Despite only having been retired for one season, Dallas Mavericks legend and future Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki is somehow already being underrated by the basketball collective, as evidenced by his ranking on ESPN’s recent all-time Top-74 NBA players list, where the big German finished No. 19 overall.
That’s too low for a player of Nowitzki’s caliber in the historical hierarchy, for an athlete who was not only insanely productive but also won a championship as his team’s best player and arguably helped change the way big men are viewed in basketball forever.
Before Nowitzki, perimeter-oriented power forwards and centers were considered soft and mere commodities. Now, most teams want their big men spacing the floor and if they don’t, it’s seen as a rather large hindrance.
Below, we break down the various reasons why Nowitzki deserves far more credit for his incredible 21-year career.
HE ELEVATED A FORMER LAUGHINGSTOCK OF A FRANCHISE
There’s no doubt Nowitzki’s arrival in Dallas helped changed the franchise forever, from a perennial lottery team to one of the more well-respected franchises in the Association.
In the 18 seasons prior to them drafting Nowitzki, the Mavericks had only made the playoffs six times and gotten past the second round merely once. However, during Nowitzki’s 21 years in Dallas, the team would miss the playoffs just six times.
In addition, before Nowitzki’s arrival, the Mavericks hadn’t won a playoff series since 1987-88, a nine-season stretch without making it out of the first round. With Nowitzki as their leader, they won 13 playoff series, nine more than the four total they won in the 18 seasons before Dirk.
What’s more, per our research, with Nowitzki, the Mavs boast a 60.2 win percentage thanks to a 919-606 record. Without their German sharpshooter, Dallas has had a laughable 41.1 win percentage.
That huge 19.1 percent difference just speaks to the level that the Mavericks were elevated to with Nowitzki at the helm, and though Mark Cuban becoming Dallas’ owner did play a part in that, the player always deserves more credit than any coach or front office.
Throughout the 1990s, few teams were as bad as Dallas, with only the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies (who didn’t even come into existence until 1995-96) having a worse win rate in that decade (20.6 percent) than the Mavericks (30.3).
Once Nowitzki came into his own, though, Dallas became a perennial winner and consistently one of the top teams in the NBA. From Dirk’s rookie season in 1998-99 through his final campaign in 2018-19, the Mavericks owned the second-best win percentage in the Associaton (59 percent) trailing just the San Antonio Spurs (70 percent).
Nowitzki helped transform the Mavericks into the model of consistent winning.
HE CARRIED A TEAM WITH TALENT BUT NO STAR POWER
Normally in the NBA, you need two All-Star-caliber players to make deep playoff runs, at least according to historical data.
Nowitzki, however, was able to make deep runs in the postseason without much – if any – star power surrounding him.
We can use 2005-06 as an example, when Dallas reached the Finals and came within two wins of taking home a championship. The second-leading scorer on that team behind Nowitzki (who put up 26.6 points nightly that season) was the solid Jason Terry, who never made an All-Star appearance in his career (though he was a one-time Sixth Man of the Year). And that team’s third-leading scorer? Josh Howard, a one-time All-Star who was averaging 8.4 points per game merely five years after Dallas’ 2005-06 run.
Another good example is the 2010-11 championship Mavericks team, who, granted, did have more talent than the 2005-06 team, but still wasn’t as star-studded as most title-winning teams. Nowitzki averaged 27.7 points that postseason for a team whose second-leading scorer was Terry, third-leading scorer was Caron Butler (who missed almost the whole season and sat the entire playoffs due to injury) and fourth-leading scorer was 32-year-old Shawn Marion.
That team did have super solid role players like Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic and DeShawn Stevenson, but there’s no doubt the 2010-11 Mavs lacked the superstar talent that most of the champions of that decade possessed.
Nowitzki was just excellent enough to propel them to a title run anyway.
Digging even deeper on the amount of help Nowitzki had in his career, our research shows that the 14-time All-Star is the only player with an MVP and Finals MVP on his resume in league history that never played alongside a 1st or 2nd Team All-NBA player.
Additionally, he only had an All-Star teammate six times.
Just for comparison’s sake, other stars of Nowitzki’s era had a lot more help: Kobe Bryant had nine All-NBA 1st or 2nd teammates and 15 All-Star teammates, Dwyane Wade? Eight and 16. Tim Duncan? Five and 13.
Nowitzki did a lot with a lot less around him.
