One was born in West Germany during the Cold War to a pair of renowned athletes and destined to be a professional tennis player. The other is a Virgin Islands native who spent his youth dreaming of becoming an Olympic swimmer. Despite their upbringings on different sides of the globe, the careers of both Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan have become increasingly intertwined after 15-plus years of battling against each other in the Lone Star State.
As the big men are currently engaged in what will be one of the last playoff series for each star, it would be pertinent for NBA fans to relish the duo as the NBA landscape will inexplicably change when they move on towards retirement in the next year or two.
Both Nowitzki and Duncan will hit free agency this summer. Barring one of the two fading away with a 1998 Michael Jordan storybook ending, they will each likely re-sign with their respective lifelong teams for a year or two for their final contracts. After their time comes to pass, it is not hyperbolic to think that a seismic shift will occur in the power structure of the NBA hierarchy. Since the 1999 season, the two winningest franchises in the league are the San Antonio Spurs, who have won 70.8 percent of their games, and the Dallas Mavericks, sitting at 63.7 percent.
Those two clubs, along with the Phil Jackson-led Los Angeles Lakers, ushered in the era of Western Conference dominance in the post-MJ era that is still clearly running rampant throughout the league, given how much attention has been given to the atrocious play of the Eastern Conference this past year. Why have they been so successful? These two have been consistently phenomenal since the turn of they stepped onto an NBA court, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
The two power forwards didn’t make a combined seven NBA Finals appearances, winning five of them, over that period without continuing their dominance into the postseason. Here are their numbers going into the 2014 Playoffs:
Not only have the two continued their MVP-caliber play into the postseason, they bettered it to an extent, with both Duncan and Nowitzki posting higher PER numbers once the season hit is most crucial moments.
It’s possible that their years spent in the frontcourt, rather than being highlight reel-grabbing wings handling the ball on perimeter, have hampered Duncan and Nowitzki’s ability to capture the casual fan’s imagination the way LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have. When’s the last time people got into a heat debate about who’s better between Duncan and Karl Malone or Nowitzki and Charles Barkley? It happens every few minutes on Twitter and Instagram when discussing James, Bryant or Jordan.
Maybe it’s due to fatigue that the two don’t get their recognition. The last time the playoffs commenced with neither Duncan nor Nowitzki taking part was 1997. As a frame of reference for how long ago that was, the Washington Bullets, not even the Wizards, made the playoffs that year. Bryant was coming off the bench for the Lakers in the playoffs, playing less than 15 minutes per game. Tony Parker was 15 years old. It was essentially a generation ago.
The barbershop-style discussions of the greatest big men in the league have shifted from these two as no-brainer answers as LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love have all established themselves as All-Stars in the many years since Duncan and Nowitzki first came to prominence. That’s understandable to a degree, as Aldridge and Griffin alone have displayed their improved games during the first round of this year’s playoffs, but there’s an odd feeling that comes from leaving Timmy and Dirk out of these talks, as if they’re about to come out of hibernation to reclaim their respective thrones.
Other than Nowitzki’s various and frequently hilarious hairstyles, neither player’s game has displayed many hints of breaking down. Take a look at the per 36-minute statistics of Duncan from this past season compared to that of his MVP and NBA Finals-winning 2003 season:
There’s a non-zero chance he’s actually a cyborg. His rebounding and assist numbers have even trended upwards. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has perfected the art of resting his key, aging stars throughout the regular season, while keeping them healthy and well-rested for the grueling stretches that come from late-April to June.
Here’s a similar comparison between Nowitzki in 2013-14 and Nowitzki in 2006-07, the season in which he won the league’s MVP award:
Nowitzki personifies German engineering at its finest. A well-oiled machine that can still score at will, he continues to give the Mavericks a puncher’s chance in any playoff series this year simply due to his offensive proficiency.
Speaking of the playoffs again, are NBA fans aware they have the privilege of watching these two legends slug it out one more time? This the sixth playoff meeting between San Antonio and Dallas during this millennium, as they continue to duel in their swan song of a matchup as if it’s still 2006.
With the series split heading back to Dallas for Game 3, this is the epitome of the beauty that comes with playoff basketball. The two all-time greats who could retire right now with their standing in hierarchy of the game’s best players throughout history secure, yet they press forward with the last smidgen of effort left in their bodies, hoping for one more chance at raising the Larry O’Brien trophy, one more chance to prove to the 25-year-olds populating the championship race who still owns the league, one more chance to hop back into those barbershop-esque debates on the NBA’s best ever, and one more chance for fans to appreciate guys who will forever be linked.
Please, basketball fans, cherish every minute of this series. This battle will be gone from the league in a year or two. When someone’s grandkid asks them about what basketball used to be like in the “old” days, they’ll be able to say they cheered on and tuned-in for the last stand between the Big Fundamental and the German Wunderkind.
Where does this rivalry rank among the best in NBA history?
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