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Dirk Nowitzki vs. Paul Pierce: Debating the Best Pick of the 1998 NBA Draft

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Dirk Nowitzki vs. Paul Pierce: Debating the Best Pick of the 1998 NBA Draft
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The following is a debate article I wrote with my pal and Dallas native Glenn Yoder of boston.com in advance of Monday night's game between the Celtics and Mavs in Beantown. (We'll be there, of course, one shaking his fist at the other after every big basket.)

Since Glenn had the idea and it was originally published on DallasBasketball.com this morning, he'll take it away with the intro below...

It's a simple question, really. If you could take anyone in the 1998 NBA draft, knowing what we do today, who do you take? It’s clearly a two-man race: Paul Pierce vs. Dirk Nowitzki.

"Wow, tough. I go Pierce, by a nose," boston.com Celtics blogger Gary Dzen told me. "Pierce is a better defender. Dirk is a better offensive player, better shooter."

My guess is he just says that because he has to. To me, it’s a no-brainer—and not just because I'm a loud Pierce critic and a Mavericks homer who recently witnessed Dirk reach the 20,000-point plateau.

As erudite NBA fans know, we’re talking about two very different players stylistically that nevertheless have been intertwined since being chose ninth and 10th in the 1998 NBA draft. During their rookie seasons, The Dallas Morning News routinely humiliated Nowitzki by printing his stats next to the admittedly more NBA-ready Pierce's numbers each week.

But after 11-and-a-half seasons, one MVP (Nowitzki), one Finals MVP (Pierce), and one-and-a-half championships between them, the pair are somehow still worth comparing.

Today, they both find themselves on contenders (most would argue that the Celtics' title aspirations are more legitimate, though I'll reserve judgment until we see how durable Kevin Garnett is), teams for which the "window is closing."

The Mavs are built to win now: specifically, before Dirk's prime is over. The Celtics are built to win now: that is, before Pierce's prime is over—or before Garnett's body falls to pieces.

So, on the eve of the team’s first meeting this season, I asked my fellow journalist, former (Quincy, Mass.) Patriot Ledger sportswriter and current Bleacher Report staffer Tim Coughlin, for his take on a few aspects of the Dirk vs. Pierce debate (though my guess is that his response isn’t far off Dzen’s).

Tim, by the way, was also my college roommate and is as big a Celtics homer as I am for the Mavs (but he's way nicer about it). This led to many sleepless nights at Northeastern University, arguing the merits of Pierce—whom, if I didn’t already mention, I can’t stand—and talking up the NBA potential of then-Northeastern star Jose Juan Barea.

But this debate is about Dirk and Pierce. This ought to be fun.

 

1. First things first. You’ve got the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft. Who do you take now?

GY: I take Dirk 100 times out of 100. No question about it.

I’ll get into all this more as we go on, but to start, Pierce is an ordinary superstar to me. He’s a superstar, no doubt about it, and he can score at will and stuff a box score.

But he’s not a special talent like Nowitzki. Dirk is a player unlike one the NBA has really ever seen (besides some overly obvious comparisons to Larry Bird, see below) and has a lot of overlooked qualities to go with his heralded offensive arsenal.

He has an unmatched work ethic, he adds a new dimension to his game every year, and, thus, somehow keeps improving.

No low post game? He’ll develop it.

Can’t pass out of double teams? He worked that to perfection, too.

Not vocal in the locker room? Oh...a work in progress. But as far as being a leader on the court and in practice, there are few like him.

And perhaps my favorite aspect of Dirk is the fact that he doesn’t get caught up in the “acting like a star” thing—he’s fiercely private off the court, while he’s all business on the court. No unneeded melodrama, like wrapping a bandage around his head after losing a playoff series or faking a knee injury just to return a hero in the NBA Finals (both part of Pierce’s knuckle-headed past).

In contrast, Pierce is a scorer, and he’s got some improving defense, but he’s also whiny, needed a lot of time to mature emotionally in the league, and finally came into his own when he had two of the best leaders in the NBA put around him.

If that had never happened, this debate wouldn’t be open for discussion. It never really happened for Dirk (maybe if Kidd was in his prime), and yet we’re still talking about him. What does that tell you?

 

TC: It's certainly not an easy decision, but there's a couple of ways to look at it.

From the Mavericks' perspective, was taking Nowitzki over Pierce the "right" call? This may come as a surprise to hear from a Celtics fan, but I don't really think you can argue otherwise.

The player he's become has to be all the Mavs hoped for and more, and he's a seven-footer with an outside shot. Furthermore, aside from Shawn Bradley, Chris Anstey, and Brunov Sundov (yeah, I just name-dropped Bruno Sundov), the Mavs were sorely lacking in the height department at the time. So I believe they made the right call.

In a vacuum, though? That's another story.

Team needs/status aside, Pierce is the slightly more valuable player. He was the safer pick then, and he's proven to be the safer pick now.

