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Rick Carlisle: Dirk Nowitzki should be ranked as top-12 NBA player of all time

Apr 11, 2014, 11:17 AM EDT

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We overreact, in terms of historical rankings, whenever a player completes a grand accomplishment. With the milestone so fresh in our minds, our judgment gets clouded.

The issue isn’t unique to any one player, but it really seems to affect our perception of Dirk Nowitzki.

When Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the 2011 championship, the discussion suddenly went bonkers. Is he the greatest power forward ever? Is he better than Larry Bird? Is he a top-10 player ever?

Now that Nowitzki has moved into the top 10 of the all-time scoring list, we’re doing it again.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle via Marc Stein of ESPN:

“I think there’s a certain criteria where you can say pretty much for certain that he’s one of the top 12 all time,” Carlisle said in an interview that will air Thursday night on the “NBA on ESPN Radio” pregame show.

“And that is, there’s only been 12 guys that have been 10-time All-Stars, [NBA] Finals MVP and league MVP. So I think that firmly puts him in the top 12. And then getting into the top 10 in all-time scoring validates that even more.”

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Carlisle is obviously biased. He even called Nowitzki a top-10 player all-time before winning a championship (not sure why Nowitzki drops to top 12 now). That doesn’t make the Dallas coach inherently wrong, and as a close observer of Nowitzki, his opinion should count.

But I don’t think Carlisle is right.

Here are the 12 players he refers to:

Player MVPs Finals MVPs All-Star games
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6 2 19
Michael Jordan 5 6 14
LeBron James 4 2 10
Wilt Chamberlain 4 1 13
Magic Johnson 3 3 11
Larry Bird 3 2 12
Moses Malone 3 1 12
Tim Duncan 2 3 14
Shaquille O’Neal 1 3 15
Kobe Bryant 1 2 16
Hakeem Olajuwon 1 2 12
Dirk Nowitzki 1 1 12

Because the criteria were deliberately set to include Nowitzki, he ranks at or neat the bottom of the list in each category. He’s last in MVPs, last in Finals MVPs and third-to-last in All-Star games. Quite arguably, Nowitzki is the worst player on this list (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

But the list isn’t even fair to begin with.

The NBA didn’t begin awarding NBA Finals MVPs until 1969.

Bill Russell (5 MVPs, 12 All-Star games) won 10 championships before that. Take your pick how many NBA Finals MVPs he would have won during that run.

Bob Cousy (1 MVP, 13 All-Star games) won six championships prior to 1969. Though all six overlapped with Russell, it’s possible Cousy could have stolen a Finals MVP – particularly 1961, when he averaged 19.8 points, 10.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game.

Bob Pettit (2 MVPs, 11 All-Star games) won the 1958 Finals, when he led the St. Louis Hawks with 29.3 points and 17.0 rebounds per game. He definitely would have won Finals MVP that year.

Oscar Robertson (1 MVP, 12 All-Star games) played most of his career before Finals MVP existed, and though he won his only championship after it did (1971, when Lew Alcindor won Finals MVP), does Carlisle really want to argue Nowitzki belongs ahead of Robertson?

Elgin Baylor played in five finals before 1969. His Lakers lost them all, but he led most of them in scoring. If there’s anyone who was a darkhorse contender to win of those unnamed Finals MVPs while playing for a losing team, it’s him.

And what about Jerry West, who never won a regular-season MVP but finished second four times?

Carlisle’s cutoffs don’t work, and left to evaluate the full picture, it’s tough to make a compelling case for Dirk in the top 12.

But top 15…

  1. spursareold - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    Dirk is an elite scorer. Not much interested in D, though, and that dings his all time standing. Also, not nearly the creator of the other forwards on the list like Bird and LeBron. Another ding.

    • calkinsrob - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:48 AM

      dont know why your getting all of the dislikes. Im a huge dirk fan and all of your points are valid. I mean the guy is 7 feet tall and never averaged 10 rebounds a game for his career. Id be willing to put him in the top 10 PFs of all time, but im not sure where Id rank him overall all time, thats tough.

      Its also tough to rank Dirk against other PFs because hes such a different kind of player, best big man shooter ever basically right?

      • bougin89 - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:38 PM

        It is hard to judge him on stats because he did play so differently than any other 7 footer. Saying he is a stretch 4 doesn’t do Nowitzki justice. He also shouldn’t be docked so much for not getting more rebounds. He is a good rebounder just not great.

