By Nate Tenopir, Sonior Staff Writer
In 2006, Dirk Nowitzki seemed to be on the brink of basketball superstardom. He and his Dallas Mavericks had made the NBA Finals, won the first two games against the Miami Heat and were well on their way to starting the NBA’s new dynasty after Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers broke up.
Then the Heat won four in row and claimed the championship. Nowitzki and the Mavericks earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference the following spring then famously collapsed against the No. 8 Golden State Warriors.
It was the start of a four-year stretch in which Dirk and the Mavs exited the playoffs before the conference finals. They couldn’t win on the road, they couldn’t finish and if you asked any analyst in the business, they’d tell you the Mavericks and Dirk were just too soft to ever matter in the NBA and the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
In a league that has often depended on superstars, Dirk has never quite gotten his due. From the time he entered the league in 1998, he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett and of course LeBron James.
This despite the fact that Dirk Nowitzki is the most versatile big man ever, at least offensively. The 7-footer plays power forward but has the range and mobility to play in the backcourt at small forward and occasionally in the post as a center.
Dirk has led the Mavs to 11 consecutive trips to the playoffs, earned 10 All-Star appearances, has been voted 11 times as a member of the All-NBA teams and holds seven Dallas franchise records.
Despite his team consistently falling short in the playoffs, Nowitzki is one of only four players to average more than 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs. Only Nowitzki and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have recorded four straight playoff games with 30 points and 15 rebounds.
Sadly, it took most of us until Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to remember how truly magical and dominant Dirk can be. Nowitzki poured in 48 points, hit 24-of-24 free throws, added seven rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots. Dirk couldn’t miss, and his signature turn-and-fade-away rainbow that seems to touch the heavens after it’s released found the bottom of the net nearly every time.The big German is the best shooter of his size the NBA has ever seen.
The 48 points and 24 straight free throws are a little out of the norm, but the fact is Nowitzki’s normal stat line is 23 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 48 percent from the field, 38 percent on 3s and 88 percent from the free-throw line. That’s incredible efficiency.
Plus, he plays more than 36 minutes per game and averages more than 40 in the playoffs.
Granted, he may not be much of a force on the block, drop stepping past defenders and getting easy dunks. But while other big men are declining and retiring, Dirk keeps playing – and keeps scoring as efficiently as ever. He’s never been bigger than life, kept his emotions in check and mostly kept his off-the-court activities out of the headlines.
That may be why, unlike the players listed above, Nowitzki never achieved superstar status. He is in essence the anti-superstar. Some guys have a knack for finding any method possible for self-promotion. Dirk, it seems, has spent his time in the gym.
How else can you explain that sweet shot taken from all angles that always seems to find the net? Unfortunately, without a championship, his career may still be judged incomplete.
Maybe the hated Miami Heat will defeat Dirk and the Mavs once more. Maybe they’ll complete their romp through the NBA playoffs and validate the decision that so many hated.
But whatever happens, I’ll always remember Dirk as the player who got us to cheer in a year where all we wanted to do was boo.