Top 50: Dirk Nowitzki, no. 9
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
I know what you’re thinking, and honestly, I can’t blame you. Before I go and make the case for the most versatile 7-footer in NBA history, I thought I’d combat any initial dissent by channeling my inner Nowitzki to see if he can save me the trouble:
“Klar, obwohl wir mit zwei zu null in den Finals fuehrten, haben wir am Ende verloren. In der naechsten Saison haben wir zwar die meisten Spiele gewonnen, sind aber in der ersten Runde der Playoffs ausgeschieden. Was soll ich dazu sagen? Nelly und JAX hatten es einfach drauf. Natuerlich will man solche Rueckschlaege am liebsten aus dem Lebenslauf streichen, aber im Basketball musst Du auch manchmal Hoehen und Tiefen erleben. Unterm Strich bin ich der vielseitigste 2-Meter-Mann in der Geschichte der NBA. Keiner kein mir das Wasser reichen und ich werde jeden Tag besser. Emry, uebernimm mal …”
Scheisse, apparently my inner-Nowitzki speaks German. Unfortunately, I don’t, so let me give it a shot on my own.
There’s no getting around the fact that this 7-0, high-arching assassin has two demerits on his N.B.A. legacy. First, the Mavericks lost the 2006 NBA Finals after holding a 2-0, and nearly a 3-0, lead against Dwyane Wade, the officiating crew, and the Miami Heat.
The following season the Mavericks posted the League’s best record, 6th best in NBA history, only to bow out in the 1st round against Nelly and the Golden State Warriors. The series was an absolute nightmare for the Mavericks and Nowitzki, who struggled to adjust to the myriad of scheme coverages Nelly threw at him, losing in six games.
The 2007 postseason disappointment was put under extended review when Nowitzki was honored with the league’s MVP award 10 days later. Even while receiving the highest honor an individual can achieve at the highest level of professional basketball, it was obvious he was struggling to put a positive spin on the Maurice Podoloff trophy.
I could use this graph to hurl a slew of clichés regarding putting it all in the rearview, or using failure as motivation going forward, but I’m not going that route. These are the facts. Nowitzki has never made excuses, so it would be moot for me to do that for him. My job is to explain why his position at No. 9 on the SLAMonline Top 50 is justified, and there’s plenty of fodder for that.
Check the resume; he is literally un-guardable at 7-feet tall with unlimited range on his shot. For his career, he’s getting 23 points, 9 rebounds, 87 percent free throw, 3 dimes and 1 block every time he suits up. Hands down, the most popular international player not hailing from a country with a population of 1.3 billion, and the first non-North American MVP in league history. Of his 11 years in the league, he’s been named to an All-NBA team nine times, including a first team selection in 2009.
It’s important to note that just because a 7-footer doesn’t make his living exclusively on the block, that doesn’t automatically qualify him as soft. Nowitzki actually has an outstanding history of durability, playing in at least 76 games every season, other than his first year in the league. He has what’s become an almost mythical ability to return from injury. As Mavericks athletic trainer Casey Smith explained to Mark Stein in 2008: “It’s not necessarily that Dirk is a fast healer. He’s back playing so fast because he does everything possible to return as quickly as possible and because he is by far one of the toughest players I’ve ever worked with. Everyone thinks that once he’s back on the court that he’s healed up, but in reality he usually deals with his injuries for days or even weeks after returning.”
Many years removed for their futility, people forget Dirk’s role in turning around what was easily the worst franchise in professional sports. As a frame of reference, think back to the original arcade version of NBA JAM. With the countless number of quarters you pumped into that machine, did you ever once play as the Mavericks? Did anyone, ever? Remember how they used to rank the popularity of each team at each location? With respect to Derek Harper and Mike Iuzzolino, I’m pretty certain Dallas was last everywhere, even in Dallas.
A Don Nelson-orchestrated draft day fleecing of the Bucks and Suns landed future MVPs Steve Nash and Nowitzki in Dallas, and the foundation for transformation was in place.
While it’s easy to point to Nowitzki’s playoff shortcomings, people rarely mention a young Dirk leading Dallas past Stockton and Malone in the 2001 playoffs – questionable haircut and all – for the franchise’s first playoff series win since 1988. Or the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals 7 game victory against a Spurs team that will make a case for being the franchise of the decade.
Sure, none of that matters if you’re not hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy when the final buzzer sounds, but you’re crazy if you don’t think Nowitzki co-signs on that sentiment.
Reached via-email in reaction to Nowitzki landing No. 9 on the SLAMonline Top 50, Mark Cuban offered his thoughts on Dirk’s impact and legacy as a Maverick: “Dirk is the face of this franchise. We never would have been able to accomplish anything without him. He is a cornerstone not just on the court, but in setting the culture of the organization as well.”
While Cuban’s support of his favorite import comes as no surprise, it also doesn’t make his statement any less valid.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive