Kevin Garnett recently revealed his top five power forwards of all time. Garnett was humble in leaving himself off the list, but anyone who has followed his career knows he thinks himself ahead of at least two of those players.
The excuse for letting go is understandable. But there’s another omission that’s glaring, especially for this Dallas Mavericks fan. Dirk Nowitzki is undoubtedly one of the top five power forwards of all time. Karl Malone is the only power forward to score more points and no other power forward can match Nowitzki’s combination of an MVP, Finals MVP and 30,000 career points.
Garnett was no stranger to Nowitzki’s greatness. Nowitzki and his Mavericks completely destroyed Garnett in their only playoff game. Nowitzki averaged 33.3 points, 15.7 rebounds and staggering shooting spreads of 52.6% from the field, 72.7% on three and 88.9% from the free throw line on the way to a three-game best-of-five series sweep.
Considering Nowitzki’s dominance in this series, it’s possible that Garnett has repressed the memories. Garnett was a fantastic player and, like Nowitzki, was given the Sisyphus task of pushing a less talented team up a mountain to take on the dynasties of the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in the early 2000s Western Conference.
A common discussion would have you believe that Garnett was struggling with rosters far below those of Nowitzki at this time. It’s wrong. Garnett played with more skill than most people remember. He has performed with Chauncey Billups, Wally Sczerbiak, Sam Cassell, Terrell Brandon and Latrell Sprewell among others. Nowitzki has performed with Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Jason Terry, Nick Van Exel and Antawn Jamison among others. This talent gap is a bit smaller than common discussion would have you believe.
Both players eventually broke through to win a title, but they did it in different ways. Garnett ditched his rock and mountain to form a Hydra in Boston with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. All three are inner-circle Hall of Famers who were surrounded by a strong supporting cast.
Nowitzki never gave up on his rock or his mountain or the city of Dallas. Nowitzki finally pushed the boulder to the top of the mountain in one of the most inspiring and joyful championship runs in NBA history with the 2011 title. This run truly inspires the thoughts of a mythological hero when we consider all that Nowitzki had to overcome. The Mavericks started the playoffs with a hurdle as Caron Butler, who had arguably been their second best player, was out for the year. They dispatched the Portland Trailblazers in six games despite a healthy combination of Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge who would be more fondly remembered were it not for Roy’s injury issues.
Then they faced the first titan on their way. The Los Angeles Lakers had just won back-to-back titles and were dominating in size. The Lakers had a versatile Hall of Fame European striker in Pau Gasol and an intimidatingly large squad that could turn opponents to stone. Like Perseus attacking Medusa, Nowitzki and the Mavericks used a mirror (their own Hall of Fame all-round forward) and a sword (their three-point shot) to destroy the Lakers. The Mavericks swept the Lakers and ended a dynasty.
The Mavericks then faced the Oklahoma City Thunder which was basically a basketball Chimera. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and a young James Harden provided the three Chimera headers, but once again the Mavericks and Nowitzki, this time chosen as Bellerophon, were able to prevail. Nowitzki put on perhaps the greatest display of clean shooting and contested shooting in basketball history during this series, especially in Game 1. Nowitzki scored 48 points on just 15 shots as he made his 24 free throws.
Finally, after defeating these monsters, the Mavericks had one more monster to defeat. The Miami Heat and their “big three” of Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had formed their own Hydra. Nowitzki and the Mavericks used the fire of their persistence and courage to knock out each of the three seeds en route to a six-game win and Nowitzki’s only championship.
The 2011 Mavericks Championship was truly a hero’s journey for Nowitzki and the culmination of more than a decade of strife and toil. The bitter taste of those failures is what made the victory so sweet and why Mavericks fans will go to such lengths to protect Nowitzki’s legacy.
Nowitzki should be ahead of Garnett on all-time forward lists, but it’s an understandable argument and the two are often compared. The problem with this list isn’t that Garnett thinks he’s better than Nowitzki, it’s that Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace are better.
Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time. Karl Malone is the third leading scorer of all time and was a beast on both sides. Charles Barkley was a force on the pitch who nearly beat Michael Jordan in his prime before becoming a TNT host. Rasheed Wallace was an incredible talent who never fully realized his potential. Chris Webber was the same, although much closer than Wallace.
If you ask NBA fans of the day about Wallace, their earliest memories will be of what he might have been and technical fouls. If someone refers to the quality of a person, there is an inherent understanding that they weren’t as good as they could have been.
Pure point totals aren’t always a way to tell players apart, but a good way to explain how far Wallace is from Nowitzki in terms of legacy is to review their respective point totals. Nowitzki had 31,560 points in his career. Wallace had 16006 points in his. This means that if Wallace had repeated his career and accomplished the exact same things he did in his actual career, he would only have 452 points more than Nowitzki.
Webber was a truly special talent. He met Nowitzki often in the early 2000s and his Sacramento Kings team was one of the most fun teams to watch. But the warning of what might have been also hinders his legacy. Wallace was a fantastic defender, but Webber was a liability to that end. His case is purely based on the offense. He scored barely more than Wallce, ending his career with 17,182 points. This number again pales in comparison to Nowitzki’s, as if doubled it would yield less than 3000 points more than Nowitzki’s actual career.
Nowitzki won’t say anything about this list. He doesn’t have to. If someone says Lebron James is better than Jordan, Jordan might very well respond. But if someone says Donovan Mitchell is better than Jordan, they’re unlikely to say anything. Indeed, responding means that the initial comment is at least worth considering. In this case, the idea that Webber and Wallace deserve to be higher is so ludicrous that Nowitzki even admitting the idea would be giving it more legitimacy than it deserves. Nowitzki was in a different class from Wallace and Webber. And despite what Garnett said, he’s clearly one of the top five power forwards of all time.