The greatness of Dirk Nowitzki and his place in NBA history

This week, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki passed Moses Malone to become the seventh-leading scorer in NBA history. His rise up the all-time scoring charts is a testament to his incredibly diverse scoring ability and his longevity. Let us pay proper respect to his greatness and consider where he ranks among the all-time best at his position.

Dirk’s offensive abilities are well known to anyone reading this blog.

The best-shooting big man we have ever seen, at seven feet tall he is able to get his shot off over any defender – be it a face-up jumper or his patented fall-away off one leg. He is the only player 6’10” or above to make at least 1,500 threes. He is a master of head-fakes to get his defender off-balance, and he is comfortable taking smaller opponents in the post and finishing with either hand at the rim. He is a great teammate and is excellent at seeing the floor and passing out of the double-team.

He has aged well and he has adjusted seamlessly to shooting a few less shots per game than he used to, something past-their-prime superstars normally struggle with. Remarkably, he is still the cornerstone of a contender today at age 36, powering a Mavs offense which, built on shooting and floor spacing, is truly assembled in his image. Not coincidentally, it is the most efficient in the NBA.

The jumpers continue to rain down and there is still nothing defenders can do:

Over his ten-year prime (‘01/02 to ‘10/11), Nowitzki averaged 24.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 47.9% shooting and, crucially, 78 games a season. The Mavs won at least 50 games each of those ten years and advanced past the second round three times – something Chris Paul is yet to do once. The motto: with a prime Dirk on your team, you always had a chance to compete.

He was never the rebounder or defensive anchor that his leading power forward peer Tim Duncan was, but he is not a minus on that end either.

Lazy assumptions would have it that he is not mobile or athletic enough to be useful defensively – that he is the stereotypically “soft,” stiff-hipped European – but he quietly developed into a decent rim protector and very intelligent team defender as his career progressed. He is ultra-long, knows how to use his height to his advantage, and does not bite on pump fakes.

Per NBA.com, he holds opponents to 52.2% shooting at the rim, which is better than the likes of Joakim Noah (52.3%), Nicola Vucevic (53.2%), Blake Griffin (54.2%) and Al Horford (54.5%). In ‘02/03, the year Kevin Garnett won MVP, he and Dirk each gave up 98 points per 100 possessions on defense. The Mavs have ranked in the top eight teams defensively four different times, with Nowitzki leading them in minutes each of those seasons. The notion that he is a one-way player is unfair.

Offense has certainly always been his calling card though. He has always been a vastly superior scorer than Duncan and KG, particularly in crunch time. In fact, of all the great multidimensional scorers whose primes overlapped Dirk’s – Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, et. al – is there anyone you would trust more with the ball in his hands with the game on the line?

The stats back up the notion that he ups his game when it matters most. Indeed, he leads all NBA players over the past 15 years in clutch shooting, per Basketball-Reference.com – and it’s not even close. His career scoring average of 22.6 points jumps to 25.6 points in the postseason – the highest career playoff scoring average of all-time for a power forward. He also ranks 10th all-time in postseason PER.

His 2011 Finals MVP performance will forever define him. Remarkably, he went against LeBron and Dwyane Wade and was the best player in the series. In trademark fashion, he killed the Heat with an array of one-legged fade-aways, step-backs and herky-jerky rim attacks. Udonis Haslem, Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony each tried to stop him and failed:

He averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds for the series – something only Hakeem Olajuwon (’95), Shaquille O’Neal (’00, ’01, ’02, ‘04), Kobe (‘10) and LeBron (’12) have done in an NBA Finals in the last 20 years. Elite company indeed. He was not quite a consistently explosive enough scorer or impactful enough defender to go down alongside those four as one of the top 12 or 14 players ever, but he will not be far behind when lists are compiled by historians down the line.

Nowitzki has put up at least 23 points and 7 boards per game for a season nine different times. Only five players in history have done it more: Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Shaq. He has the stats, he has the longevity and he has the ring.

Of course, prior to 2011 he had his share of potentially legacy-altering postseason failures – most notably in 2007 when the top-seeded Mavs fell in the first round to the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors.

The Don Nelson-coached Warriors were simply a terrible matchup for Dallas, small-balling it up, spacing the court and running the ball down the Mavs’ throats repeatedly. As The Painted Area remembers, it was an “insane style of play” spurred on by an “insane crowd” with an “insane coach orchestrating the whole thing.” Despite winning that season’s MVP award, Dirk was outplayed and masterfully defended by the undersized but pesky Stephen Jackson, shooting just 38% for the series. It was his personal low point.

Meanwhile, the Mavs’ failure to put away the Heat despite a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals was one of the more memorable collapses in recent NBA history – though I maintain that ultra-fishy officiating in Games 3 and 5 and a combined 12-for-41 shooting by Jason Terry and Josh Howard in Game 6 played bigger roles in Dallas losing the series than any Dirk missteps.

It is a shame, because the Mavs’ downfall in ‘06 effectively wiped one of the all-time great individual postseasons from most basketball fans’ memories.