Dirk is a more efficient scorer, but, when it comes down to it, Pierce is a more complete player. When you put him in the game, small forward is spoken for. There are no tradeoffs to worry about. Opposing coaches don't really try to pose matchup problems for Pierce because there isn't much to exploit—on either end. He's as strong as he is quick, he's the ideal size for his position, and he's clever and stubborn enough to make something happen in nearly any situation.

As much as Dirk's so-called uniqueness is necessary to what makes him so good, it does also bring with it a level of exploitability and predictability. This may not be in a major capacity for either concern, but it's there.

A player guarding Dirk doesn't have to worry as much about him driving, passing, or even posting up as he does about him pulling up to shoot. (I will grant Dirk underrated status on his post-up game, though it's not a consistent threat and I'm not sold on his ability to pass on the move.) That player can play Dirk to shoot and, more often than not, will be right.

With Pierce, he's just as likely to drive all the way to the hole, in his reckless-but-effective style, as he is to suddenly pass or break stride, recoil away from the defender, and shoot his patented jumper. If the defender guesses wrong, oftentimes Pierce will have him in "in the popcorn popper," as Tommy Heinsohn calls it, and jump into him to draw the foul.

Pierce is also the better defender. He was much more aggressive and reliant on sheer talent defensively in the early part his career, contending for the league lead in steals and also blocking plenty of shots, but he's become a very good scheme defender who can still give opposing players trouble on a man-to-man basis.

Dirk probably gets more flak for his defense than he deserves and is actually only slightly behind Pierce in defensive win shares, according to basketball-reference.com, but he can be attacked through picks and screens when guarding the perimeter and isn't a good enough shot-blocker to represent the intimidating inside presence a big man should.

Exaggerated? Maybe it sounds that way. And I acknowledge this battle is a hard one to fight with stats, as I fully admit Dirk is the more efficient player—the fifth most among active players in PER, in fact. But there is enough truth to Dirk's shortcomings that I think it's more than fair to argue that Pierce is the less exploitable player to have on the court.

And when you're talking about two guys who are each in the top 15 in every significant overall metric (PER, offensive and defensive win shares, Hall of Fame probability) among active players and are close enough in value to even prompt this debate, maybe that's the most important thing.

That championship ring doesn't hurt, either.

 

2. Why do Celtics fans hate Dirk? Is there similar backlash over the Pierce/Dirk debate here in Boston (even though the C’s never had a chance to draft Dirk anyway)? Or is it because he’s the closest thing to Larry Bird since Larry Bird?

GY: Since moving to Boston from Dallas in 2003, I've seen the highs and lows of the Celtics fans' opinion on this debate. Last January's game in Boston was the indisputable bottom floor, as the Celtics ripped the Mavs by a 124-100 margin and Dirk was just 4-of-17 shooting.

Two fans behind me carried a one-side debate: "Dirk's old and could never carry his team," said one. "Yeah, Dirk sucks now," agreed his mutually uninformed friend.

Rewind to March 30, 2005, when Dirk posted a cool 36 points in as many minutes en route to a 112-100 victory over the hapless C's. As Dirk was putting the game away, another group of fans within earshot began comparing his game to Larry Bird. Yes, that Larry Bird.

The next day, Peter May wrote in The Boston Globe, "Dirk was Larry. Well, he looked and played a lot like Larry Bird last night in a tour de force that had a lot of Celtics watchers reflecting on the Glory Days and No. 33."

That's as high as praise comes from Celtics observers. And honestly, Dirk is the closest thing to Bird since Larry Legend. He’s got a deft outside shooting touch, a surprising (and overlooked) post-up game, he can shoot over defenses with his height, he’s great at passing out of double teams (as mentioned), and he’s even an occasional defender (though, honestly, he best defensive move is that awkward slap at the ball in traffic thing—but it is surprisingly effective).

Oh, and they’re both tall, blond, white guys, but let’s forget about that for a moment.

 

TC: To be honest, I'm not too aware of any anti-Dirk Nowitzki sentiment in Boston. If it's there, it's probably more because we like to rag on opposing teams' best players and tall white guys who tend to look a little awkward (check and check).

We do also like to complain about players we wish we had on our teams ("Why can't we get players like that?" is a common refrain in the Beantown bleachers and airwaves when we either had or almost had a star), so there could be something to that.

Though, like you said, Dirk was already off the board when the Celtics picked, so it's not a "we coulda had him" situation—and, even if so, we got an amazing player ourselves. We were thrilled beyond belief to get Pierce; it was like reassurance that losing out on Tim Duncan wasn't part of some kind of curse.

I also don't think Celtics fans today are even really consciously aware of the fact Pierce was drafted right behind Dirk the way Mavericks fans might be. Or we don't commonly associate the two players in our minds as much, at least, as interesting a comparison as it is.

That's only natural, though, considering Dallas decided between the two and maybe looked bad for a year while Pierce's more NBA-ready game and the Celtics' sub-mediocre team made him an instant star.

So maybe the Bird thing carries some weight. The similarities certainly do. "Similarities" could even be an understatement, so it may be that there is some jealously that Dirk's not in green. Again, who wouldn't want a seven-footer with his game?

