For a star player, who has been one for nearly a decade, Dirk Nowitzki is fairly maligned. At the end of the '08 season, I had him as the 8th best player in the league. At the end of last season, I rated him as the 9th best. Now, I have him as the 7th best in the NBA. Few people would argue with my general placement of Dirk compared to the rest of the league's elite.
But Dirk is typically seen as a soft player. He is often derided for making the wrong judgment, usually when it comes to physically standing up to an opposing player. The reality is that Nowitzki has a European-style game. He doesn’t come with the same sense of bravado. He also isn't accustomed to using his height to punish players in the post.
This flaw resulted in the lowest point of his career. Coming off of an MVP season and with his team finishing with the best record in the league, the Mavs lost in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The Golden State Warriors, the 8th seed, were a run-and-gun club filled with wing players. All Dirk needed to do was go into the post and score at will. For whatever reason, it didn't happen and the Mavs were victimized by the greatest upset in NBA playoff history.
In recent years, Dirk has developed a game closer to the basket. Some of that is shown by the fact that he shoots far fewer three point shots compared to the early part of his career. That takes us to one odd compliment Nowitzki always receives. He's credited with being a marvel, a big guy who can shoot. My response is, so what? If anything, you want the other team's 7-footer to shoot from deep, if only because that will keep him away from the basket, which is a far more efficient shot.
Despite his relative reluctance to take the ball in the post when his team needs it, Nowitzki is a wonderful player. He’s averaged over 25 points per game 4 out of the last 6 seasons. He was pretty close in the other two seasons too (averaging 24.6 in his MVP season). During that stretch, he has been the best player on a playoff team.
A German guy once argued to me that Dirk was a better team player than (you Americans, like) LeBron or Kobe, in a bid to impress his Danish girlfriend (trying to show that he can talk about basketball with an American). The look of unbridled shock on my face seemed to shame him. But that's not Dirk's job. He's a scorer. At times, crucial playoff games included, he has been unstoppable. He possesses a dizzying myriad of ways to score the ball.
I once got into a vicious argument with a friend who contended that Dirk was a good defensive player and not the horrific defender that I thought he was. His argument went that Dirk averaged 1.5 blocks a game that past season (which turned out to be his career high) and 10 boards a game (something he's actually never done). Forget that blocks are not much of an indication of good defense, my friend later admitted 1.5 for a 7-footer isn't a whole lot. Dirk averages a decent 8.5 rebounds per game for his career, but how that relates to his ability to defend still baffles me.
But that isn't Dirk's game either. His best defense is making shots on the other end. It’s a skill he's perfected. Dirk is a go-to player when it counts, in the playoffs, where he averages 25.5 ppg (more than his 22.9 regular season mark). And for that, he is a perennial top 10 player in the NBA.