HIS TITLE RUN WAS MIGHTILY IMPRESSIVE
Nowitzki and the Mavs’ 2010-11 run is remembered fondly for the Finals victory over the favored (and hated) Miami Heat, but that entire playoff run was no joke.
In Round 1, Dallas had to take on a solid Portland Trail Blazers team led by another star big man in LaMarcus Aldridge before taking on Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the second round (whom the Mavericks memorably swept) and then capping their run through the West by facing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the Western Conference Finals.
That’s four former or future league MVPs that Dallas had to face before even reaching the Finals, and a fifth in the championship series when the Mavericks beat LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
Considering Nowitzki was Dallas’ only legitimate star on that team and had to face off against multiple superstar pairings on their way to a title, that’s just awesome.
HE HAD AN ICONIC GO-TO MOVE
Most all-time superstars in NBA history have that iconic go-to move that people will always remember them by.
There’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky-hook shot, there are Kobe and Michael Jordan’s fadeaway jumpers and there’s Allen Iverson’s crossover that will be talked about forever.
Well, Nowitzki with his patented one-legged fadeaway jumper belongs on that list too, and rightfully so:
That shot not only helped Nowitzki score a large chunk of his 31,560 career points, it also helped him extend his prime, enjoy such a long career and be such an effective offensive weapon deep into his 30s.
Simply put: A 7-footer fading away while putting his knee between the defender and his body and shooting a jump shot is pretty much unguardable. Unfortunately for most 7-footers, though, it’s also an extremely difficult move to master.
There’s only one Dirk.
HIS LIST OF ACCOLADES IS HISTORICALLY DEEP
Throughout his 21-year career, Nowitzki was a 14-time All-Star, a four-time 1st Team All-NBA member, a five-time 2nd Team All-NBA member and a three-time 3rd Team All-NBA member, giving him 12 All-NBA selections overall.
That’s a super long list of accolades, one that puts the German power forward in rarefied air historically.
That’s because there are only six players in NBA history with more All-NBA selections than Nowitzki and merely seven with more All-Star selections, making the fact that ESPN listed 18 better players ahead of him on their latest all-time list all the more questionable.
THE STATS ARE ALSO NOTEWORTHY
That makes Nowitzki one of just eight players in NBA history to rank Top 100 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks, along with fellow all-time great big men like Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett and David Robinson. He also ranks 11th all-time in made threes (1,982).
That’s a very solid list featuring some of the greatest big men in basketball history, including Nowitzki.
HIS HEROICS DIDN’T JUST TAKE PLACE IN THE NBA
Nowitzki’s greatness wasn’t merely an NBA thing, as the 7-footer also dominated in international settings where, much like in his professional career, he was almost always his team’s best player and had little star help.
Without Nowitzki, there’s no chance Germany wins the bronze medal at the 2002 World Cup or the silver medal in the 2005 Eurobasket, where Nowitzki was spectacular in elevating his team to new heights.
In the 2002 World Cup, Nowitzki was named tournament MVP after averaging 24 points per game and leading Germany in an upset quarterfinal win over Spain. In 2005, Nowitzki again helped the Germans take down Spain in the Eurobasket semifinal (where he earned tournament MVP again as well), capping his 27-point performance with the evening’s game-winner:
Those Eurobasket and World Championship MVP awards, along with his NBA MVP trophy and Finals MVP, make Nowitzki the only player in basketball history to win all four of those prestigious awards.
If we remove the Eurobasket MVP, then only Kevin Durant and Shaquille O’Neal can match Nowitzki with a World Championship, NBA regular season and Finals MVPs. Solid company there.
Speaking of MVPs, it must also be noted that Nowitzki is the first one in NBA history who wasn’t raised basketball-wise in the United States.
In all, Nowitzki, even while lacking the elite athleticism or quickness of many of his NBA counterparts and while not caring about the brand-building that has become so important with the stars today, posted one of the most impressive careers of all time, complete with historic stats, a deep pool of accolades and a championship ring.
He had zero baggage surrounding him during his playing career despite being a superstar, bringing zero drama to the table all 21 years he was in Dallas. You don’t see that often with players of his caliber. In fact, besides Duncan, another historically great power forward from the same era, Nowitzki has to be the most low-maintenance star in recent league history.
All of that is to say: Nowitzki deserves way more credit for what he did in basketball, both in the NBA and FIBA.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.