When Dirk passed Oscar Robertson to become a top-10 all-time NBA scorer on Tuesday night, I noticed some similar themes across basketball Twitter and in the national media.
And on and on. Marc Stein released an article today on ESPN.com titled "Dirk Nowitzki among upper echelon?" that I assume is only the first of many similar articles in the upcoming months and years debating Dirk's place in NBA history. And in the aftermath of Dirk becoming one of the 10 best scorers ever, I had a couple of different reactions to all the Dirk love that has been springing up.
First, and most obviously, I was proud. As a Mavs fan, and specifically as a Dirk fan, it's fantastic that NBA fans and writers and commentators are finally gushing about Dirk as much as we have been for years.
But I also found myself asking, "Where were you guys five years ago?" It seems fairly clear that the majority of basketball fandom has accepted Dirk as an all-time great at this point, but we all remember that just a few years ago, opinions on Dirk were decidedly more mixed. So I thought it would be interesting to just look back a bit and see how "the narrative" around Dirk has changed over the years.
The unheralded Würzburg Wunderkind
When Dirk was taken with the ninth pick in the 1998 draft, I imagine the most common reaction was "who?" It wasn't uncommon for international players to be taken so highly in the NBA draft, but usually these players (like Tim Duncan) made names for themselves starring on NCAA basketball teams, thus exposing them to NBA teams and audiences. Dirk had never played outside of Germany, which really didn't have a very good basketball league even by European standards. When the Mavericks (technically the Bucks but you know what I mean) picked the awkward, scrawny kid with a terrible haircut one spot ahead of Kansas star Paul Pierce, it's hardly surprising that most of the national media assumed the pick was a big reach.
Dirk ended up starting in about half of the games in his lockout-shortened rookie season, including the first one. However, he was awkward, timid and played so little defense even his teammates were calling him "Irk." In the only season of his career where he played fewer than 30 minutes a game and averaged single digit points per game, "rookie Dirk" certainly played into the narrative that he was, at best, completely unprepared for NBA competition and, at worst, destined to be a huge bust. But oh, how that would change -- and quickly.
Dirk and the Mavs grow up together, but fail to shed the "soft" label
Something changed after that first season, though it took a few years for the narrative to catch up. A lot of people thought Nellieball was gimmicky, but it really played to the strengths of the Mavs' Dirty, Nasty and Filthy triumvirate. Dirk, Nash and Finley could SCORE POINTS. While it was awesome to watch -- and Dirk certainly got a lot of recognition once he showed he could shoot from all over the court -- this sort of play did nothing to help alleviate the "soft" epitaph that would plague Dirk through most of his career.
Still, Dirk didn't take long to prove why it was the Mavs gambled on him in the '98 draft. In 2001, Dirk made the All-NBA third team, and the Mavs made the playoffs for the first time since 1990. In the next few years, Dirk was the keystone as the Mavericks went from laughing stock to contender.
Nash left and Finley declined, but Dirk just kept getting better. Dirk was always an underrated rebounder, but during the early aughts it really felt like Dirk was trying to fight against the narrative, putting on some muscle and really working on his defense. Yet he still couldn't shed the soft label. At the time, it felt like Dirk was widely regarded as one of the best scorers in the league but lacked the intangibles or all-around game to carry his team to the promised land. The travesty that was to occur in the '06 Finals would only "confirm" this belief in the minds of many.
Dirk the choker will never be an all-time great until he gets a ring
I'm really in no mood to rehash the '06 Finals. It will forever be a sore spot. But one of the worst consequences of those Finals was the feeling that Dirk was never going to get the national recognition or respect he deserved. Of course, those Finals were not the first time the Mavs had lost a playoff series in which Dirk was not his usual phenomenal self. But it was the biggest stage, and it really cemented the feeling among most non-Mavs fans that Dirk was a choke artist. He may have won the MVP in 2007, but it really felt like all anyone could talk about was "Yeah, but he doesn't have a ring."
Once the Mavs began making a habit of first round playoff exits, it felt as though we would never get the right team around Dirk to really prove everyone wrong. Fortunately, Rick Carlisle and the greatest Maverick team of all time would save Dirk from the narrative.
The most fascinating thing about the 2011 NBA Finals in terms of "the narrative" is that Dirk was arguably only nominally the actual MVP of those Finals. Dirk was beat up and sick, and the Mavs won that series AS A TEAM.
And yet, the perspective on Dirk changed. Dirk never got much credit for all those years that he carried subpar teams on his back and came up short. In this narrative, he was good, not great. After 2011, all the hand-wringing just seemed to evaporate. Which is really frustrating to me, since it isn't like Dirk changed. He didn't find some new gear or magically become "clutch." He just finally had a great coach and a team that really worked well around him.
Was it unfair? Unbelievably so. But in addition to bringing joy to Mavs fans everywhere, the Mavs' NBA Championship was so huge because it finally allowed the larger NBA world to see Dirk through a more objective lens. Prior to the championship, everyone seemed to think they could ignore the MVP, the stats, the all-NBA teams, and the actual performances because "well he doesn't have a ring so he can't really be great." But now, for the most part, Dirk is finally recognized for what he is: one of the All-Time Greats.
Since the championship, the most common narrative around Dirk has been the same one the Spurs have been deflecting for years: when is Dirk going to lose a step? Yet when he's been healthy, Dirk has showed few signs of slowing down. Every now and again he has a slump that might not have happened several years ago, but Dirk is still Dirk. The same year that he becomes one of the top 10 NBA scorers, he is tantalizingly close to becoming a repeat member of the vaunted 50-40-90 club.
Talking heads can go ahead and keep wondering when Dirk is going to slow down; whether he ever actually starts to decline, I'm just glad that we can finally all agree that Dirk is a living legend. Not just the greatest Mav ever. Not just a certain Hall of Famer. Dirk is legitimately one of the greatest players in the storied history of the NBA.
So suck it, narrative.