His dominance has left fans wondering if he can lead a veteran Mavericks squad back to the Finals, and if he will be able to exorcise his postseason demons in the process.
But really these playoffs, and the sustained greatness that Nowitzki has shown thus far, are merely the reflection of a great career. Truthfully, Nowitzki has been this good for years now. He just doesn’t play with the flash and power that would highlight his skills the way the national spotlight of the playoffs has.
When all is said and done, 2011 will likely be viewed as one of Nowitzki’s best seasons in the NBA, largely due to his heroic postseason efforts. But a look at his career numbers reveals that this is simply not the case. While Nowitzki has been his normal, dominant self this season, his points, rebounds and field-goal percentage are actually down from some of the gaudy totals he posted from 2002-2009.
Nowitzki has taken his game to another level in this year’s playoffs, but it is not as if he has suddenly become more talented than ever. Heck, this isn’t even the first time we are seeing him go to this level.
In reality, the Dirk we are seeing right now is the same Dirk we have been seeing for the last 13 seasons. He is great now and was great last year, just as he was great eight years ago. At no point in his career should this have been in question.
I would say that Dirk is who we thought he was, but these playoffs have shown that fans have not given the big German enough credit up to this point. If it is all the rage to fawn over Dirk’s 40-point performances and make Larry Bird comparisons, then it is only fair to point out that these bits of hyperbole would have been just as appropriate any of the last three seasons as they are now.
This leaves me wondering; with a title, where does Dirk rank all time? And where does he rank without a championship?
For me, Dirk is currently hovering around No. 25 on the list of the all-time greatest. He has passed players like Allen Iverson, George Gervin, Patrick Ewing and John Stockton, and has his sights set on Rick Barry, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
If his career ended today, Dirk would fall just short of this group, mostly because he doesn’t have a championship to his name. Rick Barry won a title, and has career averages that are very similar to Dirk’s. Pippen and Garnett both have rings, and are helped by the fact that they were centerpieces on great teams that won it all.
But Nowitzki would leapfrog them if he wins a ring.
Nowitzki’s most apt statistical comparison of the group is Barry, who was Dirk’s equal from the field and a surprisingly comparable player overall. But Barry really only had 12 great years. Dirk’s style of play suggests that he will last at least another four or five seasons in the NBA, and expecting another two or three great campaigns is completely reasonable.
If Dirk wins a ring and sticks around for another four or five years, he will surpass Barry.
While Pippen was undoubtedly a better defender, he was never the all-around scorer and face-of-the-franchise-type leader that Nowitzki is. He was never the best player on his team (save for Jordan’s brief baseball interlude), and never demanded all of opponents’ defensive attention the way Dirk does and has for his entire career.
Garnett has certainly been a flashier player and has gotten more hype than Dirk, but a 2011 Mavs championship would leave them both with one title. At this point, the fact that Dirk has been a more efficient scorer, better shooter and is surprisingly comparable on the boards would become hard to ignore. A ring would definitely give him an edge.
Then we get to the Malone/Barkley group. In my mind, a championship would separate Dirk from Malone, but possibly not Barkley. Let me explain.
While Malone is one of the best all-time regular-season players in NBA history, I remember watching him in the playoffs and thinking that he looked scared. Not scared like Chris Webber, who was seemingly incapable of showing up in big moments, but scared enough that he didn’t have that championship swagger—that extra little bit of confidence that assured him of success.
Karl Malone hoped he would be successful in the playoffs; great champions know that they will be successful.
Maybe this extra little bit is as small as two or three percent. Maybe it is barely noticeable for 99 percent of the season. But in the end it can separate champions from also-rans. Fair or not, Malone’s legacy is that of an also-ran. As of right now, so is Dirk’s.
But this season Dirk seems to be tapping into something extra. Where that extra little bit seemed to escape him before, it seems fully awakened now. A championship ring would put him over the top. His greatness would surpass Malone’s, even though the career averages of the "Mailman" are second to none.
Charles Barkley is a different story.
To me, Barkley doesn’t get enough credit. I put him neck and neck with the greatest 15-20 players the league has ever seen. He is that rare player who possessed that extra little bit that champions have, but was never able to realize it playing against Michael Jordan.
A Mavericks championship would put Dirk ahead of Barkley in the minds of most fans and it would be a fair judgment. Legacies are ultimately built on championships and one title versus zero is all that would really need to be said.
However, if Barkley had won a ring, I think this conversation would change completely. Instead of passing the "Round Mound of Rebound" in a historical perspective, a championship would simply put Dirk on the same level.
But Barkley never got his, so it is only fair to assume that if Dirk does, he would be considered the greater player—even though my memories of watching them play tell me they are equals.
If the Mavs win a title, Dirk Nowitzki will take a giant leap in the way fans remember him. Instead of being remembered as simply a great player who could never get it done, he will become one of the best of all time.
A great career without a championship will leave Nowitzki somewhere above the Rick Barry/Kevin Garnett group. A title this year will erase all doubt and move him ahead into even more transcendent company.
Like I said, I currently rank Nowitzki somewhere around the 25th greatest player in NBA history. A championship would move him into the 15-20 range.
Either way, this postseason should serve as a wake-up call for fans who have ignored Dirk’s quiet greatness. This is who Dirk Nowitzki is. The greatness you are seeing now is not a fluke; it is an accurate reflection of his career.
Whether he is 15th all time or 25th, he is still one of the best. Fans should savor the experience of watching him because, as Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant have shown us this year, greatness can disappear at any time, and we never know how many more runs a player like Nowitzki has in him.