Dirk Nowitzki’s game Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder will go down as one of the greatest playoff performances of all-time. It’s not just that he scored 48 points while leading his team to a convincing win—it’s how he did it.
Nowitzki missed only three shots all game, and was 24 for 24 from the free throw line. It was a dominant, career-defining performance for a guy who, for whatever reason, has never really gotten his just due.
Nowitzki has played 13 NBA seasons, all of them for the Dallas Mavericks, since coming to the US from Germany as a teenager. He won the league MVP in 2007, and the previous year led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat—a series in which the Mavericks, up two games to none, appeared to collapse, losing four straight games to Miami to lose the series.
That loss notwithstanding, there has always been a tendency to de-value the 7’ tall German’s greatness. He handles the ball with the dexterity of a much smaller man, while shooting a high percentage from any range. His shot is virtually unblock-able, yet the critics still seem to want more.
I suppose most of the criticism stems from the fact that Nowitzki hasn’t won a championship. It could also be the reality that other than Hakeem Olajuwon, most foreign-born players in the NBA are never truly respected by fans, the NBA establishment or the media. Nonetheless, I don’t know what else the guy has to do.
We do tend to elevate championship winners to the highest perch—winning a championship is what seems to separate the great from the all-time great.
That being the case, it looks like Nowitzki does in fact need to win an NBA championship to erase all doubts about his ability, and subsequently move into the Larry Bird legend category—a status he's very close to attaining.
I’ve always thought Nowitzki has been seen as some sort of European fluke. Not ready to win the big game. Not ready to take the big stage at the big moment. “Soft” was always the tag he was labeled with. A big guy unwilling to take physical punishment inside, preferring to opt for the long range jump shot—the kind of criticisms typically reserved for European players.
But I think all of us should immediately do some re-evaluating, and see Nowitzki for the player he really is.
Since we love to talk legacy, where does Nowitzki stand right now?
Without a title, and with as many as 13 more games to play this season before he can claim one, I would have to say that Dirk is at worst the second-best foreign born player to ever play in the NBA, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon. For now, that’s a good place to be. But if we are to be fair, we simply have to admit that there has never been a player quite like Dirk Nowitzki; a player who from now on must be included in any future all-time great players discussions.