Now that Dirk Nowitzki’s finally won an NBA title, the pundits are talking about him joining the list of all-time great players. So I was wondering—where does he stand now, and how high could he go? (Disclaimer: Never been a big Dirk guy. I honestly thought he was done after he lost to Golden State in the first round in 2007. But he proved me wrong.)
When Bill Simmons ranked the best players of all time in his Book of Basketball in 2010, he put Dirk at No. 37, which I actually thought was kind of high. Simmons seems to think that Dirk has made a huge leap this season. He’s suggested that winning a championship could push Dirk past other power forwards like Karl Marlone or Charles Barkley who never won one. In his last column for ESPN, he declared that Dirk is now one of the top 20 greatest players of all time (Mark Jackson said the exact same thing at the end of Game 6).
Is Dirk really one of the greatest 20? That’s pretty hallowed company. Let’s break it down:
Dirk has been the best player, and only superstar, on a Dallas Mavericks team which has won 50 games and made the playoffs every year since 2000; they’ve won 60 games three times, including the 2006-07 season where they finished with a 67-15 record, the sixth-best record in NBA history. They’ve made two NBA Finals—winning impressively this year and blowing it in 2006, with some assistance from historically lousy refereeing–and made four Conference Finals. Dallas always seemed like it would take a back seat to the Spurs or the Lakers in the Western Conference—they didn’t play enough defense, they didn’t have enough stars, they didn’t have the toughness to withstand adversity. In 2006 they seemed to make a breakthrough when they beat the Spurs in an epic seven-game series (Dirk was amazing in that series, averaging 30 and 12, and he had 37-15 to close them out in Game Seven), and they were cruising against Miami in the Finals when it fell apart, and they ended up losing four straight. But after another collapse next year, when they finished with that 67-15 record but lost to Golden State in the first round of the playoffs (the first time a #1 seed ever lost to an #8 seed), Dallas looked like it was broken. I thought they were finished when they made this amazing run in the playoffs to win the championship.
Over all, this is a remarkable level of consistency. And the fascinating thing is that, if you look at Dirk’s game, it doesn’t seem like he is the caliber of player who can single-handedly make a team as good as Dallas has been for a decade.
Defensively he is, at best, mediocre—he is a horrible individual defender who lacks foot speed and athleticism, a passable team defender who uses his size and instincts to make up for that lack of agility, and a solid defensive rebounder (he is a very poor offensive rebounder, both because of his lack of athleticism and hops and because his offensive game is so far from the basket). Guys like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were bad individual defenders but great team defenders. The only superstar who plays defense as bad as Dirk is his old buddy Steve Nash.
Offense is obviously where Dirk shines. He is a seven-footer who can shoot an un-blockable turnaround jumper behind his head from anywhere on the floor all the way to three-point range. And Dirk is not just a great shooter for a big man—he’s one of the best shooters of any size in NBA history. It would be even money, him vs. Ray Allen or Chris Mullin or Reggie Miller in a game of H.O.R.S.E., jumpers only. Add to this that he can take the ball twenty-five feet away from the basket and create a shot off the dribble, at seven feet tall, and at the end of his move he can lift up with that behind-the-head jumper, and he is basically un-guardable.
But honestly, his stats really do not compare with any of the great scorers in NBA history. Dirk’s best seasons were in 2004-05 (26.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg) and 2005-06 (26.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg). That’s really good, but guys like Dominique Wilkins, Earl Monroe, George Gervin, Pete Maravich, and Rick Barry have all had multiple seasons which dwarf those numbers, and nobody ever talks about them being Top-20 players. Even adjusting for pace Dirk is not close—in the last four years, arguably his best as a pro, he has never averaged more than 24.7 points or 8.6 rebounds. The issue with Dirk is that he gets all of his points the same methodical way—he gets very few cheap points like put-backs or breakaway dunks, because he just doesn’t have that type of game. It’s not just athleticism either—Larry Bird was less athletic than him, and he got plenty of cheap buckets.
Where he really shines is efficiency. Dirk has crazy-good shooting percentages across the board, because he is a freakishly good free-throw shooter. He pretty much averages a 47-40-90 for field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages every season. His field goal percentages aren’t great for a big man—Shaq shot 60% his whole career, and Tim Duncan was always around 50%, but add in those three-point makes and his insanely good free-throw rate, and Dirk is as efficient as those guys, in terms of points per shot.
Still, the number don’t seem to support Dirk’s case, or even explain why Dallas has managed to be so good even though it’s just been Dirk and a bunch of role players. You actually have to watch Dallas play to figure out why they’re so good, and what Dirk’s value is.
The secret to their success is this: Nowitzki is a seven-footer who is dangerous from anywhere on the court. He doesn’t have to establish post position ten feet from the basket like Duncan to become a threat. He can catch the ball at the elbow, at the three-point line, or the post, and instantly becomes deadly. Now, there are plenty of guys who are dangerous from anywhere on the floor—the Mavericks just wiped the floor with two of them in the Finals. But none of those guys are seven feet tall. Having your seven-foot power forward be dangerous at twenty-five feet completely changes the game for a defense, and the entire Mavericks offense is built around this fact—when they run a pick-and-roll with Dirk and J.J. Barea, you notice that the tiny Barea somehow gets all the way to the rim, but you forget that a big reason why is that the defense has no idea what to do when Dirk sets that pick. Do you have your own seven-footer follow him out to the three-point line when he pops away from the screen? The Lakers never did, because none of their bigs were comfortable at that distance, and Nowitzki drained wide-open three after three, or Barea just sliced through a confused defense for a layup. The pick-and-roll is the bread and butter play of the NBA, and if you run it enough times defenses just learn how to play you. But Dallas’ pick and rolls are always an adventure, because they always force the defense to do something it doesn’t want to do.
The Mavericks end up playing a style of basketball that is counterintuitive—common wisdom says the best teams, especially in the NBA, which has a crazy-long distance three-point line and insanely big and insanely athletic players, get the most easy baskets, which means the most layups and dunks. The Mavericks consistently rank dead last in the league in points in the paint—that’s what happens when your power forward gets all his points from twenty-foot jumpers. But what should be a formula for disaster ends up making them unstoppable—Dirk’s presence forces teams to adjust their lineups, which creates further mismatches, and ends up creating all kinds of gaping holes in your defense. When Dallas really has it going it looks like all of those jumpers are just magically going in, but actually they’re going in because the defense is being turned on its head. Miami looked great challenging those shots early in the series, but Dallas adjusted and ending up shredding them just like they shredded everybody else.
Unique is not a word you should use lightly, as my high school journalism advisor constantly was telling us. It’s only meant for things that are actually one-of-a-kind. But Dirk is unique. When Dallas has the ball he is simply a conundrum which cannot be solved—sure he may miss a bunch of shots and look bad, sure he may get his shot blocked at the rim by high-flyers, but when it comes down to it there’s nothing you can do—there is no way to guard a seven-footer who can shoot, off the dribble, a jump shot which is as reliable as Reggie Miller’s.
He is also a really clutch player—and really, he was one even before this playoffs. Dirk got a reputation for being a choker because of the 2006 Finals and the loss to the Warriors the next year. He was pretty bad in 2006—he didn’t like contact, Udonis Haslem put his hands all over him and made him uncomfortable, and he hadn’t completely perfected his repertoire yet. But I don’t fault him too much for the Warriors loss—Don Nelson knew how to guard him, and he had the perfect players to do it. If Dirk faced Stephen Jackson today he would destroy him. Outside of those two years, Dirk’s playoff resume is actually really good—he demolished Kevin Garnett on Minnesota a few times early in his career, he killed Tim Duncan in San Antonio, he wiped the floor with Rasheed Wallace in Portland. The last two first-round playoff exits have not been on Dirk—his team just wasn’t good enough.
Is all of this enough to make him a Top-20 player, despite the fact that he is mediocre on one entire half of the floor, and his numbers are not particularly good? According to Bill Simmons’ list, top 20 would put him past Isaiah Thomas, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, and Kevin Garnett and put him up there with Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Julius Erving. (Simmons seems to suggest that the championship might put Dirk ahead of Malone and Barkley, and possibly make him the second-best power forward ever, behind Duncan. I don’t think he’s passed any of those guys yet–if he wins another one he does. There’s no way he passes Duncan at this point in his career).
I’m gonna have to say yes. Look at the makeup of this Mavericks team the last decade (in no reasonable estimation should Jason Terry be the second-best player on a championship team, and he almost was just that on two championship teams with Dirk), and consider how consistently good they’ve been, and throw in this championship run—a run in which they embarrassed the defending champions and favorites, and made chumps out of two of the best three players in the NBA, who had ganged up on the league. Dirk has less help on this team than Kobe ever had, than Isaiah or Bird or Magic ever had, than Jordan ever had. The only comparable championship team I can think of is Duncan’s second championship, when the Admiral was on his last legs and Ginobili and Parker were rookies. But at least you had those guys, even if they were young or past their prime. There aren’t even any other All-Stars on the Mavericks roster. I mean, no one’s even close to being an All-Star. I still haven’t figured out how Dirk’s done it. But I give him credit. He’s one of the best of all time.