Column: The Greatest Of All Time Debate

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I was flipping through a little earlier this week, and I came across an interesting article based on something Rick Carlisle said in one of his media availabilities. On the subject of Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy, Carlisle said Dirk was one of the 12 greatest players of all time.


That’s high praise. The first thing that comes to mind is thank goodness this is not another Mount Rushmore of [fill in the blank] discussion, because at the very least 12 gives us more wiggle room than those four stone-chiseled heads. But trying to carve out a spot for 12 players in the history of the league is a very, very difficult task. And to put Dirk in that category is incredibly high praise.

Here’s the reasoning, and it’s not just because Carlisle is incredibly partial to the leader of his squad that brought him so much success and an NBA title in Dallas. It is a credible assertion based on statistics:


He said, according to the Marc Stein article: “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 that top 10 in all-time scoring validates that even more.”

You can’t argue with fact, and that is fact. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon have also completed that trifecta. And to validate Carlisle’s statement, he’s either coached or played with or against everyone on that list aside from Chamberlain.

So there’s that.

Nowitzki is no question one of the greatest basketball players we’ve ever seen. He’s nearly single-handedly transformed the power forward position into a spot players like Kevin Love can succeed both inside and out. He’s a perennial All-Star, a guy who kept the Mavs in the thick of the title hunt for more than a decade and, when the time comes, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

As a working professional, I’ve interviewed Nowitzki both here at Target Center and at All-Star Weekends. I’ve witnessed first-hand that he is one of the most humble and gracious superstars in basketball, and he’s as approachable off the court as he is nearly unstoppable on it.

And as you know, on the court he is one of a kind—once in a generation, no doubt. Wolves coach Rick Adelman called his one-legged fade-away jumper “unreasonable,” a shot he perfected over his career. By and large, Adelman is right. It’s one of the most unstoppable shots of our era.

So it’s not outlandish to consider Nowitzki one of the best of all time. He’s in that conversation. It’s just really hard to quantify or narrow it down—even to 12. Different eras produced different talents, and since we’re currently in the seventh decade of NBA basketball, there’s a lot of talent to choose from.

Plus, there’s a loop hole in Carlisle’s argument.

The NBA Finals MVP wasn’t created until 1969. So that means the player the award is currently named after, Bill Russell, played just one season during the existence of the Finals MVP award. His Celtics did win that year, 4-3 over the Lakers in the 1969 Finals, but Jerry West and his 37.9 points per game in the series won the award. Had Russell, an 11-time NBA champion, played in an era when the Finals MVP was awarded every year, he likely would have won a few of those coveted trophies.

And he’s got to be in the conversation as one of the best of all time.

Julius Erving is another player up for discussion. He made 16 straight All-Star Games (5 ABA, 11 NBA), won four MVPs (three ABA, one NBA) and won three rings (two ABA, one NBA). But Moses Malone, his teammate, won the 1983 Finals MVP. There was no ABA Finals MVP to my knowledge, but they did give out an overall playoffs MVP. Dr. J won that twice.

The list goes on.

So what I’m saying is this: The NBA has a long history of elite players who could be considered among the greatest of all time. It’s impossible to narrow it down to a distinct list. The Mount Rushmore debate is completely laughable, because finding the “four” best players in NBA history is absolutely impossible. Different eras, different positions, different skill sets and different criteria completely prohibit any chance of narrowing the list to four. Even 12 is impossible, for me, because the 14 guys mentioned in this article alone are worthy. Where do you draw the line, and what do you do with other greats like Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, George Gervin, etc. Where do you draw this line?

The best part about sports is we can debate this forever. And we will. That’s what we do. And as time goes on, we’ll have more greats coming along to add to the list.

Maybe the better question is: Who will join the conversation next?


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