Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dirk's Place in History

Let’s face it: it’s all about the ring. People like to pretend it’s not, but if you are a quarterback or an NBA superstar, leading your team to a title is the most important thing.

Baseball players have limited chances to affect the outcome of a game. They may get four at-bats or a few chances in the field. A starting pitcher goes every four or five days. In football, a QB gets 20-50 (or more) opportunities to directly impact the contest. He touches the ball on every snap, as well. Titles matter when judging QB’s--not so much for LB’s or WR’s or anyone else on a football team. In the NBA, everything is centered around your star--they have a chance to impact the game in more ways than any other sports stars, and it's always up to them when the game is on the line. That’s why championships in baseball and for non-QB’s in football are way down the list that determines who gets into the Pantheon of Greats in their sports.

When judging a player, the ring matters to me--a great deal. I look at Dirk differently now. I looked a Garnett and Pierce and Allen differently after they won it all. I looked at Billups differently after his Finals MVP. The playoffs are the ultimate proving ground in a sport where one player can make a monumental difference.

Dirk entered basketball’s Pantheon with his stirring performance in this postseason, which culminated with a title. Following the ’07 season, I had serious doubts as to whether Dirk would ever lead a team to a championship. I’ve been more bullish on Dirk the past three seasons (see previous blog entry), yet still I had a hard time imagining that he would go postal on anyone who got in his way this postseason like he did. The biggest Dirk homers would have to admit that even they didn’t think 57% FG, 73% 3PT, 94% FT and a sweep against the Lakers was a possibility.

Dirk gave us a performance for the ages. Had the Mavs fallen short of a title, the performance wouldn’t have carried anywhere near the weight it does. Dirk’s postseason is one of the four best post-Jordan runs we’ve seen (Shaq ’00, Duncan ’03, Kobe ’09). He was epic, and better late than never. In six weeks, Dirk went from “one of the best to have never won a title” and a top 40 guy, to "member of the exclusive championship club" and a top ?? guy.

So how high does the title push Dirk on the all-time list? Cuban and Carlisle have both recently said that Dirk is a top-10 all-time guy. Many think Dirk is equal to Larry Bird.

Here are my top 20 NBA players of all-time. I'll explain my thoughts and criteria as we move down the list.

1. Michael Jordan. Really, this is one of the easiest decisions in sports. Jordan is the best ever, and the more I consider his regular season and postseason numbers, his epic close-out performances in The Finals and his unmatched desire to win, I don’t understand how anyone could not have him ranked 1st. The Wilt fans are either 1) delusional 2) one of the 20,000 women he slept with or 3) the many who were so put off by Jordan’s HOF acceptance speech that they will never give him any credit at all.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the first spot where it gets tough. It’s between Kareem, Wilt and Russell here. I give Kareem the edge. He won more titles (6) Finals MVP’s (2) and regular season MVP’s (6) than Wilt (2-1-4), and he was better all-around than Russell (who was much more limited on the offensive end than Kareem). Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, and was as much or more of a game-changer in college and the pros as Russell and Wilt were.

3. Wilt Chamberlain. The most physically dominant player ever (as much so as Shaq, but more skilled). Crazy individual numbers, but the knock against him was his sheer will to win, or lack thereof. Still, he won two titles, and to get into my top 10 you better have multiple championships. Averaging 50 ppg for a season is pretty good, too.

4. Bill Russell. 11 rings (plus two more titles in college). The greatest winner ever. Not a great offensive player, but maybe the best-ever on the defensive end. And a tremendous desire to win.

5. Magic Johnson. Another pure winner. Whatever it took. Five-time NBA champ. When he filled in for Kareem and played center in Game 6 of the Finals his rookie season, he scored 42, grabbed 15 boards and had 7 assists. That performance alone is enough to get into the top 5.

6. Larry Bird. Very close between Larry and Magic, but Magic’s 5 (6 including college, although Bird gets some credit for taking a bunch of total spares to the championship game) titles--many against Bird--make the difference. Bird won 3 NBA titles, and, like Jordan, was a natural. I’ve always thought the Bird-Dirk comparisons were ludicrous--and while I’ll still take Bird, it’s at least a good conversation now. The funny thing is, it’s the color of their skin and hair that seem to stir the debate. They don’t even play the same position. We should compare Dirk to Barkley, Duncan, Malone and Garnett. We should compare Bird to Dr. J, Wilkins, Worthy and Baylor. Do me a favor and google "Larry Bird great passes"--a four minute YouTube video that will show you why Bird and Dirk are not comparable (sorry, I still can't figure out how to add a link on blogspot or I would have given you the shortcut--I suck).

7. Tim Duncan. This is the second spot where it gets tough. It’s between Duncan, Kobe, Shaq and Hakeem. Duncan gets the nod because of his all-around game, and because of the fact that he was a finished product when he entered the league, maximizing his impact. Also, won titles without a Kobe or Shaq at his side--Robinson was aging, and Parker and Ginobili are very good, but not great, players. His four titles trump Hakeem’s two, his three Finals MVP’s trump Hakeem’s two, and his two regular season MVP’s trump Hakeem’s one.

8. Kobe Bryant. The closest thing to Jordan the NBA has ever seen. But not Jordan. Still, five titles...and counting.

9. Shaquille O’Neal. Four rings. Only one regular season MVP--probably should have won five or six.

10. Hakeem Olajuwon. Late bloomer (like Dirk). Two titles, and he completely carried those Houston teams. Gives thanks every day that Jordan played baseball for two seasons.

