Dirk Nowitzki: Where Does He Rank with the Greatest Ever?

D.S. CorpuzCorrespondent IMay 24, 2011

Dirk Nowitzki: Where Does He Rank with the Greatest Ever?

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    DALLAS, TX - MAY 19:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks runs back down court in the first quarter while taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on Ma
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Lately, much has been said about the man who's led his team to 11 straight playoff appearances, and is pridefully clawing toward the second Finals appearance of his career.

    He is arguably the greatest jump-shooting seven-footer in NBA history.

    He moves with the grace and fleet feet of a player much shorter.

    He is a sacrificial winner that has done everything his team, and his team's owner, has asked of him, and more.

    Still, he needs to win the title to be mentioned in those conversations.  Discussions where a name like Larry Bird could come up and Nowitzki could seriously be considered in his class (though Game 4 versus the Thunder didn't hurt.)

    Until then, where does he stand up?

    Look ahead.

3. Defense and Playoff Performance

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    It pays to start off with Dirk Nowitzki's weak points in a discussion of his greatness in order to see just how far he's come.

    The 12-year veteran has come a long, long way since his days playing in Wurzburg, Germany, but he's always had one fatal flaw on the court:  he's a classic 'tweener.

    For those of you who don't know what I mean, a 'tweener is a player who is, technically, too tall to play and often guard smaller positions, yet lacks the classic skill-set and playing style of a person his size (think Kevin Garnett).

    This has been pretty much a career blessing for the 32-year-old on the offensive side of the court, where he can post up smaller small forwards or use his rare mobility to go up, around and under bulkier power forwards and centers.

    But on the defensive end, he's shown just where this type of versatility can go wrong.

    Nowitski, often in bad timing, has had to guard smaller, more mobile guards who've used there superior speed to blow by the seven-footer for a score, or he's had to matchup with stronger and bulkier post men who easily take advantage of the still rather gangly Maverick.

    The only redeeming upsides in some of these mismatches are that Nowitzki is a hustler, making up for misreads, closeout plays and double-teams with his constant shuffling and court-positioning.  Also, he has, when he's really focused, some of the best hands in the league and has the height and length to naturally disrupt passing lanes and the opposition's forays to the basket.

    Just look at some of his work in the Mavericks' great playoff runs of '03 and '06 when Nowitzki had to, at times, guard the likes of Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace and Amare Stoudemire, often on switches. The Dallas lifer disrupted some many of their games by making them tirelessly work on defense and using his quick feet to nag them into unsavory double-teams and sacrificial passes.

    Another thing on his side defensively is the simple fact that a team that's made the playoffs 11 year's running has to have a solid defensive core. That means few weaknesses, even for upper-echelon offensive squads like the Mavs.

    During their deep '03, '06 and now '11 NBA playoff runs, the team has fought and won some tough battles where the scores were in an un-customary 80 to 90 point range.

    It's safe to say that Nowitzki can be a down-n'-dirty player, and so can his team when needs be.

    Of course, it's hard to say anything about Nowitzki and the Mavs' place in history and not talk about there monumental meltdowns.  Most notably in the '07, '08 and, some say, '10 NBA playoffs.

    First, the one-seeded Mavs fell amidst a riotous sea of yellow t-shirts in the eight-seeded Warriors' remarkable first round upset in 2007.  Then, as if the pain wasn't bad enough, they basically did it again, losing to the fifth-seeded Hornets in 2008.

    With liabilities versus team's with more skilled, aggressive point guards, i.e. Baron Davis and Chris Paul, Dallas' Mark Cuban dealt away the likes of shoot-first guard Devin Harris and nabbed the ultimate playmaker in Jason Kidd, while keeping up-and-comer J.J. Barea and dependable Jason Terry.

    But through it all, Nowitzki has always remained the focal point—Cuban's favorite son—brought to lead them to the promise land.

    On the verge of their second Finals appearance in the Era of Dirk, this may, and may have to be the year.

    Nowitzki, Kidd, Terry, Marion and Stojakovic—the core of this team's talent and experience—are all pushing into their mid-30s, and have to see this year as one of their final opportunities.

    Never mind the tough first-round losses of yesteryear. If the soft seven-footer can finally lead his team to the 'ship it will make up for much, much heartache.

    And, in a previous decade of amazingly dominant Lakers and Spurs squads and upstart eastern behemoths, it's hard to fault the Mavs when often times the pieces almost seemed to fit but didn't quite in such a time of parity and loyalty to the dollar.

    Nowitzki has shown playoff heart many times, as well as lack of it, but this second season has been something to behold as he's hit big shot after big shot and had a Walton and Bird-esque 12-of-15-from the floor, 24-of-24 from the line for 48-points masterpiece in Game 1 of this year's Western Conference Finals.

    His team also horribly dismantled one of the most hallowed franchises in professional sports:  the Los Angeles Lakers, effectively and prematurely ending the career of legendary coach Phil Jackson and sending the team into an off-season scramble to find out what went wrong.

    For Nowitzki and the Mavs, it seems this year is about beating back old ghosts, and the joyous and hard-working Nowitzki has found his time to shine.

2. Teamwork and Leadership

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    Although it's rarely been a question of whose team it is, sometimes the question does come up: who is the leader on the court?

    At times, Jason Terry stood up when Nowitski's magic ran thin.  Early on, it was Steve Nash 'til the trade.