        He did have some great all around seasons, especially for someone his size. Like in 2002/03:

        25.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.0 bpg

        or 2006/07 when he was phenomenal:

        24.6 ppg, 8.9rpg, 3.4 apg, .7 spg, .8 bpg while shooting 50.2 fg%, 41.6 3pfg%, 90.4 ft%

      • nycalldayz - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:44 PM

        Dirk isn’t top 12. Mavs and Dirk Nowitzki fans can argue until blue in the face, but Dirk is not top 12. Most intelligent people are not buying the “Top 12” argument. I do think Dirk is a top 10 PF in NBA history, but if anyone thinks differently that’s fine too.

  2. aboogy123456 - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the article’s point but I don’t think we should use MVP’s and all-star games as an argument for someone’s place in history. The MVP is a media award and the all star games are skewed by the fan vote. The fact that Kobe and Shaq each only have on MVP is telling. Also, these statistics show longevity, but they overlook the argument of who’s peak was the highest, which in my opinion if more important. All that being said, the year that Dirk carried the mavs to the title was arguably the greatest postseason performance I’ve seen in the last 20 years.

    • calkinsrob - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:53 AM

      couldnt you argue Dirk was one of the only players to single-handedly lead his team to the championship? maybe not. was there another all-star on Hakeem’s rockets? Id re-watch every game from that 2011 run, that was so fun to watch.

      • calkinsrob - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:41 PM

        If youll disagree, can you post other examples. i wouldnt mind finding out about more 1 all star championship teams lol.

      • aboogy123456 - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:06 PM

        I agree with you but how about Lebron last year? I would argue that Dirk had a better supporting cast than lebron did last year. No all-stars, but Chandler was a defensive anchor, Marion was an elite perimeter defender, and everyone else did a good job playing together and hitting the open shot.

    • bougin89 - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:03 PM

      You have a very valid point about using MVP’s as a criteria. Players can absolutely have monster seasons and not win the MVP. They can also be the best player in the league and not win the MVP. Here is maybe my best evidence:

      Hakeem Olajuwon’s 89/90 season:

      24.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.1 spg, 4.6 bpg and 50.1 fg%.

      He played all 82 games but his team was 41-41. To say he didn’t have much help would basically be right on the money. I wouldn’t go as far as saying Olajuwon was the best player in the NBA that year(the NBA was loaded with all time greats playing extremely well) but he had an absolute monster season, especially defensively. In a lot of other years he could have won.

  3. soopreme - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    Carlise must be on dope or dog food.

  4. ihavenonickname - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    It’s impossible to come up with a perfect criteria for the GOAT list. But I’d say the 10 ASG, 1MVP, 1 FMVP is as good as any. And when you include the 5 exceptions that the author points out its a really nice list.
    So a pretty convincing case that puts Dirk in the top 17 all time, THATS AMAZING! I need to appreciate how great he is!

  5. aboogy123456 - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    MVPs and All star appearances should not be part of the argument because they can be biased, look how kobe and shaq each only have one. Also, these statistics show longevity, but they overlook the argument of who’s peak was the highest, which in my opinion should carry more weight.

    • aboogy123456 - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      sorry duplicate comment.

  6. eagles512 - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:49 AM

    Russell, Barkley, Robertson, Erving, Baylor….and more. Maybe top 20 is more accurate.

  7. returnofmeezle - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    Stop it. Not even close to top 12. A scorer only, 7 footer who can’t defend, block shots, or rebound. Was he EVER considered the best player or even top 3 player in the league during his career? No, not even during his MVP season. You guys didn’t see Allen Iverson in the playoffs in 2001 then. Even though they didn’t win the ring that was the best playoff performance I’ve ever seen. Dirk atleast had another future hof team mate ai had Eric Snow!

    • soopreme - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:09 PM

      Totally agree, He never made an all nba 1st team, 2nd team or any defensive team in his career.
      Its laughable to say he is a better player than Ewing, Barkley, Robinson, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore.
      Theres many players that are close to his career avg in points, but they also blocked shots and rebounded the ball.
      There is two sides of the court that you have to play.

      • calkinsrob - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:20 PM

        Hes never even made a all nba 2nd team?! thats kind of hard to believe.

      • bougin89 - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        “Totally agree, He never made an all nba 1st team, 2nd team or any defensive team in his career”

        Really would like to know how you came to that conclusion… He has 1 MVP, 1st-team All NBA(4 times), 2nd-team All NBA(5 times), 3rd-team All NBA(3 times).

