Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki had some legendary matchups over the years. As two of the league’s best power forwards of their generation, and two who spent long portions of their primes in the Western Conference, they matched up throughout the season. Dirk was the skilled shooter; KG was the intense defender. Because they were so different, it makes this debate so fun.
Today, we’re arguing about who was better: Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett? We argue. You decide.
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Dirk does work far beyond what the average fan understands, and likely until the end of time, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will be compared. The trio redefined the power forward position, all three highlighting the league’s superstar crop for more than a decade. While Duncan has pushed his name further up the chain with greater overall team success, Nowitzki vs. Garnett is very much an open debate. At least it is for most–to me the answer is clear: when looking back ten years from now, I will hold Nowitzki in slightly higher esteem. Nowitzki is one of the most efficient offensive players of all time. People like to underplay Nowitzki but the truth is he’s one of a kind. There have been tons of stretch fours over the past 20 years but none have been an MVP, won a championship, and led a team to 12 straight playoff appearances like Dirk did.
People may say, “Garnett wasn’t as good offensively but he was way better defensively.” They’re right and they’re wrong. Garnett in his prime was better defensively but Nowitzki wasn’t just better offensively, he was significantly better. Nowitzki’s defensive ineptitude is vastly overplayed. By his peek in the mid-2000s, he was an above-average defender and despite playing out of position, often at the center spot, he anchored three straight top ten defenses from ’05-06 through ’07-08.
In Nowitzki’s MVP season, the Mavericks defense ranked fourth in terms of opponent’s points against. In Garnett’s MVP season, the Timberwolves defense ranked seventh. So let’s not go crazy and act like Nowitzki was a liability. He wasn’t a defensive stalwart but he got the job done and carried the frontcourt work at both ends for the Mavericks until the eventual arrival of Tyson Chandler. Keep in mind this was the first and only season the Mavericks had a quality defensive center in the Nowitzki era and they won a title that season.
People may say, “Garnett worked with inferior talent.” Well, did he really? Let’s evaluate.
Over their careers, Nowitzki has had a player on his team elected to an All-Star Game seven times. Garnett has had a teammate elected to an All-Star Game on 16 occasions. On the way to Garnett’s only championship, he shacked up in Boston with two other Hall of Famers, both still in their prime. (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) Both Pierce and Allen were elected to the All-Star Game that season and the Celtics were hyped as the preseason title favorites. People forget but it was Pierce–not Garnett–elected Finals MVP. The Celtics were the league favourite from day one, and they never looked back.
Nowitzki had zero All-Stars on the squad the year he won a championship. The Mavericks were the underdog in all four rounds of the postseason and only lost five games total. The Celtics lost ten games that postseason, going to Game 7 in the first and second round. The Average Hawks, sorry Atlanta Hawks, and Cleveland Cavaliers almost dethroned a Celtics team that won 66 games. Even in Minnesota, Garnett only got Minnesota out of the first round one time. There is this speculation that the year Garnett won his MVP he was surrounded with inept talent but it’s just not true. Sam Cassell was in his prime, and Latrell Sprewell was a solid third option who played both ends of the court. Even Wally Szczerbiak, though he missed time, was only two years removed from an All-Star appearance.
In Nowitzki’s MVP season they won 67 regular season games, which is tied for the fourth most in NBA history. His surrounding cast of Josh Howard, Jason Terry and a past his prime Jerry Stackhouse is extremely comparable.
People may say “Dirk is a choke artist; he never showed up early on in the big games.” This is a criminal fallacy. Seriously, Nowitzki is arguably the best closer in NBA history. We’re talking about a seven-foot jump shooter who led the league in WS/48 for three straight seasons. An assassin who still can’t be defended and gets his shot off at any time, from any place on the court. I don’t think people realize how valuable that is.
All the props aside, over his career, Nowitzki has averaged more points (plus-3.3), and rebounds (plus-2.2) in the postseason than in the regular season. A player who “doesn’t show up in the big games” does not exceed expectations in the postseason. Nowitzki constantly poured himself into the big games. He scored 40-plus points seven times in the playoffs. Garnett scored 40-plus points zero times in the postseason. Nowitzki scored 30-plus points on 45 separate occasions in the postseason; Garnett accomplished the same feat only nine times. So let’s not act like it’s close in terms of offensive output, especially when it mattered most.
Garnett has played in only three more playoff games despite being in the league three more years. Let’s also remember Nowitzki is part of the illustrious 50-40-90 club. If he wasn’t clutch how could he possibly maintain that kind of insane efficiency? Twenty-two times Nowitzki has made a field goal to take the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime of a postseason game. Garnett, who attempts easier shots closer to the basket, has only converted 12 attempts under the same duress. Nowitzki has also consistently been a leader of fourth quarter scoring.
Also, in the prime of their careers, Nowitzki and Garnett did meet in the playoffs. The Mavericks swept the Timberwolves 3-0 in the first round. Garnett was not playing on his own, as Szczerbiak was in the midst of an All-Star campaign averaging over 18 points a game, shooting 50-40-80 from the field.
Chauncey Billups had also started to come to fruition and averaged 22 points in the playoffs. How did Nowitzki and Garnett fair? They both played like megastars. Garnett averaged 24 and 19 on 43 percent shooting. Nowitzki, however, bested him by averaging 33 and 16, shooting 53 percent from the field. They each took 19 shots a game but Dirk averaged nine more points in the series. In the elimination game, Nowitzki had 39 points, 17 rebounds and shot 65 percent to seal the Timberwolves fate.
When we look back on Nowitzki’s career we should remember that he was loyal to one franchise, playing all his seasons with the same club. He won an MVP, Finals MVP, championship and had 10 All-NBA appearances with the same franchise, which is a feat that has only been matched by eight other players.
Nowitzki and his 2011 Mavericks dethroned the Lakers as they were attempting a three-peat, schooled Durant, Westbrook and Harden, and put some humility into Miami’s Big Three. Garnett was a great player but he did not lift his franchise to the levels Nowitzki did, plain and simple.