Often it’s discussed “who is the greatest to never win the big one?” and we pontificate the various what-if moments, the coin flips that went against them seemingly at every turn. I’m not very big on rings, I often rank Jerry West above Kobe Bryant and think anyone who doesn’t is just valuing his five titles over West’s single championship. It’s fairly vein. But I am not a “Death to Rings” man either. I am the cliché “both sides have a point” advocate. But at some point you have to win the goddamn game. Otherwise sports is just watching a bunch of rich strangers dick around for a couple hours.
When that player we watched for so many years come agonizingly short suddenly puts all the pieces together it’s sweet – with some caveats of course. While LeBron James and Kevin Durant are among the greatest fifteen to ever play and you can’t devalue their titles in substance, in sentiment you surely could. You can believe they were in the right and that’s fine, the bottom line is they ran from their previous failures into more favorable situations to achieve the accolades the Internet and television people demand they chase.
It is sweeter when you see someone like Dirk Nowitzki put all the demons to bed in what turned out to be final chance at glory in 2011. And to a lesser extent Giannis this past season. Sure, he’s only in eighth year but modern NBA media landscape makes everything feel longer than it actually is. Giannis’ eight-years are more impressive than LeBron’s and his best teammate throughout it all was Khris Middleton. People poo-poo the final three first era LeBron teams but they couldn’t have been that much worse than the 2021 Bucks.
It is extremely likely we’ll see Giannis raise one or two more banners before his time is over. But for Dirk him rushing to the locker room to cry tears of joy, defeating the mighty Dwayne Wade and LeBron was the final moment of relevance in his long and storied career. Tasting only better considering the Miami Heat defeated Dirk in 2006, with Wade as their best player getting favorable foul call after foul call from the crooked Tim Donaghy. This was not redemption, this was correcting a dastardly wrong that sent Nowitzki and his franchise into a tale spin of heartbreaking losses three of the following four years while Shaq achieved a higher status having won without Kobe, and Wade was the last superstar to win a championship on a rookie contract.
2006 could have been a watershed moment for basketball if Dallas won. The makeup of Avery Johnson’s team was the height of the pre-super team era. Since the fall of the Shaq/Kobe Lakers in 2004 the subsequent years were plentiful for teams hoping to overcome their flaws en route to their ultimate goal. You know, what sports is supposed to be? Not just a bunch of buddies teaming up because they felt like it.
Under no circumstances will you see a team play Dirk next to Erick Dampier and get away with it to the extent the Mavericks did nowadays. But Dampier and his backup DeSagana Diop had their moments despite the idiocy in them playing to begin with.
Another favorite from the team, in my opinion was Jerry Stackhouse. Classic case of someone you’d like to have in a fight, but had no business being the third best player on a potential championship team. Oh, and Jason Terry was their second best player. God I love this era of basketball.
Just like in 2011 the Mavericks route to the finals was just as impressive. Overthrowing the defending champion Spurs in a legendary seven-game series, and the Phoenix Suns ya the peak of their powers lead by former teammate Steve Nash.
While the western conference in 2006 was lead by forward thinking organizations, the East was helmed by stone aged tactics. Detroit played a slow style similar to getting beaten half to death in a bar. The Heat had one real superstar, a bunch of over the hill famous names and a celebrity head coach. While Dirk’s less than stellar cast did complimented him, Wade’s likely did little for him.
The differences between the two leagues was apparent and while many didn’t care for the diversity I would kill to have this now.
Dallas could play small, big, slow or fast. For a team that still treated the 3-point line like it didn’t exist Johnson – along with Donn Nelson helmed an extremely versatile roster.
All Miami did was run everything through Wade in what maybe was the best version of any attempt to copy the MJ-formula of one guy does everything. This was a clear clashing of styles. A battle for the soul of basketball, Bill Simmons framed it as.
Dirk grew from an awkward, soft inside presence to developing a bonafide post game and seemingly an answer for everything. We forget the table was set for his “arrival” in 2006. Shaq is declining. Kobe is floundering without him and Phil Jackson. The Spurs had just been knocked off. Everyone views the Suns scheme as suspect.
If Dallas won it usher in a brief golden age Of basketball. An era of enlightenment.
“Hey, flexibility is awesome. Even if the guys we have are flawed let’s try to find a place for them rather than just quitting on them or making them camp out in the corner.”
“It be nice to get an extra superstar next to ours, but we can also compliment him with really good role players that’ll be elevated by our superstar.”
“Ah man, we blew this Steve Nash thing. But our infrastructural fortitude can ride this out!”
And Dirk would be the poster child for this era. The post Kobe/Shaq era would belong to Dirk and maybe his teams don’t have those historical meltdowns in the subsequent seasons and maybe win again in not just 2011, but 2007. I know that 2007 Cavaliers team is considered a joking but getting the best of Wade and Bron in back to back years isn’t a small feat.
Sticking with the idea Dirk just gets the two championships puts him squarely into the top-20 conversion. He’d soar over Kevin Garnett and potentially even Tim Duncan. Dirk would achieve NBA cultural icon status similar to Stephen Curry. A trail blazer for the big forward position. What the Warriors experienced in the mid-2010s certainly happens to Dallas mid-2000s. Right down to the superior team the following season with your best player winning MVP.
What Miami did was knock an all-timer down a peg. Which is why we like basketball. When there’s nobody else watching your back it’s only you who can defend your legacy, Dirk lost this battle. He would lose many. But he won in the end. It’s just debatable which one was the most impactful.