I think the top 10 are easy, although you may debate the order. Starting with number eleven, we get into guys with one ring. It’s a big group, and it starts to merge with great players who never won a ring. I will lean toward to players with titles as a tie-breaker.

11. Moses Malone. Might be the most underrated player ever. His numbers were ridiculous (in ’82 he averaged 31-15). He won three regular season MVP’s, and one Finals MVP (his only ring, in ’83 in Philly).

12. Oscar Robertson. Won one title, but rode young Lew Alcindor’s coattails to get it. But if you average a triple-double for an entire season, you’re a stud.

13. Jerry West. Many experts have West in the top 10, and if not for the Celtic dynasty, he would have ended up with more than one ring. But he didn’t. Great scorer and clutch performer.

14. Julius Erving. My ABA bias may be showing here, but I say Dr. J won three titles, not one (yes, two were ABA). The ABA was very competitive--the numbers put up in that league should be counted in any career scoring ranking. As a rookie in the playoffs, Erving averaged 33 points and 20 rebounds. His athleticism was breathtaking. As a basketball icon, he probably ranks second behind only Jordan. Not a great outside shooter, but an underrated passer and defender. Three time ABA MVP, once NBA MVP.

15. Dirk Nowitzki. He’s not in the top 20 without his newly-won title, but a championship changes everything. Proved himself to be clutch when it matters the most, and proved to be a leader. If 2011 Dirk had played for the 2006 Mavs, they would have two titles. Possibly the best pure shooter ever, and before he’s done will move way up on the scoring list.

16. Elgin Baylor. Old-timers will crucify me for putting Baylor behind Dirk, but Baylor never won a title or an MVP award. Magnificent talent. Not much footage of him in his prime exists, but I understand he was Dr J-like. In his prime he averaged about 35-15. Yikes.

17. Bob Pettit. One title, two MVP’s. Career 26-16 guy--huge numbers, but I tend to slightly discount the numbers of the old-timers who played in a league full of guys who looked like my dad.

18. Charles Barkley. Had Sir Charles won a ring, he would be pushing the top 10. Too bad, because he was a tremendous force. He accomplished things at 6’4-ish that he shouldn’t have been able to. Could shoot outside, or post you up. Could rebound with the best. Could run the floor and pass. Maybe even better as a broadcaster, definitely worse as a golfer.

19. Karl Malone. I remember Karl for finishing on breaks and for his 18 footer. And for not winning a title. There was just something about him that was amiss.

20. John Havlicek. Never thought he was that great, but I have to acknowledge his accomplishments. 8-time champion and once the Finals MVP. Superb defender. Wins the 20th spot ahead of Bob Cousy, Rick Barry, David Robinson and Isiah Thomas. LeBron and Wade will be in the top 20 one day, just not this day.

So there you have it. Dirk is a top 15 guy. When the Mavs drafted a skinny 19 year old German back in 1998, I think everyone would have taken top 15 all-time. Could he ever be a top 10 guy? He'll need at least one more ring to get there. And if this version of Dirk remains valid for a few more seasons, another ring (or two) is a possibility.


  1. Great post, Junior. Has there been another player who led his team to a title for the first time this late in his "window" without another superstar? Elway comes to mind but he had Terrell Davis. Hakeem might be a more apt comparison, but Drexler was more in his prime than JKidd. Pretty amazing of Dirk - and also a testament to Carlisle's coaching and how well the Mavs embodied the team concept.

  2. Appreciate the Hakeem nod. Proof of a basketball fan when you see him ranked high or at all. He was incredible, ask David Robinson.

  3. Blogger just ate my comment about point guards, so here it is in shorter form: Would Karl Malone be on this list without Stockton? Is there any way Dirk would have a ring with Devin Harris on the point? Not even Bird won any rings until Dennis Johnson arrived. It's very difficult to compare point guards to the larger scorers/rebounders/defenders of the league, so I don't mean to disparage your list. Point guards, though, probably need their own, separate list, and that list deserves parallel consideration to this one. As huge a playoff run as Dirk had this year, it was Jason Kidd who was the glue who kept the team focused for all those late comebacks. He deserves great praise, both for this and for his career as a whole.

  4. Pretty solid list but I would for sure have Hakeem Olajuwon in the top five....maybe 5, if not 4. Here is a guy who, like Dirk, had to learn the game as he played it. He played it at high level but at a very raw pace early on. He had to work as hard, if not harder, than Dirk to become what he eventually became. He became a lone all star that carried a team for more than 15 years (until that whole Barkley, Pippen debacle). He also is the only player to become NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP in the same year <------ all at the old age of 31. Almost impossible to do that but he did it and he will never be equaled, like Dirk. Other than that I think its a very good and accurate list.

  5. I must say, your top ten is pretty much a lock. I hadn't considered Tim Duncan a top ten player before, but it makes sense.

    I can't quite get my head around ranking Dirk ahead of Barkley and Malone and Garnett, but it definitely merits consideration. The knock on Dirk has always been his defense, but I don't recall anyone ever lighting him up, because they were too worn out trying to guard him.

    By the time he retires, Dirk will be the number 6 scorer of all time. Do the math.

  6. Great list, Craig. Well thought-out.

  7. You are the professor ... of basketball rankings! Great post, Junior. Where do I rank? My team won the Intramural Div-III Basketball championship at Univ of Texas in 1979. Am I even in the top 1 billion basketball players in the world? Jus' wondrin?! Ha!

  8. Sorry Junior Havlicek was that great, I'm not a Celtic homer either. He should be ahead of West because of head to head. West also had Goodrich as Robin n Wilt.