The other day, I was going down memory lane via YouTube. I was watching clips of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. I had no solid reason why, other than to watch Dirk Nowitzki‘s greatness.I think I owe it to the guys over at Mavs Moneyball for having “Championship Week” this past week. You can still check out the essays written by those guys over at the site. Well worth the reads.
As I’m watching these videos — by this time I finished watching Game 4 highlights of the NBA Finals for the 10th time — I remembered the words spoken by Rick Carlisle as the Mavs were still in the middle of their improbable championship run; words that, even to this day as Dirk enters his 17th season this Fall, still seem outlandish despite the highest of praise.
“In my opinion, he’s a top 10 player in NBA history because of the uniqueness of his game and how he’s carried this franchise on his back for over a decade,” Carlisle said just more than three years ago.
Dirk Nowitzki, one of the 10 best players to ever play the game? These comments were made a month before the Mavs won the championship, and even by that time, Dirk had barely cracked the top-40 list and was still climbing the ladder.
I think it’s time to re-open that question. Dirk has the ring, the MVP, the Finals MVP and is a 12-time All-Star. We know he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer and will go down as the greatest European player to have ever played NBA basketball. All of that warrants entry into being one of the 50 best to ever play, but where does he truly rank?
Dirk has done enough to get into the top 20 at best, so we’ll start there. There is no definitive rank of the greatest players in NBA history. The best we have is the top-50 list that was made in 1996 to commemorate the NBA’s 50th anniversary.
Ranking the 20 best players ever shouldn’t be too difficult. Plus, Dirk still has a chance to climb the scoring leaderboard, so that’ll further enhance his rank, but I’ll do my best with what I have.
In no particular order:
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Jerry West, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, and Dirk.
That’s 21 players and Dirk deserves to be in that company at this moment. First, let’s go through where Dirk ranks in the statistical categories, and go from there.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com:
- 10th all-time in scoring, and still climbing (26,786)
- 18th all-time in minutes played (42,603)
- 35th all-time in games played
- 23rd all-time in made 3-point field goals (1,471) – It should be noted Dirk is the tallest player list in the top-23.
- 47.6 percent career shooting, 38.3 percent career 3-point shooting
- Career average of 22.5 points and 8.1 rebounds
- Career average of 25.6 points and 10.1 rebounds in the playoffs
Amazing numbers. Hall-of-Fame-worthy numbers, and they’re still increasing. By the time Dirk retires, he could be sixth on the all-time scoring list. If he scores at least 1,735 points in each of the next three seasons, he’ll be up to 31,991, which would put him fifth all-time.
Right now is where it gets tricky. Dirk isn’t top 10 right now. That would go to Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, LeBron, Russell and Hakeem. Each has more than one ring, so Dirk is excluded from this portion, unfortunately. Note: This is not my official 1-10. These are just players who are guaranteed there.
Now onto the second set of 10, which could set off a fun debate, so here you go: Dr. J, Robertson, Mailman, Robinson, West, Isiah, Moses, Barkley, Havlicek and Baylor. Again, not an official list, so we’ll manage accordingly.
Everyone has their own standards on how to rank players. Mine are simple: If you have championships, you’re good. If you are ringless and have great stats, you’re on the fence.
So Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Elgin Baylor are in question, and I think Baylor will be left off the top 20 based off the era he played in and never winning a title. Dirk is now in the top 20.
When thinking on where to place these players, it comes down to skill set as well as credentials. Isiah Thomas is, arguably, the greatest small point guard to ever play in an era dominated by the Lakers and Celtics. John Havlicek won eight championships with the Celtics, but it was mainly Bill Russell’s Celtics during the ’60s.
Moses Malone was one of the greatest rebounders ever, as well as an amazing low-post player who’s in the top-10 in scoring all time. Jerry West is the logo, and no more needs to be said there.
Barkley didn’t score as many points as Dirk, but he was a terrific rebounder for his size. But he never won a ring. Karl Malone did everything for the Utah Jazz, but he never won a ring. You can’t discount what they did, but is it fair to say they’re better than Dirk in terms of being an overall player?
John Havlicek was a great scorer, but Bill Russell carried Boston to those championships. Does Dirk get more credit for always being the one leading the Mavs? Is Isiah Thomas’ height a problem when comparing him to Dirk? Those are four players right there that give Dirk a strong case to move past.
Right now, I give Dirk the No. 17 spot ahead of Havlicek, Barkley and Isiah. Karl Malone stays ahead of Dirk because of his points. It’s a tough call regarding Jerry West and Moses Malone, but adjusting those two, along with Karl Malone, will probably be discussed again when Dirk retires.
For me, 11-17 would be Dr. J, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, Jerry West, Moses Malone, Karl Malone and Dirk. That seems fair. And if Dirk wins another title before he retires, then he would probably move closer to top-10, or even crack it.
But for now, I’m content with making Dirk Nowitzki the 17th best player to ever play the game. He’ll move up by the time his career is done, no doubt. But as it stands, Dirk isn’t in the top-10, but he’s getting there.
What are your thoughts on this list? Do you think Dirk even deserves to be in the top-20? Do you think a player was left out? Let’s have a discussion about it.