Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Dirk Nowitzki ranks No. 16

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Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What’s Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 16, Dirk Nowitzki.

Dirk Nowitzki’s career highlights:

  • 2011 Finals MVP
  • 2007 MVP
  • 14-time All-Star
  • Four-time first-team All NBA, five-time second team, three-time third team
  • 2005 50-40-90 club
  • Sixth on all-time scoring list

However good you think Dirk Nowitzki was, he’s probably better. 

The greatest shooting big man ever (no apologies to Karl-Anthony Towns) would have been even better, perhaps significantly, if he’d come up in this era. He’d shoot a lot more 3-pointers and exclusively play the stretch five spot he was born for. 

Instead, Nowitzki has to settle for being the best player to spend the bulk of his career at power forward.

The 7-foot sharpshooter wasn’t better than Tim Duncan, no. But Duncan mostly played center. If both were entering the league today, which would you rather have going forward? It’s a fun thought experiment. As it stands, Nowitzki walked away from the NBA having achieved more than any other pure power forward.

“This shows you how much a ring can do for you,” Wright said. “He certainly doesn’t have the regular-season résumé of Karl Malone. And he’s probably a little shy of the regular-season résumé of Charles Barkley. But the (2011) postseason run was brilliant enough. Plus, he’s got a pretty damn good regular-season résumé.”

Dirk Nowitzki is No. 16 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Dirk Nowitzki, one of the pioneers of the fadeaway, led the Mavericks to their lone championship in 2011, scoring at least 21 points in every game as they upset the heavily-favored Miami Heat in six games. He became the first European player to win NBA MVP, doing so in the 2006-07 season after averaging 24.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg as the Mavericks won a team-record 67 games. Nick notes he’s the sixth all-time leading scorer in league history, which people often overlook in evaluating his legendary career.

Nowitzki, to be clear, isn’t a one-ring wonder, either. The German giant’s prime spanned more than a decade, included nine top-10 MVP finishes, and featured one of the bigger leaps in performance between the regular season and postseason. 

Before making his first All-Star team, a 22-year-old Nowitzki led the Mavericks past the Karl Malone-John Stockton Jazz with back-to-back 33-point games in the first round of the 2001 playoffs. It was Dallas’ first series win in 13 years. Dirk then dropped 42 points and 18 rebounds against the Spurs’ vaunted frontcourt duo of Duncan and David Robinson, in an elimination game no less.

A year later, Nowitzki averaged 33 and 16 while sweeping Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves. The Mavs reached the conference finals in 2003 after Dirk posted 39 and 17 in a Game 7 versus Chris Webber and the Kings. He went for 38 and 15 in the following game versus the Spurs, but injury caused him to miss the last three games of the series. That might have cost Nowitzki a title.

“He was outplaying Tim Duncan in that (2003) series until he got hurt,” Wright said. “He was amazing in the postseason early [in his career].”

Nowitzki got his revenge in 2006, in emphatic fashion. 

Dallas trailed the top-seeded Spurs by three points in Game 7 of the conference semis, when Dirk bullied his way past Bruce Bowen and made a twirling layup while colliding with Manu Ginobili. The Mavs prevailed in overtime, largely thanks to Nowitzki’s 37 and 15. 

Soon after, he went for 50 and 12 to give Dallas a 3-2 series lead over the Suns in the conference finals. His first appearance in the Finals is best remembered for Dwyane Wade’s heroics, and controversial officiating, but Nowitzki was off the mark as well. He shot 39% from the field while averaging 23 and 11. Given that three of the Heat‘s four wins were by a combined six points, a better Nowitzki likely nets Dallas the championship.

It was the beginning of a dizzying 12 months for Dirk. He bounced back from the Finals heartbreak by shooting career-highs from the field (50.2%), the 3-point line (41.6%) and free-throw line (90.4%), registering the rare 50-40-90 campaign (he’d come within a percentage point of pulling it off on two other occasions, including during his age-35 season). 

Nowitzki won league MVP in 2007 as the Mavericks won an NBA-best 67 games. Then he really had the worst playoff series of his career. Eighth-seeded Golden State found success throwing smaller defenders at Dirk, who at that point didn’t often play with his back to the basket. After struggling in the opening games, he cratered in Game 6 with a 2-for-13 showing as the “We Believe” Warriors completed the stunner.

“Dirk had one playoff disaster that I think MVP voters then held against him,” Wright said. “But he of course more than made up for it.”

The Mavs were mostly an afterthought heading into the 2011 playoffs. A 32-year-old Nowitzki was still playing at his peak, but his team hadn’t made it out of the second round the previous four seasons. The West, meanwhile, was loaded as always. Duncan’s Spurs still had the best record, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers were two-time defending champions, and the nascent Thunder were coming.

Dallas owned the third seed but looked overmatched with its lone All-Star (in 21 seasons with the Mavs, a league record for any player with one team, Nowitzki had just one teammate garner more than one All-Star Selection — Steve Nash earned two in the early 2000s.) Playoff Dirk didn’t care. He came out aggressive in the first round against the Trail Blazers and got more efficient as he went along, offering an array of moves around the paint that had been missing in his earlier days. 

The Mavs ran L.A. off the court in a second-round sweep, with Nowitzki connecting on 73% of his 3s and 57% overall. He then blitzed the conference finals with a 48-point, 15-shot masterpiece against the Thunder in Game 1 and dropped 40 more two games later. Dallas was soon back in the Finals, again facing the Heat, only this time as notable underdogs.

Nowitzki fell sick early in the series, prompting jeers from Wade and LeBron James, but led Dallas to a crucial comeback in Game 2 to even things. As the Mavs continued their brilliant inside-out act around him, Dirk kept scoring and rebounding as he always had in the postseason. It all added up to an unforgettable championship upset.

“That story is told as LeBron’s meltdown, and that did happen. But Dirk still had to take it from him,” Wright said. “One of the most important, impressive rings ever.”

The Finals MVP averaged 26 and 11 in the series, and he produced postseason shooting splits of .485/.460/.941 while vanquishing eight eventual Hall of Famers — seven of whom were All-Stars that season.

Nowitzki would remain one himself, but the aging Mavericks were shaken up considerably after winning the crown and didn’t get out of the first round for the remainder of his career. 

The ring, of course, makes Dirk a made man in NBA circles. It also somewhat overshadows the fact he’s sixth on the all-time scoring list and his career averages of 20.7 points and 7.5 rebounds jumped to 25.3 and 10.0 rebounds in the playoffs.

“Dirk carried two Mavericks teams that did not have anything close to a superstar to the Finals,” Wright said. “The third-greatest foreign-born player as of today in NBA history.”


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