Why Dirk Nowitzki is the most underappreciated NBA superstar of all time
Last Thursday, Dirk Nowitzki gave the NBA’s 30,000-point club its first international member. The Big German reached the milestone in the most fitting way possible — his patented one-legged fadeaway.
There are now six 30,000-point scorers in NBA history, with Nowitzki joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Wilt Chamberlain.
After reaching his greatest individual accomplishment, talking heads wondered where Dirk fits on the list of the greatest players of all-time. To many, his entry into this elite class was as unexpected as it was perplexing. It has felt as if Dirk has played his entire career under the radar. Look at those other names on the list — their reputations are solidifed to the point where hardly any discussion of “Who were the greatest to ever play” can be had without mentioning them. But Dirk? Dirk has endured a long career being overshadowed and underestimated.
Even after making the NBA Finals and winning the NBA MVP in back-to-back seasons (2006 and 2007), Dirk was an afterthought when it came to specifying the top talents of his generation. These honors tended to go to other players: Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, and Jason Kidd. And Dirk didn’t get any love when the next generational wave was in view, either. Players like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and others took all the shine.
And so, at the start of the 2011 postseason, no one saw Dirk coming. Kobe and the Lakers were coming off back-to-back championships; the Spurs finished with the best record in the West; and the young Thunder were a force to be reckoned with. Out East, despite being newly assembled, the Miami Heatles were the title favorites, while the #1 seeded Bulls were well-positioned to out-muscle any Western team they would face in the Finals.
It has to be said that although Dirk was still in his prime, 2011 Dirk wasn’t 2007 Dirk. Making matters worse, the Mavs surrounded him with a borderline medicore supporting cast. The Dallas core that followed up a 2006 NBA Finals appearance with 67 wins in 2007 — Dirk, Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, and Erik Dampier — had been largely broken up.
In 2011, Dirk was surrounded by 38 year old Jason Kidd; a past-his-prime Jason Terry; Shawn Marion, who was a shell of the perimeter threat he was on the Suns; and Tyson Chandler, a solid rim protecter at best.
Behind Dirk’s career-best postseason, the Mavs went on a 12–3 run through the Western Conference, setting up an NBA Finals matchup with Miami. In retrospect, it’s easy to forget how heavily-favored Miami was going into the series. After breezing through the Eastern Conference, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh had erased all doubt concerning their ability to play as a unit. Going into Game 1 of the Finals, the most intriguing question was — will the Mavs win one game?
Following an easy victory in the Finals opener at home, the Heat held a commanding lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2. With six minutes left to play, Wade hit a three-pointer to give Miami a 15-point cushion.
You know what happened next.
After the Mavs’ supporting cast went on a 13–2 run, cutting the Heat’s lead to 4 with 2:30 to go, Dirk went to work.
He hit a 19-footer to cut the deficit to 2; laid in a left-handed lay-up in transition to tie the game with 57 seconds left; connected on a three-pointer to give Dallas a 93–90 lead with 26 seconds to go; and then, with the game tied once again, Dirk drove past Bosh toward the basket, laying it in off the glass to put the Mavs up two with 3 seconds left. After D-Wade missed a half-court heave at the buzzer, the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history was complete, altering the series and multiple legacies in the process.
In two minutes, Dirk had morphed into an unstoppable clutch scorer. It wasn’t just that he had made his final 4 shots while facing another legacy-confirming postseason defeat. Rather, it was the way in which he did it, using an array of skills to score the most important baskets of his career.
I came of age in the post-Jordan era. The greatest NBA Finals performances I had seen firsthand were more dominant than clutch. Iverson’s 48 points in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals was jaw-dropping, but only 3 of those 48 came in the fourth quarter; Shaq’s unfathomable takeover in Game 2 of that series — 28 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists, and 8 blocks — came in a game that was over by the fourth quarter; ditto for Duncan’s borderline quadrouple-double in Game Six of the 2003 Finals; and while Wade’s 43 points and 12 rebounds in Game 3 of the 2006 Finals swung the series, his teammates were the ones who came up big in the game’s final 2 minutes.
Dirk has never had a problem putting up big numbers. But to so perfectly execute against a star-studded team that seemed to have everything in control was its own form of dominance. It might have been better than dominance — because a good case can be made that scoring in the clutch during the most pivotal moment of an NBA Finals series is far more momentous than scoring way more during a phase of the game that is not quite so definitive. Seeing Dirk channel his inner MJ was surreal. He seemed to become a complete player right there on the spot. Nothing could have suprised me after that. And then the fourth quarter of Game 3 happened.