      • wlubake - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:48 PM

        12× All-NBA Team: 2001–2012
        4× First Team: 2005–2007, 2009
        5× Second Team: 2002–2003, 2008, 2010–2011
        3× Third Team: 2001, 2004, 2012

      • aboogy123456 - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:57 PM

        I was also confused by his english but I think he meant to say that Dirk was never a part of any all defensive team.

    • phillyrox - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:07 PM

      Don’t know if you remember the summer of ’11 when he swept Kobe, put Durant and Westbrook back in their highchairs, and embarrassed Lebron and D-Wade on their home court. But you right, probably wasn’t considered better than any of those guys.

  8. naterich21 - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    Even though he rarely goes in the post, Dirk is a top 5 scorer of all time thanks to his unique range for a big man. But that’s all he has done at an elite level. There are so many players in NBA history that have multifaceted skill sets and impacted the game in multiple ways. And to have Dirk ahead of so many is a disrespect to those players.

    Top 30 for Dirk would be pretty generous.

    • calkinsrob - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:20 PM

      well said

  9. alongthegulf - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:21 PM

    There are a lot of NBA players that could make the ‘Top 12’ all time list. Some players like to draw attention to themselves, while some just go about their NBA business. Personally, I think the ones just going about their business often seemed to get overlooked. Dirk is certainly one in the latter category. To even be mentioned with all the players that hype themselves daily, is quite an honor in itself. To be fair, I think any list should be broken down into generations in which they played. The NBA has changed in what is asked of players and the style of play over the years. Somebody who played in the ’50s & ’60s may not be successful today. Somebody playing today, may not have been successful in the ’50s & ’60s. The NBA game is forever changing.

  10. returnofmeezle - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:24 PM

    There are 3 better scores in the league right now. Dirk is one of the reasons the league is soft now. 7 footer that basically only plays the perimeter. He is not in the top 5 of all time in any category in basketball. He’s a great shooter and an offensive match up problem but just as big a defensive liability.

    • retxedfred - Apr 11, 2014 at 9:38 PM

      How in the world would Dirk be one of the reasons the league is soft? He was tall and lanky as a youngster. He was just playing to his strengths. He wasn’t a phenom like Lebron or a monster teenager like Shaq was, but his skill was a result of all the work he put in in the offseason! Kinda like how Jordan perfected the fadeaway. In his younger years MJ didn’t have the fadeaway down pat, but over the years he became unstoppable.

  11. bougin89 - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:49 PM

    I’d rank him as the 3rd best PF of his era behind Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

    • nycalldayz - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:48 PM

      Completely agree. I’m sure you’ll have some overzealous people trolling and debating your ranking of Dirk.

  12. davidly - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    The top twelve players of all time is Skibby MaRue. Then, starting with thirteen and so on is MJ and them other guys.

  13. nycalldayz - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    What else is Carlisle suppose to say? As much as I like Nowitzki, he’s not top 12. He’s just not. I can understand being caught up in Dirk passing Oscar for 10th all-time on scoring list, but scoring only can’t justify Rick’s argument. I do believe Dirk is top 25-30 of all time. I do believe Dirk is arguably the best Euro basketball player ever. And I think Dirk is an NBA top 10 Power Forward of all time.

  14. bknowledge - Apr 11, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    From the age of 22 til the age of 32, Dirk led his team in scoring and rebounding every year except 1, when Tyson Chandler led the team in rebounds and Dallas won the championship.

    Dirk is a fringe top 20 player imo (maybe as high as 15). Unless if you count longevity a lot. He has been better for longer than most of the other great players.

  15. savvybynature - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    3rd or 4th best player of his generation!
    The list is Timmy, Kobe, Dirk/KG, in that order. KG v. Dirk is extremely close, especially with Dirk’s historic run to the Finals in 2011. That trumped anything KG has ever done in the playoffs for sure, but KG was a better rebounder, defender, shot blocker. Then again, KG seems near the end of the road and Dirk is still putting up All-Star caliber numbers. That one’s a toss up imo.

