Dirk Nowitizki had a great season. He had a great playoffs. He was money when it counted in the Finals. He toughed it out on a night that the flu made him look and sound like death climbing off the crapper. He earned the NBA Finals MVP and honestly should have gotten more consideration for the regular season MVP award (compare how well they played with him in the lineup versus how much they struggled when he was gone).
Dirk Nowitzki is a great player and a championship is the cherry on top of his Hall of Fame sundae. He had the type of post-season run we haven’t seen for quite some time and does a lot to silence all of the critics who called him soft – I admit that I was one of those – or suggested that a Nowitzki-led team could never win an NBA title.
One thing it does not do, however, is make him an all-time top three power forward.
Dirk Nowitzki is a fine player. He’s easily in the top ten of current players. Maybe even the top five. But Rick Carlisle be damned, he’s certainly not in the top ten all-time and probably wouldn’t make it into a list of the top ten of the past 30 seasons.
I understand the rush to judgment. After years of posting big offensive numbers, Nowitzki finally has the line on the resume that validates his career to so many people. He did it in a way that leaves no doubt that he was truly the author of his own legacy. When the biggest discussion topic of the series was the all-time status of Miami No. 6 (if you say his name, more columns about him appear – like a basketball Beetlejuice) it’s easy to shift that conversation to the best player of the winning team.
But once the contact high from the smoked remains of the once-vaunted Miami Heat defense fade away, we can put his career in perspective. Is Dirk Nowitzki in the running for one of the NBA’s greatest ever power forwards? Definitely. But he neither started nor finished the series in the top three.
All-time Top 5 PF’s BEFORE the 2011 Finals
All-time Top 5 PF’s AFTER the 2011 Finals
To begin, let’s all agree that Duncan is the G.O.A.T. I could go through his resume, but that seems like a waste of time. Stats, awards, championships, it’s all there. The only way The Big Fundamental wouldn’t end up on the top of this list is if you didn’t believe he was a true power forward. Otherwise the discussion of the league’s best power forward begins and ends with Timmy.
“But Barkley at two? He doesn’t have any rings,” you protest. Yes and yes. Without getting into the fallacy of whether rings are the ultimate measure of individual greatness in a team sport, Barkley’s career numbers – regular season and playoffs – are impressive enough on their own. They’re even more impressive for a guy who played the position at 6’6”. The Round Mound of Rebound nickname has a different meaning for a guy who’s checking in at about twice his playing weight. But for a a decade and a half, it was hard to find a more ferocious player in the paint, pound-for-pound. In 15 of his 16 seasons, he averaged double-digit rebounds, never averaged fewer than 14 points per game and is top-ten all-time in PER and True Shooting.
Then there were his playoff numbers – averaging 23 and 13 in 13 playoff seasons. Barkley’s ’93 playoff run with Phoenix was one for the ages – his 26/13/4 don’t tell the whole story. There were the three 20-rebound games, including 24 boards and 44 points to close out Seattle in the Western Conference Finals. Or his 43-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double earlier in that same series. Or even the 32/12/10 in Game Four of the 1993 Finals. Sir Charles’ biggest fault? Suffering the same fate of so many in the 1990s…Michael Jordan.
If you’re still convinced that, as Kareem would say, the ring is the thing – I present Kevin Garnett. Before forming the New England Chapter of the NBA SuperFriends (which drew far less ire in 2007 than it did in 2011), KG was pack muling the Timberwolves around. Much like Nowitzki in Dallas, Garnett was Minnesota’s “can’t win with him, can’t live without him” centerpiece. With Dirk, his toughness was believed to be the issue keeping him from the promised land. With Garnett, his enormous contract and a team’s inability to surround him with real help, was the stumbling block.
KG was never the scorer that Barkley was, but he was every bit the rebounder and then some. He was never the shooter that Dirk is, but was still a threat when he stepped away from the basket. Plus, who’s going to complain about 22 points a night from a guy who’s also a staple of the league’s All-Defensive team? His run through the 2008 playoffs with the Celtics was respectable (even if Paul Pierce stole the show), but his 2004 post-season was really a show-stopper. Four games with 30 points and 15+ rebounds, including a 32/21 to end the Sacramento Kings in a Game Seven. Three 20-rebound games. A 24/14 average for the playoffs. All the numbers were there and for good measure, he raised the trophy and reminded us that “anything is possible.”
The Dirk/Mailman debate could likely go either way. Their regular season numbers are comparable, with Malone holding a slight edge. Their post-season numbers are similar, with Dirk having an advantage there. Nowitzki gets the nod based in part on his advanced metrics – he’s better in career true shooting, career PER and career win shares per 48 minutes.
Dirk’s creativity and general matchup nightmareishness helped as well. Malone’s strength made him a handful for defenders, but he wasn’t the threat to score from any place on the floor like Nowitzki is. What made Dirk even more devastating this season was the improvement in his post game. It’s a strange statement to make about a seven-footer, but Nowitzki’s bulked up game on the low block meant he could get the ball anywhere on the court and was immediately a threat. Just ask Andrew Bynum, Nick Collison or Joel Anthony who fell victim to Dirk’s drop-step, baseline spin and dunk.
Oh…and Dirk has a ring. It’s not everything, but it does work as a great tiebreaker.
The final chapter hasn’t been written on Nowitzki’s career. In fact, from here on out, it’s all gravy. With the Lakers retooling, Dallas should enter next season as the team to beat in the Western Conference. Dirk will have every opportunity to add to his story. With Garnett nearing the end of his run, it’s not inconceivable that Nowitzki could challenge him for the third spot on the all-time list.
But not now. Not yet.