by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

I was away with friends as the 2006 NBA Playoffs reached their apex, when Dirk Nowitzki was knocking down jumpshot after jumpshot to push the Mavericks past the Spurs and Suns and into the Finals against the Heat, all in very entertaining fashion.

In that spring’s 23-game (most he ever played in one postseason) Playoff run, Dirk averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds per game and hit countless momentum-changing shots. At more than one point during the proceedings (but certainly his epic 50-point performance in Game 5 against the Suns), the question was posed: Who would you rather have shooting a jumper from the free-throw line extended—Karl Malone or Dirk?

In Karl Malone, we were talking about the second highest scorer in NBA history, a player who—copious free throws and corny hand-behind-the-head dunks notwithstanding—built his Hall of Fame career largely on the strength of his 17-footers. And cats were comparing some “soft” German’s offensive skill set to The Mailman’s?

Forget Malone’s name for a second (even if their similarity scores have grown awfully close)—the fact was that in 2006, it was still awfully premature to be putting Dirk into any type of “all-time greats” conversation.

The Dirk doubters who had been looking dumb throughout the ’06 season/Playoffs got a little comfort when the Mavs blew a 2-0 Finals lead to the Heat (with a huge assist from the whistle-happy refs) and even more when Dirk followed up his ’07 MVP campaign (even if he had definitely been better in’06) with a brutal disappearing act in the first round against the 8-seeded Warriors, who out-worked Dirk and the Mavs over every inch of the floor during a historic (and fatal to SLAM 109) upset.

But just when people thought they had Dirk pegged—great scorer, shies away from tough moments and tough opponents—Dirk went back in the lab. He grinded. He honed. His key numbers didn’t get appreciably better (excepting ’10-11, when he shot a career-best 52 percent from the floor), but even as he aged, his stats sure didn’t get worse.

Whatever post-season failures Dirk and the Mavs had, he still put up big numbers. The type of numbers that have him looking like a very good bet to reach top 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list himself before he retires. And then, in June of 2011, with perhaps some karmic payback in the form of a Heat team that did not seem ready for the moment, Dirk Nowitzki got his title. At the end of one last sick individual season (his 11th straight, by my count), Dirk not only had tons of points, All-Star appearances and respect, he had a title.

After that legacy-affirming moment, I’d say we’ve entered a new phase of Dirk’s career: the come down. It began last season, when he started the lockout-shortened season at less than peak condition, missed a handful of games, averaged his lowest ppg since his second season, shot his lowest percentage since his rookie season, and seemed generally unimpressed with the roster Mark Cuban trotted out to try and defend their Championship.

This year figures to be a continuation of the same. Dirk’s knee is hurt, the Mavs roster is still in flux (though I think OJ Mayo will do great there), and at 34 years old, his post-playing career is possibly just two years away.

But you know what? He’s been to the top, he’s now a definite first-ballot Hall of Famer, and if he comes back strong from his knee surgery, he will still be the 14th-best player in the League this season.

Where should Dirk Nowitzki rank in the SLAMonline Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Greg Monroe Pistons C 8
49 Tyreke Evans Kings PG 14
48 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 13
47 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 12
46 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 11
45 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 14
44 Anthony Davis Hornets PF 13
43 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 12
42 Al Horford Hawks C 7
41 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 10
40 Danny Granger Pacers SF 6
39 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 11
38 John Wall Wizards PG 9
37 Monta Ellis Bucks SG 8
36 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 10
35 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 6
34 Tyson Chandler Knicks C 5
33 Eric Gordon Hornets SG 7
32 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 9
31 Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 6
30 Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 8
29 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 4
28 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 3
27 Paul Pierce Celtics SF 5
26 Andre Iguodala Nuggets SG 5
25 Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 4
24 Josh Smith Hawks PF 7
23 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 8
22 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
21 Steve Nash Lakers PG 7
20 James Harden Thunder SG 3
19 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 6
18 Chris Bosh Heat PF 5
17 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 6
16 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 4
15 Tony Parker Spurs PG 5
14 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 3

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.