    • naterich21 - Apr 11, 2014 at 7:12 PM

      Not going to argue Dirk’s longevity, but don’t put too much weight on their performances right now. If they were the same age that reasoning would have some weight to it. But it’s arbitrary because Garnett has logged more minutes and is older

      • savvybynature - Apr 12, 2014 at 10:39 PM

        Yeah longevity makes things tricky.
        There are two ways to judge the greatest players of all time — best career or best at their peak? Neither is the “correct” way, just two different perspectives and both have validity. The best way to try and rank the greats is some combination of both, but how much you weight one v. the other is entirely subjective.

  16. sportsfan18 - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    Dirk has the 19th highest PER of all time currently. PER takes into account many things, including rebounding, defense etc… and ALL players are judged the same way via PER unlike popularity votes for All-Star nods and league MVP’s…

    Here is what PER incorporates…

    PER strives to measure a player’s per-minute performance, while adjusting for pace. A league-average PER is always 15.00, which permits comparisons of player performance across seasons.

    PER takes into account positive accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative ones, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls. The formula adds positive stats and subtracts negative ones through a statistical point value system. The rating for each player is then adjusted to a per-minute basis so that, for example, substitutes can be compared with starters in playing time debates. It is also adjusted for the team’s pace. In the end, one number sums up the players’ statistical accomplishments for that season.

    Does PER work? Well, Michael Jordan has the highest career PER of all time and he could play a little you know…

    LeBron James currently has the 2nd highest career PER of all time and he is kinda good too last I heard…

    Dirks combination of being in the top ten all time for points and in the top 20 for highest career PER puts him in rare air regardless of where one actually ranks him.

    I don’t care if one says he’s the 12th best ever, 17th or 22nd best ever… He is an all time great.

    As for his defensive rating, it’s 104 for his career, meaning he gives up 104 points per 100 possessions he’s on defense and that’s pretty good…

    Kobe’s career defensive rating is 105

    On top of that, Dirk’s career offensive rating is 117, meaning he scores 117 points for every 100 possessions.

    This makes Dirk’s spread between his offensive rating and defensive rating a plus 13.

    Kobe’s offensive rating is 111 for his career (shoots too low of a percentage compared to Dirk to score as efficiently as Dirk). So Kobe’s spread between his offensive and defensive ratings is only a plus 6.

    MJ was a plus 15 for his career.

    LeBron is a plus 14 for his career.

    Dirk is a plus 13 for his career.

    Kobe is a plus 6 for his career.

    Carmelo Anthony is only a plus 1 for his career as his career offensive rating is 108 and his career defensive rating is 107. This means that Melo basically gives up or gives back all the points on defense that he scores while being on offense.

    Dirk is an all time great and he’s better than most are aware of…

  17. wlubake - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    Will anybody feel differently when he retires the #6 scorer of all time? That’s where he’s headed. If he plays 2 more years, only playing 75 games per season and averages 15 points per game (well below is current and career averages), he ends up at 28,983 points. That passes Shaq for #6.

    Granted, LeBron will pass him relatively soon…

  18. rodwill214 - Apr 11, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    I feel like Dirk isn’t getting his respect from alot of the posts I’m reading. Let’s first acknowledge that Dirk didn’t come into the league with any experience of how differently basketball is played in America. He wasn’t a blue-chip, high draft pick like many of the 20 or 30 other players that are being referred to as ahead of him. Dirk is a 7ft jumpshooter, which would immediately cause one to dismiss his game as soft and clearly unorthodox. He came to a struggling team and played poorly for his first 2 years in the league. The best players he had with him were Michael Finley and a reluctant-to-shoot, pre-mvp Steve Nash. Dirk showed no signs of being great. He worked on his game every off-season and implemented different pieces to his game. He was initially a face-up shooter that couldn’t play with his back to the basket. And unfortunately just as he began to show signs of coming into his own, Nash/Finley both left. Since their departure, the closest thing he has had to a legitimate sidekick was Jason Terry. Just to clarify, that means that your two best players on the Mavs roster were both jumpshooters that played the game in unconventional fashion…Dirk not banging down low, and Jet Terry, an undersized shooting guard in a point guards’ body that came off the bench! Still, Dirk managed to lead his team to the Finals in 2006, where he was beaten by a team loaded with stars ie: D.Wade, Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, etc. His rough playoff series in the years after that have been well documented, all while providing career postseason averages of 25 pts/10 rebs! We all need to acknowledge his GREATNESS. I say that bcuz outside of arguably Larry Bird, has there ever been another player in league history that was the best player on his team, and accomplished as much while being primarily a jumpshooter?? Not to mention the championship run in 2011, where he had one of the most impressive roads through the Western conference (or eastern) ever. He beat a younger Portland team with Aldridge and Brandon Roy, he SWEPT the reigning champion Lakers with Kobe/Gasol and Bynum, he beat the Okc THUNDER with Durant and Westbrook in 5 games, and finally his Mavs still stand as the only team to beat the Miami Heat in a playoff series with Lebron, Wade, and Bosh. I’m trying to provide a little perspective people. Again, I appreciate GREATNESS. And I’m not alone bcuz Kobe, Durant, and Lebron have all incorporated Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway into their offensive repertoires. It’s also worth noting that Michael Jordan had Nowitzki on his short, 4-player list of individuals that could also play successfully in his era. So seriously, reconsider how you view Dirk aka German-Chocolate as a player, bcuz only 9 other guys have scored more points than he has in league history. He did all this, not with ankle-breaking moves or an over-powering low-postgame. That man became one of the greatest with simply mastering a flock of the wrist…