Never forget the 37 points, 15 rebounds and series-deciding three-point play he dropped on Tim Duncan’s Spurs in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals that year. Never forget his masterful 50-point performance in Game 5 of the Conference Finals against the Suns. Never forget that through the first 17 games of the postseason, he averaged 28.4 points, 11.9 rebounds and 49.4% shooting and had ESPN’s Bill Simmons gushing: “Dirk is playing at a higher level than any forward since Bird.” Never forget that he led a team to the Finals with Terry and Howard as his two best teammates – a shocking achievement in retrospect and perhaps his finest.

He has been a franchise player in every sense of the word, playing 17 years for the same team. Only four players have scored over 27,000 points for one franchise: Michael Jordan, Malone, Kobe and Dirk. Not bad for a lanky German who could not prise the Mavs’ No. 14 jersey away from Robert Pack back in 1998.

So where does he rank among the all-time great power forwards?

It is always tricky ranking players historically, but it is especially so with Dirk. His game, with its emphasis on shooting, marks a departure from the traditional power forward’s.

Would he have had the same impact playing in the more physical late ‘80s and early ‘90s, against some of the more bruising power forwards we must compare him against – Malone, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale? On the flip side, would they have had the same impact playing in today’s faster, less post-centric league? It is impossible to say with certainty, so we must judge each of them on their merits and achievements.

Malone and Barkley never won a ring, but would Dirk have won one if his prime had coincided with Jordan’s?

Barkley put up 27.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the ‘93 Finals and it still was not enough to overcome MJ’s Bulls. Dirk triumphed against LeBron in the 2011 Finals, but MJ certainly would not have capitulated and played hot potato with the ball like James did down the stretch in that series.

Meanwhile, Malone occasionally had his issues in the last two minutes of close games, but he was a winner. He led his Jazz to the Finals twice and to the Conference Finals five times. He put up 30 points and 20 rebounds in a playoff game on three different occasions, something Dirk has not done once. Might the ‘90s Jazz have won a title or two if John Stockton had been paired with a prime Dirk instead of Malone? If the answer is not necessarily, then it is unfair to vault Nowitzki ahead of the Mailman in the all-time rankings based on his one ring.

By the same token, what if the refs had not been so Heat-friendly in the 2006 Finals? What if the Mavs had not been handed the first round matchup from hell in 2007 after winning a franchise-record 67 games? What if Mark Cuban had not let Tyson Chandler go in free agency after winning the title in 2011? Dirk could easily have won two or three championships.

Alas, rings matter a great deal but there is too much luck, circumstance and context involved for them to be considered the be-all and end-all. Duncan has five, McHale has three, Dirk has one, Garnett has one, Barkley and Malone have none. They were all brilliant.

If pushed though, I’m ranking Dirk behind Duncan (a better leader and defender) and Malone (a more explosive scorer and the only power forward more durable than him), but just ahead of Garnett (who got past the first round just once in 12 years as the franchise player in Minnesota) and well ahead of McHale (who was never the best player on his team).

Depending on the day I’d place him just above or just below Barkley, who was clearly a more dominant all-round player when dialled in at his peak (25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists in ‘92/93), but was guilty of occasionally reckless shot selection, was a little shaky as a leader and got traded twice during his prime.

Suffice it to say that Dirk is on my Mount Rushmore of power forwards and is, at bare minimum, one of the top 25 players to ever play. He is also, it should be added, the greatest European player of all-time without any shadow of a doubt.

Yet it is in another sense that Dirk’s place in history is greater than any top 20 or top 25 ranking might suggest: he changed the game.

He showed the NBA that a power forward did not have to base his game on power to lead a team to contention. He entered the league at a time when only eccentrics and outliers like Antoine Walker and Sam Perkins shot more than a couple of threes per game from that position. He was a dominant “stretch-4” before the term existed.

More than any other player, Nowitzki ushered in the era of floor-spacing, free-flowing offense and record numbers of three-point attempts. And though old-school purists may bemoan the lack of high quality post play today, Dirk-ball has undeniably made NBA offenses easier on the eye and helped the league reach new levels of popularity.

Nowitzki’s stylistic influence as a shooter is visible throughout the league. He invented the one-legged step-back jumper:

It is a play you now see star players emulating on a regular basis:

Kevin Durant is the deadliest scorer in the game in no small part thanks to his mastering of Nowitzkian step-backs over shorter defenders and, fittingly, he lists Dirk as his idol. Players 6’9” and taller, KD chief among them, are scoring in more dynamic ways than ever from all over the court. As athletic as he is, Anthony Davis is riding a sea of catch-and-shoot jumpers to offensive stardom. LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the ten best players in the league, plays a style so perimeter-oriented for his position that it would have been unimaginable pre-Dirk.

Dirk made it not just acceptable, but desirable to be able to shoot. In the words of Chris Bosh: “Once I saw (Dirk), I said, ‘OK, I want to be able to shoot. I want to be able to go outside. I don’t want being seven feet tall to limit my game.’”

There is no debating this: in the same way that Elgin Baylor pioneered playing above the rim and MJ made everyone want to be like Mike, Dirk has inspired a generation of big men to diversify their games.

It has been a pleasure to watch his career unfold. He will likely become the sixth-leading scorer of all-time sooner or later, but most importantly he should go down as a top-four power forward of all-time and the most influential player of his era. Give it up for him.

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