It was May 3, 2007 when Dirk Nowitzki’s stock as a bona fide NBA superstar hit its lowest point. A rabid sea of yellow t-shirt wearing maniacs were howling with unbridled delight as the Golden State Warriors were putting the finishing touches on a 111-86 blowout win in Game Six over the Dallas Mavericks, completing one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history.
Nowitzki’s line? Eight points on 2-of-13 shooting, including 0-of-6 from three-point range.
After that night, the big German’s critics crowed about his reputation for being soft. Where was he when his team needed him most? Wasn’t this just a replay of the 2006 Finals when the Mavs coughed up a chance to take a 3-0 series lead over Miami only to lose four straight? Was Nowitzki cut out to lead a team to a championship?
Once again Dirk is in the midst of a legacy-defining series with the opportunity to re-write his career arc with Dallas taking on the Lakers in the second round. It’s no longer enough for Nowitzki to put up numbers. It’s time to win. In fact, statistically speaking Dirk’s playoff career is pretty sparkling…
|TS% = True Shooting Pct.|
|PER = Player Efficiency Rating|
|WS = Win Shares (estimate of number of wins contributed by a player)|
…all except for that last column. Nowitzki’s scoring hasn’t translated to a slew of postseason wins. 2011 marks the 11th consecutive playoff appearance for Dallas, but in that time the Mavericks have advanced beyond the second round just twice (losing the ’03 WCF to the Spurs and losing the ’06 Finals to Miami) and have been bounced in the first round four times.
Now in his 13th season and approaching his 33rd birthday, Dirk is inching ever closer to a seat in the class of Best Players Never To Win A Championship. But Nowitzki may also be pledging to another fraternity – Best Seven-Footers Never To Win A Championship. When you consider the most dominant tall guys in NBA history – from George Mikan to Shaquille O’Neal – only Patrick Ewing sits without a ring.
The common NBA playoff wisdom is that teams with dominant big men have more success as the game slows down and becomes more of a half-court affair. Except Dirk Nowitzki’s game has never followed conventional wisdom. As arguably the best of the international players that flooded the draft throughout the last decade, Nowitzki was always criticized for playing a European-style game that doesn’t always demand big men to loiter around the paint and play with their back to the basket. While his face-up game and ability to shoot from anywhere has made him a tough cover, it has also been the Mavericks’ downfall in crucial situations when they needed a bucket.
So who’s to blame when a guy with such an unorthodox, yet devastating game is in such danger of finishing his career without a title? The answer: Dirk Nowitzki.
Often when great players fail to win titles, it’s easy to blame the lack of a supporting cast. Who had Dominique Wilkins’ back? Where was Allen Iverson’s help? How did the Pacers survive if Reggie Miller had an off night?
Dirk has never been blessed to be surrounded by a ton of future Hall of Famers, although he’s played with Jason Kidd for the past couple of seasons (and you could argue that Steve Nash will get a good look at Springfield when he’s done). But Nowitzki has had a respectable cast of sidekicks from Michael Finley to Jason Terry to Caron Butler. He’s helped lead the Mavericks to 55 wins or more in seven of his 13 seasons. And he’s taken a team all the way to the Finals.
Yet he’s never been able to put a team on his back in clutch moments and drag them to a win. The greats have all done it. And if Nowitzki hopes to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, he’s going to have to learn how to do it. He took a step in the right direction by helping Dallas recover from a nightmare loss in Game Four of their first round series against Portland to dispatch the Blazers in six.
So far in this second round series against Los Angeles, Nowitzki has continued that. The numbers, as always, have been pretty (averaging 26 points and 10.5 rebounds through the first two games). But this time, he’s not just punching the Lakers in the gut. He’s trying to break their backs as well. Yet as good as he’s been, he’s still facing the two-time defending champs. Dirk will need to find a lot more of that for the Mavericks to have any hope of dethroning L.A once and for all.
Otherwise, we’ll continue to way goodbye to Dirk every May. And we’ll continue to wonder if he will ever be tougher than soft-serve ice cream. All the while, we’ll continue to set a place for him at the table of the NBA’s greatest runners-up.
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