    • rodwill214 - Apr 11, 2014 at 3:37 PM

      Correction: “flick” of the wrist

  19. tdl8 - Apr 11, 2014 at 4:35 PM

    The same guys that are saying Dirk is top 12 all time are the ones that think Troy Aikman is the best QB of all time, Emmitt Smith is the greatest RB, and Michael Irvin is the greatest WR! Dallas is full of band wagon fans that live in their own little bubble and don’t know anything about any other players in the league or the history of the league unless they are living in the past talking about the Cowboys from 20 years ago or the 2011 Mavs!
    Dirk is an above average player that had a few streaks of greatness in 3 or 4 seasons during his 15 year career ending with the 2011 title(and he hasn’t done anything since). Dirk wouldn’t even make my top 10 of best players to play the game since his rookie year! He shouldn’t even make the top 25 of all time!
    Kobe, Shaq, Lebron, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Dywane Wade, Allen Iverson and Karl Malone all did just as much or more than Dirk and all played during Dirk’s career. All of them either have titles or MVP awards or both during Dirk’s career and all of them were better all around players than Dirk at their position. I didn’t even talk about guys like Durant, Westbrick, Derrick Rose, Rondo, Hibbert, Paul George, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, etc. that could all end up better than Dirk! Durant will for sure, no question about it!
    Dirk doesn’t rebound or play defense so how is he top 12 of all time again? 8 rebounds a game for a supposed great player that is 7’0″ is pathetic!

    • sportsfan18 - Apr 12, 2014 at 4:20 PM

      Dirk is in the top 10 all time for scoring and will go higher still. He currently has the 19th highest PER of all time too.

      He is NOT in the top 10 all time and the top 12 that Carlise said isn’t right either. He is solidly in the discussion for be in the top 20 all time when one looks at all the stats… somewhere around 18th, 19th or 20th best all time.

      Since his 2nd season in the NBA, he’s been remarkably consistent and consistently good.

  20. ProBasketballPundit - Apr 11, 2014 at 5:32 PM

    I remember all the Mavericks’ choke jobs more than their one championship. The Warriors handed their tail to them the time they won 67 games and Dirk won MVP. What a joke.

    • naterich21 - Apr 11, 2014 at 7:13 PM

      I was mad for Steve Nash that year, he had his best year as a Sun but because of the Mavs record, Dirk stopped Nash from getting his 3rd straight MVP. Then they lost to the Warriors, gotta admit that was hilarious.

      • ProBasketballPundit - Apr 12, 2014 at 12:14 PM

        Nash deserved the MVP that year more than he did the previous two. That’s the year I learned that the MVP race is a popularity contest. Whoever is being talked about the most and whichever team is the hottest will win it. Just like the upstart Bulls; they win a ton of games, they’re the talk of the league and that makes Derrick Rose MVP? He finished ninth in PER. Thibodeau definitely should have been coach of the year but instead they gave all the credit to Rose.

  21. mackcarrington - Apr 11, 2014 at 6:47 PM

    Isn’t 12 about as arbitrary a number as you can make?
    You can bend numbers over backwards to make him one of the top 5 players if you wanted to.

  22. ernwop64 - Apr 11, 2014 at 8:48 PM

    Very good player nothing special.A fineness player at the power forward.When you talk about how good of a jump shooter a 7 footer is i you can keep him.

  23. lakerade - Apr 12, 2014 at 5:04 AM

    Doc Carlisle.

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