    Nowitzki let's everyone know that he is unselfish and secure enough in his teammates' abilities to defer to them, even in crunch time.

    That doesn't mean that there is anyone better at shooting the ball then, but there's never a moment they aren't gunning for him in those final seconds.

    Over the years, he's become quite adept at passing out of double-teams and kicking to the wings with his back to the basket. But the sheer number of times he shoots and the the, at times, slow set-up of his shots isn't really the type of play that produces quick baskets.  That spills over into his passing game, where his passes are usually the first in a series, hence the average-at-best assist numbers.

    On the boards, Nowitzki always excels because, like all great shooters, he follows, or at least looks like he's going to follow, his shot.  This habit has always led him to slightly-above-average for a seven-foot-'tweener rebounding average.

    The habits he possesses and consistency of his day-in-day-out routine are awe-inspiring to say the least.  Even greats like Nash and Kidd have marvelled over Nowitzki's tireless work ethic.

    That being said, there is really no better leader than one who leads by example, and Number 41 has been the example for 12 All Star-laden years.

    Obviously, when entering the NBA, Nowitzki had to bridge the language barrier, which he did very admirably; at times you can't even notice an accent.

    But the cultural one was undeniably more difficult.  Getting 12 or 13 other players, mostly American-bred at the time of his arrival, to not only play comfortably with an international superstar whose coattails held the team behind him, but also to believe in the guy, was no easy task.

    Perhaps all the years of adjustment have been because of that singular task.  Really, what other team that has been a true championship contender, having reached the Finals as well, in the last 20 years has an irrefutable foreign centerpiece as their main guy? And we're not talking a English-speaking border countries or American college-tutored.

    That's right, Nowitzki's it.

    And he's galvanized this team enough in the last decade or so for practically three significant title runs, and enough Southwest Division titles to brag about.

    The Mavs have always been in the running, and despite being one of the most self-destructive teams in the league—that fact not usually being Nowitski's fault—have always managed to pull out interesting nail-biters of a season year after year.

    Even in the first round disappointments, there was much to see in terms of a young owner's haphazard trading style and a team with all the talent of a championship but mostly just the chemistry of band of outcasts.

    Guys in years past didn't know how to get Nowitzki the ball even when he called for it, especially not in his spots.

    Terry was always more of a shoot-first point, while Barea and Harris were in that mold, stalling the offense at times with hesitant play.  The addition of Kidd has naturally made Nowitski a better leader because he knows that his comfort zone will be found, his shots will come in rhythm and he can be more vocal leader, where Kidd can be the perfect example-setter.

    That's why this Mavs team has proven, after a couple years of working out the kinks and faring injuries, why greatness is in their hands.  

    A solid passing game, dead-on spot-up shooting in the wings and on the elbows and hard follow-ups? This is Dirk Nowitski's primary game plan, and everyone's following the leader.

1. Shooting and Poise in the Clutch

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    Here is Nowitski's bread and butter.

    The soft and light follow through, the assuredness in nearly every shot.

    His range and touch was legendary early on, especially for a "big man", but could he hit them when it counted most?

    Many times he has.

    Think about the clutch jumpers in the '06 playoffs versus the Spurs, or icing the Blazers with a three in a nutty Game 7 finish in the '03 playoffs.

    He can come up big, and does so time and again.

    But, as was previously mentioned, his size and style needs the constant and consistent delivery, which has faltered in earlier years, much like the season outcome.

    There can be no doubt that Nowitski will hit that shot when he has to.  Yes, Terry is clutch and quick, but given a good pass or just enough time, Nowitzki is as close to a sure thing as Dwyane Wade or a zonin' Kobe Bryant.

    He simply has too much height and ability to get the exact shot he wants, and the shot-fake repetoire is Bird-like at times.

    As far as poise goes, Nowitzki has lost his cool on several occasions in clutch moments. Most notably, the '07 playoff disaster against Golden State, where he was actually hit on the back by an errant pass at one point, but more importantly, looked like he had lost complete confidence in his team at game's end.

    When Nowitzki feels like his teammates are giving up on him, or in just getting him the ball, he will whine at times, but in the last several years he's gotten much more patient within the offense, and in just knowing where to be with certain players on floor.  Of course, with Kidd that pretty much doesn't matter.

    He's looked less flustered during mistake-prone moments of the game in the last two years, and has found more ways to get to the line, balancing attack-the-basket and pull-up shots on a higher plane than ever before (hence the 24-for-24 performance the other night)

    Reminding everyone as well: don't foul Nowitzki on a shot in a close game, ever.

    This guy is somewhere around the Jack Sikma-Larry Bird accuracy mark in free throws, and he could likely shoot all net with his eyes closed in a snow storm on a pitch black night with a bent rim.

    Let's just say he shot 91.5-percent last year, 91.5 freakin' percent!

    So, Nowitzki has the paper game like no other with career averages of 23 points, eight-and-a-half boards and nearly three assists for his regular season season career, and he ups the points and rebounds several apiece in the playoffs.

    Simply put, this guy comes to play, to score and hopefully win every post-season.  He should feel lucky that the last decade is over, and with it, it's juggernaut dynastic franchises, and just look forward to this new one in which the pieces seem to fit better than ever.

    So, where does Dirk Nowitzki stand among the great tweener small forwards of all-time.  Let's just say if they win the title this year, he's in the top five.

    But more on that list later.