Comparing Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki is not completely zany. They’re both taller players who could thrive in the post, swish from the perimeter, shoot almost unblockable shots from well above their heads, look somewhere in between “goofy” and “weird-looking”, force mismatches regardless of their defender, and yes, their skin is pasty white.
In the long history basketball, Nowitzki is the closest thing to a Bird doppelganger ever to play Dr. James Naismith’s game. Over the years he has even become hardened by competition, turning himself into the most ruthless outside-shooting European NBA import ever—and for the record, qualifying Dirk with the term “European import” does him no justice, because he’s the best-shooting seven-footer ever to launch a Spalding at a rim, regardless of nationality, origin, hair color, skin color, or any other qualifier ever used.
Bird would like everyone to know he is not appalled when people mention Dirk’s name with his own; he’s actually honored by the comparisons. (ESPN Dallas)
“He’s had a great run (in the playoffs), but I’ve always been very impressed with him,” Bird said. “His work ethic, his loyalty to his country. It’s really an honor for me to have people compare us.
“He rebounds. He plays at his own pace. He sort of controls the tempo on offense. It’d be nice to be 7 foot and when they run plays and switch (defenders) on him, it doesn’t bother him at all. He can see over everybody.
“He’s got the step-backs. He gets to the rim. The difficulty of some of the shots that he makes … one thing about him is that he’s always got great balance. His shot looks like he’s falling away, but he’s got a lot of balance when the shot goes up.
“I understand (the comparisons). I’ve always felt it’s an honor when they compare anyone to me, because I haven’t played ball for 20 years.”
Like Bird, I’m okay with the comparisons. . . as long as nobody lofts Dirk Nowitzki to a status somewhere ahead of Larry Bird.
Dirk never reached Bird’s level. He did not. Bird won three straight MVP’s. He was the unquestioned best player in basketball. He was arguably the game’s greatest and most creative passing forward, not just during his time but of all times. He rebounded, he defended, he won, and most importantly, he always kicked ass. Dirk, for all that he has been, never did all that. Even when he won his lone MVP, the award should have come with two asterisks: 1) Kobe Bryant was the best player that year; Dirk won by merit of the “best player on the best team” argument. And 2) after Dirk vomited all over his sneakers against Golden St. in the first round (he shot 38% for the series) while his one-seeded Mavericks were ousted, the MVP presentation should have been canceled. No unbiased observers still believed Dirk deserved the award, no matter how high his PER had been that season (his PER that year led the NBA and bested any of Bird’s seasons).
After noting that Dirk Nowitzki never held the conch as the NBA’s best player, Dirk has done it longer than Bird did. He has been more consistent for a longer period of time, and while Bird transcended, Dirk’s ability to improve, plug on year after year and lead the Mavericks to 50+ wins each season impresses in ways Bird’s short but brilliant career did not. As Bill Simmons wrote earlier this season, “Two more years at this level and Judge Simmons will begrudgingly have to start taking ‘Would you rather have nine transcendent years from Bird or 13 killer Nowitzki years plus the five after that when he reinvents himself as the greatest version of mid-1990s Sam Perkins ever?’ arguments.”
But I’m not ready to accept that argument, because while Dirk stayed magnificent for longer, Bird operated in his own stratosphere for three seasons and breathed the air of legends for many more. And though I argued yesterday that playoff success normally comes down to teams rather than individuals, the two biggest failures of Dirk’s teams not-so-coincidentally came when he was at his worst. No amount of playoff outbursts against the Oklahoma City Thunder can erase Dirk’s 39% shooting in the ’06 Finals, nor can Dirk erase his 38% shooting during the meltdown against Golden St. Not all losses are created equal; for Dirk, those losses rightfully stain an otherwise stellar career.
A career Bird respects, the reason he feels honored by the Dirk comparisons. But when did Larry Bird become so humble? If you could put an in-his-prime Bird into a time machine to play against Dirk, here’s what would have happened:
Bird would strut onto the court, wearing shorts that ended seven inches above his knees. He would look at Dirk and tell him, “People have been comparing us, huh?”
Dirk would nod as Bird looked Dirk over, up and down, from head to toe, like a teenager checking out a cute girl at the mall.
“Make sure you guard me all night long, Dirk,” he would say. “Even if I said I was honored by the comparisons, you can’t hold my jock.”