Is Dirk Nowitzki Still a Top-10 NBA Star Heading into 2012-13?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2012

If Dirk Nowitzki is still a top-10 star in the NBA, ESPN's 2012 player rankings have some explaining to do.

They ranked the Dallas Mavericks' sharp-shooting seven-footer 11th based on the ratings of 104 ESPN experts. Needless to say, the incredulity has already emerged, especially after Dirk came in fifth in the 2011 rankings.

But is there really a case for Nowitzki cracking this year's top 10, or is this just another case of fans clinging to the past—an especially painful case of nostalgia for Mavericks fans wondering when (and if) there will be another title in Dirk era?

These rankings aren't perfect by any means, but it's not because Dirk was ranked too low.

If anything, his rankings were too high in both 2011 and 2012.

Before digging into the reasons for such a claim, let's be clear—Nowitzki probably remains one of the five best scorers in the league along with the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. He's also one of the most unique players the game's ever seen, a big man who's always been more comfortable on the perimeter or falling away from the block.

And while many of the rankings really failed to account for intangible qualities like leadership and postseason experience, it's certainly worth noting that Dirk brings plenty of such things to the table.

It's also worth noting the 34-year-old is hardly in the midst of a steep decline.

Though his 2011-12 season wasn't quite as efficient as others in recent memory, it wasn't inconsistent with the shooting displays he put on throughout the first seven years of his career. Part of that has to do with Dirk taking more three-pointers than he has over the last five seasons.

So if he's an amazing scorer, an iconic veteran, and he's still clinging to his prime, how would a top-10 ranking be unreasonable?

For the same reason it's always been a bit of a stretch: Dirk is a defensive liability.

As long as he's been a liability, Mavericks fans have insisted otherwise. It's never been good enough that he's a one-of-a-kind legend in his own right—he has to be one of the best all-around players in the league for some reason.

The same kind of apologists frequently rush to Steve Nash's defense. It couldn't be that he's just one of the NBA's all-time best distributors and shooters.

ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz offered just such a rationalization a season ago: 

Size doesn't slump, so while Nowitzki might not earn a lot of votes for the NBA's all-defensive team, he's taller than most of his counterparts at the 4-slot. And though he might never be Kevin Garnett, Nowitzki's pick-and-roll defense is smart and efficient. He doesn't overextend himself jumping out and he's always thinking recovery.

When your best attributes on the defensive end are that you're tall and don't overextend yourself on the pick-and-roll, you're probably not a good enough defender to merit consideration as one of the league's very best all-around players.

Calling Dirk's pick-and-roll approach "smart and efficient" is a euphemistic way of saying the guy doesn't make a ton of huge mistakes.

Good for him.

But let's be honest.

This guy has 14 seasons of not moving his feet well, committing soft fouls, failing to challenge shots and offering little-to-no resistance in the post. Sure, height would ordinarily be a defensive virtue, but that's what's made Dirk's phantom D so frustrating.

If he contributed anything whatsoever on the defensive end, you could probably make a case that he's the best power forward in history.

Instead, though, he's frequently described as "the best shooting power forward" in history—yet another nice way of saying he's been an atrocious defender (and not much of an inside scorer).

The Mavs have long designed defensive rotations that "hide" Nowitzki, ensuring he doesn't have to defend any bruisers in the post or fleet-footed scorers. Sure, part of that is an interest in protecting Nowitzki from foul trouble, but the only reason you have to worry so much about foul trouble is that Nowitzki is neither strong nor quick enough to defend the lion's share of power forwards in this league.

For what it's worth, coaches never seem to worry about foul trouble when a great scorer knows how to defend.

Kobe Bryant wasn't selected to nine All-Defensive First Teams because Phil Jackson was saving him from foul trouble. The best scorer in the game has never shied away from getting stops against whomever need be stopped.

He hasn't been pampered with easy defensive assignments.

Of course, the Mavs have remained an incredibly successful team for the last decade despite Dirk's defensive shortcomings.

But it's created some costs for the franchise all the same. You have to wonder if Mark Cuban might have forgone overpaying defensive centers like Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood if his in-house big man could defend the post. Had the Mavericks not felt compelled to go after Dampier, Steve Nash might still be in Dallas.

And you have to wonder if Dirk might not have another ring or two if he were more than a phenomenal scorer.

The answers to those musings are conclusive, but the fact they're even questions reminds us that Dirk is no longer a top-10 player. There's even a case to be made that he never was.