More likely, though, is that there is some resentment that Dirk gets those comparisons when we all know he has a lot left to achieve before he can really carry the mantle of "The Next Bird." Call it tough love and looking out for Larry Legend's legacy more than anything else. That's my reading of it.

 

3. Why is it so easy to dislike Pierce? And how can you cheer for him?

GY: OK, this one isn’t totally serious, but it’s also not a complete joke. Pierce has long been one of the most embittered players in the game (I always felt like even when things were going well, he was annoyed that he never got enough respect to feed his ego).

The nadir, quite obviously, came in 2007 when he complained, “I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team.” Now, that’s leadership.

I will admit that the Big Three experiment has led me, and probably most other NBA fans, to gain respect for Pierce. When the Garnett trade went down, I told anyone who would listen that the only way this thing failed to net a championship was going to come from Pierce. I envisioned Pierce tiring of KG getting the most credit of The Big Three, predicting that eventually this frustration would destroy their chemistry.

Much to my surprise (chagrin?), Pierce bought into the ubuntu thing, took a backseat (sort of) to the team’s big-picture plan, and embraced a leadership role (sort of). It led to a championship with Pierce, not KG, taking home Finals MVP. Still, it took a lot to make that happen.

Now, I know C’s fans love Pierce because he stuck with the team through thick and thin. But did he really? If you’re openly griping about your inferior teammates (one of my biggest pet peeves, like when Shaq was traded to Phoenix, and he ripped his ex-colleagues, “No one is asking me to play with Chris Quinn or Ricky Davis. I'm actually on a team again.” Yuck), how can they trust you?

This is where the leadership question comes in. Dirk may not be the most vocal leader, even if he’s worked on it, but when he gives the press a quote about lack of effort, his teammates almost always respond. That’s because they know he’s the man in Dallas, and because when he speaks, it carries a lot of weight. That’s a leader to me.

To look at it another way, take simply results: Pierce was the man on a bad team with little around him, got some major (that’s an understatement) help, and became one of the men (no longer THE man) who won a championship.

Meanwhile, Dirk has been the man on a team that has nine straight 50 win seasons, sometimes with pretty strong talent, sometimes (like last year) without much. He took them to the Finals with a supporting cast that Pierce wouldn’t have gotten out of the first round with, and would have been the easy pick for Finals MVP, had games 3-6 not gone horribly awry.

Then again, as you said, you can’t discount the championship count: Pierce 1, Nowitzki 0. That’s a conversation-ender a lot of the time, even if you’re not looking at all the little factors.

 

TC: There have been plenty of times when I've been frustrated with Pierce, but to me he's ultimately endearing because he's a real person who says what's on his mind and wears his heart on his sleeve. More than most pro athletes, he feels like someone you know—someone you "get," even.

We've watched him grow in Boston, not just as a player but as a person and a neighbor. He came from Lakers country in Inglewood, Calif., winced when he was picked by the Celtics, then came to love it here. As he said in his admittedly fluffy "as told to a Globe reporter" blog on boston.com, "Now I feel like Boston is MY city. I embrace it and I love it."

And I believe him. That blog entry is only a month old, but I've heard him saying things like that for years.

Remember that Pierce was drafted onto a pretty bad team with a coach in Rick Pitino who was in over his head. By his third season Pierce was putting up 25 points per game (despite entering the season as a recovering stabbing victim), and, as soon as Pitino was gone, led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals in his fourth year while averaging 26 points, seven rebounds, and two steals per game.

He was basically Dwyane Wade without a Shaq (sorry...shouldn't have brought that up in the company of so many Mavericks fans).

The following season he averaged 26 points again and took the team to the Eastern Conference Semis, losing again to the defending conference champion Nets.

Then Danny Ainge took over. You know the rest: He blew up this playoff team by trading Antoine Walker to the Mavericks, and the Celtics languished in mediocrity for the next four years, only earning a brief respite in 2004-05, when Walker was brought back in the fold.

In that season's playoffs, Pierce famously elbowed a clawing Jamaal Tinsley off him and got himself ejected in an overtime victory in Game Six of the first round. The ensuing controversy, which included him showing up to a postgame press conference with a bandage on his head to mock Tinsley's flop, lost his team the momentum with a Game Seven loss in Boston. Not good.

That was dumb; there's no debating that. But while so many players these days are overly PC or overly macho, Pierce just kind of is himself. The stupid things he's said and done have generally been things you secretly know you'd want to do (but in most cases not actually do) if you were in his shoes.

Can you blame Pierce for being sick of averaging over 25 points per game in five different seasons but having the only other All-Star he's ever played with traded away (twice!) after making the playoffs the previous year? (That's not an exaggeration—Walker really is the only other Celtic to make an All-Star team between 1992-93 and 2007-08, and he was a pretty sloppy All-Star at that.)

Pierce didn't really go as far as Shaq did with his comments, and, while I hate to hear him say it, if I ended up playing for the Lakers and my team kept hitting the reset button for rebuilding mode, I'd want something to give too.

And he was right. The team needed to play for now, and if his demands precipitated the Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett trades and the resulting championship, that behavior is all the more excusable.

 

What do you think? Vote in the poll above and/or post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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