The 38-year-old Dallas Mavericks legend became the first international player to breach the 30,000 point barrier.
This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 16, 2017
Thirty thousand points. The holy grail of scorers. The mark of the greatest.
And then there were six.
Last Tuesday, Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks legend, became the sixth NBA player, and the first international player, to have breached the 30,000 point barrier.
The ones that have done it before him?
Kobe Bryant, and
Not bad company.
The last of the players from the end of the Chicago-Jordan era, it took Nowitzki nineteen seasons to reach the milestone. A master of the step-back-fade away, it was poetic that he hit the mark in signature style, with a shot that he made his living on.
Dirk’s greatest contribution to the game of basketball would be his signature step-back fade away. The second greatest shot after Jabbar’s transcendent skyhook, Nowitzki’s fade away is unguardable. A shot that he loves to launch this from anywhere near the free throw line, his height combined with exceptional control over his centre of gravity, allows him to release the shot with his shooting hand nearly parallel to the ground. Simply put, when in form, the only way to stop Dirk is to hope he misses.
Greatness is determined by the defining moments in a player’s career. His legacy is crafted by his character both in times of adversity and success. Numbers matter. Champions, however, are rarely remembered by their numbers. Instead it’s the defining moments in their career that set them apart.
Dirk had two such moments.
The 2006-‘07 season
It was turning out to be Nowitzki’s swansong season. Coming off a career high (26.6 PPG) and a tough, controversial loss against the 2006 Miami Heat team led by Dwyane Wade and newly acquired Shaquille O’Neal, the Mavericks pulled together a third 60-win season in five years. They finished with the best record in the NBA (67-15) and set up a first round matchup with the feisty Golden State Warriors who held on to the eighth seed with a mediocre 42-40. This was to be a cakewalk for the blazing Mavericks who had League MVP Nowitzki, surrounded by a group of hard working talented professionals. This was undoubtedly the Mavericks title to lose. And they did just that.
The Warriors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history, beating the Mavericks in six games and cutting off the journey to what should have been Nowitzki’s first NBA championship. Add this devastating loss to the controversial loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals and you have an empty handed Dirk Nowitzki after two 60-win seasons and career highs in nearly every statistical category.
While this may have crushed any other player, Nowitzki returned stronger, and kept pounding away, piling on 50-win seasons, averaging 25 PPG / 8.2 RPG, and making the Playoffs every season until…
The 2010-‘11 season
Also known as the season of The Decision, LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, and teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh turning the Miami Heat into instant title contenders. In the West, Nowitzki had become synonymous with the ability to show up in the Playoffs but not get anywhere.
He and his motley crew were the cute kids that showed up to play but always left the winning to the big kids. Not this time around. Leading the Mavericks to their 11th straight season with 50-wins and a playoff berth, the Mavericks began with a 4-2 win over the Portland Trailblazers in Round 1. Somewhere close by, the eighth seed Memphis Grizzlies topped the league leading San Antonio Spurs in six games.
The Mavericks, surprisingly, then proceeded to not only sweep Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, but also dismantle the young Oklahoma City Thunder (led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), beating them 4-1 to set up a Finals clash with the Miami Heat.
Detractors doubted the Mavericks every step of the way, calling them old, or a fluke, awaiting what they believed was inevitable: a drubbing at the hands of the Big Three. Little did they know, the Mavericks had other plans.
After splitting the first four games at two-a-piece, the Mavericks led by a valiant 32-year Nowitzki and a resurrected 33-year old Jason Terry, took the fight to Miami at both ends of the floor. Defensively, they allowed LeBron to take as many open jump shots as he wanted, knowing it was his greatest weakness. Offensively they stayed efficient, never dropping below 40%, even from beyond the 3-point line. Nowitzki blitzed the disrespectful duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, by averaging 26 PPG / 9.7 RPG for the series. They rest as they say is history, as the Mavericks took games 5 and 6 to and carry home the 2011 NBA Championship.
The purest scorer
Drafted ninth in 1998, the seven-foot then-lanky German was relatively unknown amongst basketball experts. International scouting was still nascent and was usually treated as an indulgence. Teams were content with the talent available domestically.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the country’s elite college athletics system, had more than its fair share of international players racking up valuable experience of the American style of play. This was important since European players were perceived to be physically inferior. Much of this perception was rooted in the European style of play that relied team play, passing and the ability to shoot. Hero-ball was scoffed at while passers and shooters and pure scorers were heralded.
And Dirk Nowitzki is the purest scorer of them all.
Expanding the range to include all players that have scored at least 20,000 points (41), only four players have shot better than 38% from 3-point range, three of whom were guards: Ray Allen (24,505, 40%) Reggie Miller (25,279, 39.4%), Mitch Richmond (20,297, 38.8%). Nowitzki, the European nobody, is the only forward to average more than 38% from the field AND have tallied at least 20,000 points.
The argument against these criteria is that the 38-year-old German is a forward and must be compared to his peers who made a living inside the 3-point line. Even there, only twelve players in NBA history have shot better (2-pt %) than Dirk’s 49.7%. Add the fact that Dirk’s career free throw percentage (the kryptonite of most forwards and centres) is currently 89.7% (ranked 15th All-Time) and you begin to understand why there isn’t a convincing argument against crowning Nowitzki the greatest scoring forward in NBA history.
There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki
The stat that sets Nowitzki apart from the rest, though, is that he scored every one of his points with the same team. An honour he only shares with another legend, Kobe Bryant.
The 38-year-old has already confirmed that he will return for the next season, a decision that would have been helped by the young nucleus that the Mavericks now boast off. They have a young core in Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, while getting lucky with the emergence of Yogi Ferrell and acquiring Nerlens Noel in arguably the best trade at the 2017 trade deadline. With Nowitzki playing the elderly statesme, the Mavericks, now just three games behind Denver for that eighth spot, have a few interesting pieces to surround this core and make a legit run at the playoffs.
Matthews, who is both older (30) and has had a serious injury, is the only, even if minor, concern for the Mavericks. If the Barnes-Curry-Ferrell-Noel core can make the right leaps, this will be a team that can contend for a spot in the NBA Finals next season. With that ceiling and a few lucky breaks in their favour, the Mavericks could very well send off the greatest scoring forward in NBA history with his second Championship ring.
If you are keeping score at home, Dirk Nowitzki is a 7-foot European sharp-shooter, who shoots 2’s with as much ease as he shoots 3’s, develops the second most unstoppable shot in NBA history, plays at least 20 seasons with the same team, scores over 30,000 points, wins regular season MVP and has at least one NBA championship.
See the pattern?
Yes, I am going there…
There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.