When most people think of basketball icons, they think of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron James. They don’t think of a skinny, seven-foot tall German kid. But to millions in Europe, Dirk Nowitzki will come to mind. He may not have the highlight reel or the silverware of the superstars mentioned before him, but his impact on the game is undeniable.
The image of his legendary and unstoppable one-legged fade away jump shot will never disappear from the memory of those who watched him play. Nor will it fade from the game as many have added it to their offensive armory. With Nowitzki approaching the end of a first ballot Hall Of Fame career, his impact and legacy are still undervalued in the basketball world; many wouldn’t consider him a top 25 NBA player of all time.
As a European fan of the NBA, I wish to put forward the case for Nowitzki being one of the greatest players to ever grace the hardwood.
A lasting legacy
At the end of the 2017/18 season, Nowitzki will have played 20 seasons in the NBA, all with the Dallas Mavericks. Only five other players in history have managed to stay healthy and produce consistently enough to play in that time-span. Bryant is the only other player who has managed to do so for just one team.
This is a testament to Nowitzki's style of play, with the power forward being one of the greatest shooters of all time. Standing seven feet tall also means that he can find a way to play in the league well into his forties – if only as a spot-up shooter off the bench. Nowitzki has been selected to the All-Star game in 13 of his 19 seasons in the league; only eight players have more selections. He was also the first European player to ever start an All-Star game. Furthermore, he has been honoured with 12 All-NBA team selections, a mark only six men have surpassed. The accolades are evidence of his constant production and lasting legacy.
In 2007, Nowitzki became the first European - and first truly international player - to win the MVP award. Although both Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan were born outside of the USA and have also won the MVP award, Nowitzki is the only one of the three to have not played college basketball in America. Olajuwon and Duncan had been trained in the USA and drafted from US colleges before entering the league, Nowitzki had not.
There is also the argument that Nowitzki is the second greatest NBA player of non-African descent, behind Larry Bird. However, Bird could never match the longevity and consistency of Nowitzki even if he did reach higher heights whilst in his prime. Also, Bird benefitted from playing for the NBA's most successful organisation, the Boston Celtics, and won championships with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, who were both named in the list of top 50 NBA players of all time. Nowitzki has never had the benefit of playing for years with players of that caliber in their prime and has still managed to be successful.
The stats don't lie
Nowitzki is also a member of one of the NBA's most prestigious clubs - the 50-40-90 club. This requires an unparalleled level of shooting accuracy of 50% on overall field goals, 40% on three-point field goals and 90% on free throws. Only seven players have managed to go a full 82 game-season shooting this precisely. Nowitzki managed it back in his 2006-2007 MVP season whilst averaging a more than respectable 24.56 points per game. When combined with his three-point shoot-out title in 2006 and his shooting stars title in 2010, he has proven himself to be one of the NBA’s best shooters of all time - shooting 47%, 38% and 88% respectively for his entire career.
Nowitzki is also an underrated shooter in the clutch. Bryant, a player often praised for his clutch-scoring ability, shot 27% in clutch situations over the past 10 seasons compared to the league-wide average of 23%. Nowitzki surpasses this comfortably, shooting 34% in the biggest moments. He is the man you want with the ball in his hands if the game is on the line.
Further still, Nowitzki is a member of an even more prestigious club. The 39-year-old is one of only six players to have scored over 30,000 career points in the NBA and the single highest scoring player born outside of the United States. Although James will soon join that group, Nowitzki's membership is another testament to his longevity and consistent effectiveness.
Mavericks reap the benefits
Dallas have reached the playoffs for 21 seasons, with 15 of those playoff seasons spearheaded by Nowitzki, including the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance in 2006 and their first championship in 2011. Although many NBA greats may have more championships to their name, Nowitzki has always been the underdog.
In 2011 he led the Mavericks past the legendary Miami Heat big three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – averaging 27.7 points per game throughout the playoffs. Although many attribute the win to a poor performance by James, it is worth noting that Nowitzki had no other All-Stars on his team. The 2011 Mavericks are an anomaly and on paper should not have won an NBA title, but Nowitzki's Finals MVP performance was a major reason they upset the odds. Dallas have just not been a big enough contender for free agents or esteemed coaches to allow Nowitzki more runs at a championship.
Inspiring the foreign brigade
A factor that further proves Nowitzki's greatness is his influence on the sport. Before him, European players came in the form of Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and Arvydas Sabonis. Nowitzki was the first European player to become a lottery pick, an All-Star and an MVP, and his main impact is how he helped to transition the game of basketball into today’s era.
When Nowitzki entered the league, big men played a back-to-the-basket style of play as best represented by O’Neal's low-post dominance. But Nowitzki's silky jump shot has changed what it means to be a big man in the NBA. When he retires next season, the league will be filled with ‘unicorns’ such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid who both hail from outside the USA and shoot the three consistently.
It’s not that big men before Nowitzki did not shoot the ball, it’s just that no one else shot the volume of jump shots with the same accuracy. Toni Kukoc shot a respectable 34% from deep but only took 2.6 three pointers a game. Nowitzki's career accuracy of 38% on 3.3 three pointers a game was only bested in that era by Peja Stojakovic's 40% on 5.5 three pointers. However, Stojakovic could never match the same two-point jump-shot accuracy or volume that Nowitzki reliably produced.
Nowitzki changed the game as a jump-shooting big man with a leading role for his team, which has allowed him to ensure a long career by avoiding the low-post physicality. He is the reason that stretch power forwards such as Ryan Anderson have so much respect in today’s game and perhaps even the reason that teams in today’s league live and die by the three pointer. Nowitzki's floor spacing changed the game before Stephen Curry even got out of high school. As he prepare to leave the league, even the NBA's premier back-to-the basket big man – DeMarcus Cousins, has increased his three-point attempts per game from 0.2 to 5.6 over his time as a professional.
Give the man some respect
The 39-year-old's legacy and influence will extend beyond showing the power of the jump-shooting big man. He has impacted the game in Europe in a way that no one else has, and as such many players wish to emulate him. This has been reflected in many draft selections as teams try to find themselves the next Dirk Nowitzki. From Bargnani as the first overall pick in 2006 to the latest crop of Porzingis, Saric, Mirotic, Bender and Markkanen every team is looking for a player with Nowitzki's famous attributes.
Perhaps the biggest reason Nowitzki has been undervalued is because the Mavs is not a big market team. Texas is a football state and this has shown over the years as Dallas haven’t had the same support and financial clout as other teams. This means they’ve often missed out on talented All-Star free agents such as DeAndre Jordan. Another reason is that Nowitzki's game is quiet, and he is very humble, meaning that he has been portrayed as dull and unmarketable. This has surely effected his exposure to the public and respectability in a game filled with extravagance and style. Had Nowitzki played in a bigger market, he could have had better free agents, better coaches and would have an even greater resume. His loyalty should not adversely affect his legacy.
My definition of greatness in basketball is the ability to constantly be one of the best players in the NBA. This means perennial All-Star and All-NBA selections and regular playoff runs as your team's superstar player. When this constant level of high play is coupled with longevity, an unstoppable fadeaway, accurate shooting and dependability in clutch situations, Nowitzki must be deemed as a great, particularly given that he has inspired the next generation of foreign stars finding their way through the NBA.
Now I’m not saying Nowitzki is as complete or dominant a player as Jordan, Johnson, Bryant, O’Neal, and James, but his body of work and influence in basketball cannot be denied and he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest NBA players of all time. There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki, and he will be sorely missed when he is gone.
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