Steinmetz: Duncan’s the best — hands down

With the San Antonio Spurs heading toward their fourth title in nine years, it’s time to take some stock. A few thoughts:

» Any discussion regarding the best player in the NBA must start with Tim Duncan. Forget Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki. Duncan eclipses all of them.

In fact, the argument isn’t whether Duncan is the best player in the game today (he is), it’s where he ranks on the list of all-time greatest players. It is time to put Duncan, working on NBA championship No. 4, in the class where he belongs — among the short list of legends of the game.

Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. That’s my top-10 players of all-time (no particular order), but West is about to get bumped.

Conventional wisdom has put Duncan in a second tier of players, with the likes of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, etc. But think about it. Duncan is dominant offensively, one of the game’s greatest defensive players (All-Defensive first team seven times) and, by all accounts, as good a teammate as exists.

He’s not only durable (never missed more than 16 games in any one of his 10 seasons), but he does that thing that all the greats do: Make teammates better.

» This year’s NBA Finals aren’t good enough. It’s time for commissioner David Stern to start to seriously take a look at making the playoffs a 16-team tournament with seeds based on records.

The disparity between conferences is as great now as it has ever been. You could make a case that every Western Conference playoff team was better than the Cavaliers.

Stern made an argument recently that the Miami Heat winning the title last year showed that the Eastern Conference is on a par with the West. That’s ludicrous, and ignores the notion that Western Conference teams have a significantly harder road to the Finals than their counterparts in the East.

And, in terms of depth between the conferences, it isn’t close.

Stern likes to say the NBA is just going through a cycle. He’s right. Back in the mid-’80s, the Eastern Conference was dominant, with teams such as the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers beating each other up in the East on the way to the Finals.

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Lakers were waltzing into the championship round, disposing of inferior teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Seattle and Dallas along the way. The Lakers made it to eight consecutive Western Conference finals from 1982 through 1989. If you take out their one stub of the toe (losing to Houston in 1986), the Lakers were a resounding 28-8 in conference finals games over that period.

That’s just not right, particulary when you consider the bruising Eastern Conference finals series of that period.

» Tony Parker is a heck of a player but still not in the elite point guard class of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. Why? Because as good as he is, he doesn’t have the vision, playmaking ability for others and leadership abilities of those other two players.

Parker is perfect for the Spurs’ system, and in fairness to him, isn’t asked to do what Nash or Kidd are asked to do. But even if he were, he wouldn’t be ableto get it done like those other two.

<i>Matt Steinmetz is the NBA insider for Warriors telecasts on Fox Sports Net.

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