It’s funny how in sports we often let one person define a reason why an era was kickstarted.
In football you would think Bill Walsh invented the forward pass the way it’s remembered despite what Don Coryell was doing in San Diego. What about how LeBron invented the ability for star players to take their own careers into their hands despite the reality that players leaving small markets for better options has been going on since the late 60s and early 70s with Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
For whatever reason, humans need specific people to latch onto in order to describe an era instead of just saying that for things to undergo massive changes its much more of a mosaic of ideas rather than one individual more often than not.
With this thought process in mind, I give you Dirk Nowitzki.
As basketball has shifted to a more perimeter centric, three-point shooting game, fans and media often credit Stephen Curry for this revolution. Now I’m not saying it’s wrong to credit Curry, in fact he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for taking a good idea and pushing it to the limit.
Where this good idea came from though, should in a lot of ways be tied to a player from Germany who made the position of power forward obsolete and changed how we look at bigs and whether or not they can shoot.
When scouts first really got a good look at a skinny kid from Würzburg at the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit, the skills he possessed were immediately obvious. Standing nearly seven feet tall, Nowitzki had an ability to shoot and handle the ball unlike really any player anyone had seen before.
His game was incredibly unique and had scouts drooling. He was described as a shooting guard in a power forward’s body by some and others “simply” as the German Larry Bird.
Imagine being compared to one of the greatest players to ever play the game before you’ve even touched the floor in the NBA. Now, imagine living up to the hype.
That’s really what Dirk did because after a tumultuous and in many ways bizarre rookie season that coincided with the infamous 1998 lockout, Nowitzki flourished in the NBA. The German Larry Bird became a league MVP, a Finals MVP and maybe more importantly, altered his position.
From basically the moment Dr. James Naismith hung the peach baskets up, the position of power forward basically didn’t change. Sure, some guys added some new things like Pettit’s offensive rebounding or Malone’s turnaround jumper, but the vast majority were expected to plant their butt on the block and that’s what they did.
Even more recently with Tim Duncan, you don’t exactly garner a nickname of the “The Big Fundamental” by changing much of anything.
As Duncan dominated the league like so many others had before him, Nowitzki used what he did best and dominated in a different way that spawned a series of clones that are in the NBA today.
Prior to Dirk, who cared if your four man could extend the floor. Most coaches barely even knew what the word spacing meant, let alone how to take advantage of it.
Nowitzki though won a league MVP by having a 50/40/90 season, something that would’ve been inconceivable the day before he was drafted. The day he was drafted though, the NBA welcomed the prototype for what fans would probably now call “The Big Fundamental”.
Even as Dirk gained success and won that MVP, there were still doubters. Nowitzki was seen as too nice to lead a championship team and lacking the killer instinct needed to win big as a best player in the NBA.
In that MVP season, his 67-win Mavericks were knocked out by the eight seed Warriors and after another year of playoff failure in 2008 the criticism was at a fever pitch. Sure, Dirk’s only prime Hall of Fame teammate was a casualty of cost cutting in 2004 (Steve Nash) and his current roster featured a series of players who were either on the decline (Jason Kidd) or playing way over their heads (Josh Howard) but that didn’t stop the criticism.
What does fifty- or sixty-wins matter without the ring?
Granted the 2006 Finals were the Mavericks first appearance as a franchise and featured a series of questionable calls that went against them in the height of the David Stern refereeing era but that somehow never came up. What did was the failure of 07, 08, 09 and 10.
By 2010-11, Dirk was 32 and surely beginning his decline. The MVP season had been fun, the skillset was memorable and all the European busts who fit the “Dirk prototype” were downright hilarious but Nowitzki seemed destined for a legacy of “remember that German dude who could shoot but always choked when it mattered most”.
Instead of being remembered as a key page in the basketball bible, he seemed on his way to a footnote of the Tim Duncan GOAT case. “Duncan was so good that Nowitzki tried to shoot his way past the Spurs but sadly, he never understood the full power of fundamentals that Tim did.”
The Mavs would win 57 games in 2011 and no one really cared because they always did that. After knocking off Portland in round one, they met with the two-time defending champion Lakers in round two. A classic place in the second round for the Mavericks to take their usual post season L.
A funny thing happened though as Dirk’s 28 in game one shocked Los Angeles at home. Then in game two they just flat out beat the Lakers after a hard fought first game that had many calling it a fluke and headed home up 2-0. Two games later the Lakers were going home, and Dallas was going to the conference finals after sweeping the defending champs.
After making quick work of a young OKC team in the conference finals, Dallas was back in the NBA Finals versus Miami. It was a cute run but let’s be honest, this was the big three Heat and they were the choking Mavericks, this wasn’t a fair fight.
Six games later, everything changed.
Sick and tired of years of being told he was soft or couldn’t finish off opponents in the playoffs because he lacked the edge, Nowitzki took a stake and stuck it in the back of every single member of that Heat team. In what was supposed to be LeBron’s coronation as the game’s best player became a celebration of a player who never got his due.
Instead of being the prototype for the soft Euro, Dirk became the prototype for the forward who could shoot. Instead of being remembered as a colossal playoff failure, Dirk’s 2011 run would be inscribed in basketball history forever as a moment when team overcame raw talent.
An ironic twist since all those years ago in 1998, Dirk was seen as just a raw talent. Now over a decade later, he was the face of what being a champion was and that there was more to basketball than just talent.
It was an incredible journey.
By the time his career was over, the league was littered with bigs who could shoot. Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, all of these guys happen because of Dirk Nowitzki. His one-legged fall away should be enshrined separately from him in the hall of fame as an all-time move and his impact should get its own wing in Springfield.
Stephen Curry made shooting threes in volume cool and helped revolutionize the sport. He doesn’t deserve all the credit though.
Why is the power forward position virtually gone now? Why do all bigs have to shoot threes now to be seen as elite?
This all started back in 1998 when Dallas took a chance on a skinny kid from Germany. Back then he was seen as a unicorn defying convention. Today, he would be seen as a guy with the fundamental’s teams look for.
In one generation Dirk Nowitzki changed the sport.