. He ended up having some pretty successful ad spots because people saw him as authentic and found his stoic, mundane, decidedly un-flashy style endearing.
The conventional star athlete PR handbook might encourage someone lowkey like Duncan to try to act outgoing and charming, to “show some personality” in an attempt to be relatable and marketable. Some stars have successfully done this (Tiger Woods), and many others haven’t.
Just like there is a place in pro sports for style icons like Russell Westbrook or charismatic pitchmen like Lebron James & Brett Favre, there’s a role for a superstar who speaks in monotone single phrases and dresses like a middle schooler. Duncan trying to like act like Michael Jordan wouldn’t work. It would seem forced and disingenuous. He embraced who he was, didn’t take himself too seriously, and it worked for him. In the work world, there are roles for the whole spectrum of personality types. Trying to be something you aren’t can rub others the wrong way.
Go for a Good Fit over a Good Paycheck
Tim had numerous opportunities to leave the Spurs. He surely could have made more money in promotional deals playing in a large market city like New York or LA. He could have asked for another max salary contract every time his was up (which would have likely forced San Antonio to lose other players), but instead he took a 60% paycut (when there would have been other team’s lining up to give him a raise) in 2012 so the team’s core could stay together. He knew the best fit for him was playing in San Antonio with his existing teammates. Three years later, he could have asked them to pay him what he was worth to make up for his past generosity (a la Dwyane Wade), but he instead willingly slashed his salary in half again so the team could keep Kawhi Leonard and make a run at Lamarcus Aldridge.
I’m not saying we should ask for paycuts to help the “team.” Obviously the situation isn’t completely congruous. Not many of us are multi-millionaires who have employers with league-mandated salary caps. The key is that he chose the situation where he would be happiest; where he knew he fit best; rather than the one which paid the most.
Be a team player; Embrace talented coworkers
Timmy was the ultimate team player. He switched from Power Forward to Center and back several times in his career to better fit what the Spurs needed at the time. He was comfortable being the focal point of the offense or just another cog on the machine; the featured star or the grizzled veteran.
As David Robinson’s career waned, Tim became the man, and the result was two MVP awards. But when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and later Kawhi Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge came along and started stealing away some attention, he didn’t get jealous. He didn’t ask for the ball more or demand a trade. In fact, he did everything in his power to accommodate his teammates (including taking pay cuts).
As good as Kobe Bryant was, he demanded the spotlight for himself, and it basically meant running Shaq out of town after their fourth finals appearance in five years. Shaq had come to LA in the first place after getting jealous of the attention Penny Hardaway was getting in Orlando. Dwight Howard, while immensely talented, has arguably left several teams worse off after demanding trades and coaching or personnel changes when he didn’t get the attention he wanted. He’s now headed toward the twilight phase of his career with no championship rings.
The lesson is to not be threatened by talented coworkers, to not let your ego impair your performance, and to not make the workplace (unhealthily) competitive. The organization will be its best if all its most talented members can work harmoniously to make everybody’s work better. Don’t be jealous of others receiving accolades; be proud of your own work and your organization’s outcomes.
Let talent speak for itself
Tim was never into self-promotion. He didn’t make bold guarantees, he didn’t talk about how good he was, he didn’t offer rebuttals about “best player” rankings or reply to criticism on Twitter. He doesn’t even have a Twitter. People like to point at all this as evidence of his humility. And while he does conduct himself in a humble fashion, I think deep down it’s a sign of a tremendous confidence and self-assuredness.
He knew how good he was, and he knew other people knew he was good. Being an All-American, the Naismith winner and the number one draft pick, he could have come into the league cocky. But instead he was quiet and confident, and let his play do the talking. Even now, after 15 All Star appearances, five championships, and two MVPs, he is quiet and reserved. When asked about his accomplishments, he’ll smile and nod. As he said a couple years ago, “I’m just a basketball player. I play the game. I go home.” All his focus was on making himself the best he could be, instead of on making people think he was the best. And it works. Amazing performance does not go unnoticed, even in the absence of self promotion. That’s why Duncan’s retirement, even though it was executed via a dry Spurs press release, is getting nearly as much post-announcement attention and buzz as Kobe Bryant’s, which came via primetime interviews, a full-season retirement tour, and a 50(!) shot farewell game. Tim is heralded as the greatest power forward ever, and some are calling him the greatest player of his generation and the greatest two-way player in modern history.
The lesson: Don’t be cocky before you’ve proven yourself. And don’t be cocky after you’ve proven yourself. Be confident, and be good enough at your job that other people can’t help but do the talking for you.
Farewell Tim. May we all aspire to have careers like yours.
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