Following Dirk’s 12 straight points in the final 5 minutes, the Mavs had a chance to tie or win the game with 4 seconds left. Down 88–86, Dirk received the inbounds pass at the top of the key, unleashed his signature one-legged fadeaway, and threw up a 16-footer with Haslem doing everything but tackling him. At that precise moment, I would’ve bet anything that the shot was ripping through the net.
It hit the back of the rim. Game over.
It didn’t seem real. I sat in front of my TV muttering to myself over and over — How did that not go in? That’s the level Dirk had reached. I didn’t merely expect it to go in; I was sure it was going in.
At the time, it looked like a bad omen for Dallas, as Miami escaped with a 2–1 series lead. After a minor hiccup in Game 2, the Heat appeared to be back in full control of the series and would be putting it away soon. Nope. The Mavs won three straight en route to their first championship. Along with his first ring, Dirk won the NBA Finals MVP, averaging 26 points and close to 10 rebounds in the series. Further, although he didn’t top the late-game flourishes in Games 2 and 3, he scored 10 points in the fourth quarter of each of the final 3 games, solidifying his “clutch” reputation.
By earning his spot in the exclusive “Champions Club,” Dirk seemingly checked off the final prerequisite standing in his way of joining the greatest players of his generation. Instead, in the summer following the Mavs’ championship, the hottest topic by far was LeBron’s failure to win after spectacularly joining the Heat to do just that. Once again, Dirk was overshadowed by a more appreciated star.
Over the past 6 years, Dirk’s statistics and overall play has steered downward, as it naturally does for any superstar in their mid-to-late 30’s. The Mavs have lost in the first round of the playoffs 4 of the last 5 years. Even so, playing a full season at 38 years old is an accomplishment most of his peers will not be able to replicate.
Naturally, Dirk’s quest for 30k happened quietly. With retirement just around the corner — he has said he will play next season — it’s an appropriate time to wonder where he sits among the best players of all time.
When we discuss the Top 10 players in the post-Jordan NBA, we forget how high Dirk slots. A rough estimate of the rankings might go like this: LeBron, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, Dirk, KG, Wade, Nash, AI, and Kidd. Yet, Dirk may be the most underappreciated superstar on that list.
With the first four guys, it’s fair. But if you were to ask around, I’d expect that KG, Wade, Nash, AI, and Kidd would evoke fonder memories, or at least greater basketball respect, than Dirk, despite his superior resume.
It’s hard to make sense of why that is. Whatever the reason — it’s not basketball related. Garnett’s basketball qualities were amplified by one of the most intensely serious personalities to every play the game; Wade and Kobe are reminiscent of Jordan’s game; Nash and Kidd were assist maestros, with Nash winning two MVP awards and barely missing out on more and Kidd representing the apogee of the floor general point-guard role; AI’s electrifying scoring ability was a sight to behold, and he was a deeply respected and looked-up to player in a way Dirk hasn’t been.
And Dirk, well, Dirk was cut from a different cloth. On top of being foreign, he’s quiet, far from flashy, and played for a team that always embodied his “boring” personality. Regardless, his resume stacks up against the all-time greats.
30,000 career points, 2011 Championship, NBA MVP (2006–07), Finals MVP (2010–11), 13-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA selection; Career stats — 22.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, .475 FG%
And his game helped usher in a revolution in how big men are expected to play the game.
In my book, he has surpassed Malone for second-best power-forward of all time (behind Duncan). His one-legged fadeaway is one of the 5 most unstoppable shots in NBA history — the others are Kareem’s sky hook, Jordan’s fadeaway, Hakeem’s dream shake, and Shaq’s drop step.
Dirk will go down as one of the Top 20 players of all time.
In a way, the deck was always stacked against Dirk. He’s become a victim of circumstance, as his peak coincided with 4 of the top 12 players of all-time: LeBron, the best player since Jordan and arguably the third best player of all time; Kobe, the Jordan-esque second-best shooting guard of all-time; Shaq, the most dominant player ever; and Duncan, who despite being the closest comparison to Dirk in terms of personality and lack of influence outside of basketball, had a higher ceiling, 4 more championships, and greater overall success.
I say all that to say this — when bringing up the best players of the post-Jordan generation, don’t forget to mention the 7-foot German. Dirk is one of the greatest to ever do it, and he will go on to enjoy a level of basketball influence few other players have ever had.