Dirk Nowitzki has answered questions
For all the coronations of the Miami Heat not only as a great basketball team but as the future face of the league -- LeBron James is the first NBA superstar for the generation in which television and Internet sports coverage has surpassed in influence newspapers and magazines -- the real winner in these Finals is not Wade, James or the forever maligned Chris Bosh.
Regardless of the outcome, Dirk Nowitzki finally has answered all questions about his abilities and his greatness as a basketball player, questions that were never fair in nature.
Nearly as much as James, Nowitzki has been the subject of the fickle discussions that surround a star: what he did or did not do in crunch time, whether he came up small in the final moments of Game 3, whether he should have jumped ship in the offseason, too. These discussions existed when print was king but have been accelerated to recklessness in the age of runaway television punditry and a social media culture that assesses legacy -- a term that by definition cannot be discussed without appropriate distance -- minute-to-minute, timeout-to-timeout.
The truth, given time to breathe and be analyzed, is this: Nowitzki will go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, the greatest player of his franchise, the best (NBA) player Germany has ever produced. He has proved it this year -- especially during these playoffs, when the Mavericks have transformed themselves from a team not tough enough to win into a formidable out -- and in previous years that he can carry a team early or late. The outcome of the 2011 NBA Finals will do nothing to change that.
The concept of the "instant legacy" has permeated sport and lowered the level of intelligent discussion regarding how the game is played and the players who play it. TV commentators assess a player's entire career based on two minutes at the end of each game. Meanwhile, the second-by-second instant analysis on social media doesn't stop when the buzzer sounds. James has been in the playoffs for seven years, carrying a nondescript Cleveland team that without him is once again invisible after six straight postseasons -- and his critics are legion. Peyton Manning was once a weak playoff performer, but that changed when he won the Super Bowl against Chicago. Then he lost to the Saints and was somehow relegated back to being subpar in the clutch. Before last year's seventh and deciding game between the Lakers and Celtics, the ESPN pregame roundtable asked aloud if Kobe Bryant -- already the greatest player of his generation -- needed to win that night to "cement his legacy."
Newspapers and magazines have always engaged in the same type of hero construction and deconstruction. The difference now is the speed of the technology and its volume. For his career, Nowitzki has averaged 23.0 points and 8.4 rebounds on 47.6 percent shooting. In 11 straight playoffs, he has averaged 25.9 points and 10.4 rebounds on 46.5 percent shooting. He has won one fewer conference title (two) than Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Walt Frazier and Karl Malone, with a far weaker supporting cast. He has been one of the most consistent players in the game since the day he entered, and the only perceived negative in his game is he's never won the last game of any season.
Nowitzki has been brilliant all postseason, destroying the Lakers, outgunning Kevin Durant in the West finals and now against Miami. In losing Game 3, Nowitzki scored 34 points with 11 rebounds, at one point scoring nearly all of Dallas' points. In the Game 4 win, he scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, including a lay-in on a drive to the basket with 14.4 seconds left, despite battling illness. The Mavericks have won two games in the series, and Nowitzki has scored the final field goal in each.
While he is playing with another Hall of Fame-level player in Jason Kidd, Kidd is no longer an iconic, impact player. Kidd, in fact, has looked invisible during this series, unable to penetrate, spot up for 3-point shots or lock on Dwyane Wade defensively. As far as A-list talent goes, Nowitzki has been alone.
The narrative in basketball the past dozen years is to compare every player to Michael Jordan, the greatest individual postseason performer in league history. Even Bill Russell lost once in the Finals. But the world changed how it perceives and absorbs the NBA in the past decade more than Jordan changed the world. While it is true that once Jordan became a champion he never would lose again, it is also true that Jordan was not an infallible postseason performer, evidenced by his struggles early in his career, when the league boasted three legitimate powers in Boston, Los Angeles and Detroit.
Nor did Jordan, because the technology did not exist, have to deal with the instant legacy phenomenon. How differently he would have been viewed in the social media/television world after missing an easy 12-foot game winner at the end of the first overtime in his 63-point masterpiece loss to the Celtics back in '86, or after his frustrations at the hands of the Pistons, or in light of the fact that even 17 years later, he has never quite explained why he retired from basketball.
Plenty of examples exist of A-list players who suffered spectacular failures during the biggest games of their careers, where it appeared the moment was too big, and they wanted to win so badly the pressure prevented them from playing their game. Chris Webber comes to mind, as did, for a time, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds in baseball. Those players had to learn how to become playoff performers, how to allow the game to slow and how to be themselves.
Nowitzki has never fallen into this category. He has always been a formidable player. He was not immune to the bitter loss against Miami in the 2006 Finals, which was considered a collapse because the Mavericks led in games 2-0 and were up by 13 points with six minutes left in Game 3, only to lose. The Mavericks would not win another game, losing three of the final four games by two, one and three points. His worst postseason came the following year, when the driven Mavericks were embarrassed by Golden State, the eighth seed.
But Nowitzki was merely a part of the bad energy that surrounded the Mavericks, their coach, Avery Johnson, and the negative momentum that is a part of surviving losses that should have been victories. Devastating losses have devastating consequences to a franchise.
The Mavericks suffered a hangover and then were simply not a great team in an extremely competitive conference, losing to the Spurs last season, beating them the year before but losing to Denver in the conference semifinals and losing in 2008 to an inspired New Orleans club. Since losing to Golden State, at no point had the Mavericks been anything but a good to very good team in a conference full of them, until their playoffs resurgence this spring.
If he is guilty of anything, it is that Nowitzki's game is not suited for the playoffs. He is at his best when he is using all of his weapons -- his height and agility going to the rim combined with a deadly shooting touch -- and at his worst when he is a one-dimensional jump shooter.
Traditionally, jump shooting big men struggle in the playoffs. Defenses are sharper. Officials allow for a more physical style of play and offenses get pushed further out, taking some players out of their comfortable shooting range. Kevin Garnett in his postseasons with the Timberwolves and Karl Malone in two Finals battles with the Bulls were examples of this. Nowitzki has always been at his best when he buttresses his shot with penetration, his breakthrough coming in the second round of 2006, when he almost single-handedly destroyed the San Antonio Spurs, his greatest rival, with a devastating array of long- and mid-range shots and dribble penetration. That was Nowitzki at his best, as it was with his game winner in Game 2.
Nowitzki's legacy, which will change because he's still active, is nevertheless secure as a great player. Charles Barkley never won a title. Julius Erving won one, lost in the Finals three times, and blew a 3-1 lead to the Celtics in '81, yet he is an unassailable, great player.
Nor should we forget that in Larry Bird's first four years, his Celtics were dusted in five by Philadelphia in 1980, lost to the Sixers in seven in 1982 despite having home court and winning Game 1 by 40 -- yes, 40 points -- and were swept in the second round despite having home court in 1983 by Milwaukee. Only in 1981 did Bird come through, winning a title but only after the 76ers blew a 3-1 series lead in an epic Game 7. Superstars don't always win, but they carry their teams beyond their capabilities.
Nowitzki suffers less from an inability to play championship-level basketball and far more from the narrow-mindedness of the instant legacy attitude. Everyone talking needs to take a deep breath.
Championships can be won in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, but they are often lost long before that. Perhaps Nowitzki will win a championship during his NBA career, perhaps as soon as this week. If he does, he will not have to answer the question of whether he was a big-time player. If he does not, the public and media should know better than to ask.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
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