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The NBA’s 4 Best Power Forwards Of This Generation

If this playoff run has shown anything, it’s that the game is changing. Not only are new teams sprouting up to beat back the mentally and physically-spent giants, but there’s a whole new era of players ready to take control.

Earlier this week in Smack, a debate surfaced: who are the best power forwards of this generation? Dirk Nowitzki is a monster right now, Tim Duncan appears to have finally hit the wall and Kevin Garnett may be on his last legs. How does it all fit in? Where do these players rank as they inch closer to finishing the final chapter in their careers?

Some other power forwards have had great careers: guys like Pau Gasol (who would probably be five on this list if I felt the need), Zach Randolph, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal and Antawn Jamison (whether Amar’e Stoudemire is a four even though he’s played the five nearly his entire career is up for debate). But there are four players that I would put above the rest.

They all bring different strengths and weaknesses, and all have had vastly different careers. Everyone has his or her own argument. Here is mine:

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4. Chris Webber
At the apex of his game, Webber was a force, a player who could hit jump hooks in the paint, jumpers from 17 feet and used his hands to catch every rebound and throw laser passes from the high post. He defined an entire era of basketball in Sacramento, the big version of Steve Nash. Without him, those Kings teams become Golden State.

But he never won a championship, could never beat the Lakers and his prime was cut short by a nasty injury. In Sacramento, he was a perennial MVP candidate, and nearly won it in 2001 after a first half that had him playing like the best player in the world. Before the injury, his numbers during the first five years in California’s capital were insane (24.1 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 4.7 apg). But after a while, perception becomes reality. Webber probably won’t ever get the credit he deserves. At every stop, he failed to reach expectations. At Michigan, the Fab Five never won a title. In Golden State, he feuded with Don Nelson seemingly more than he played. In Washington, Webber was the center of the same core that rose first and then ultimately destroyed basketball in the nation’s capital. Sacramento never did win the championship they should’ve. In Philly, he teamed with an aging Allen Iverson to consistently lose in the first round. Maybe it was all of us who were being unreasonable. Maybe the expectations were too high. Look at those numbers. Look at all of the great teams he played on. How was he supposed to beat Shaq AND Kobe?

Still, for all of the injuries and the perceived wasted talent, C-Webb’s career numbers are incredible: 20.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 1.4 steals and blocks a game over 15 seasons. Webber stacked stats. He was so talented, so graceful and smooth, that he couldn’t not put up 15 and 10 even as he got older and the knees gave out and he could hardly jump anymore. Perhaps he never had the mental toughness to lead a team to a title, but put him next to another great player, and Webber could’ve become one of the greatest co-stars in league history. It just sucks that injuries kept us all from seeing the full width of his talent.

3. Dirk Nowitzki
While this postseason has helped Dirk to restore an image that had been significantly shredded in the past five years, it shouldn’t have. Dirk has been playing at a level so high that we take him for granted. We won’t fully appreciate him until he’s gone, won’t fully realize that Dirks don’t just come along once in a while, they never come along.

Check out what Bill Simmons once wrote about Dirk:

Which brings me to my point: Dirk is playing at a higher level than any forward since Bird. Everyone else from the past 25 years was flawed in some way. Garnett and Malone had trouble taking over games. Barkley was better suited as a second banana; teams could handle him in the final minutes because of his shaky shot selection. Duncan is the best all-around power forward ever, but his poor free-throw shooting makes him a dicey option down the stretch. (Just look at what happened at the end of regulation in Game 7: the Spurs ran the final play for Ginobili.) But Nowitzki doesn’t have any holes — he scores against anyone, makes his free throws, grabs big rebounds in traffic, protects the rim, even doles out the right amount of sneers and chest bumps. He’s been a killer all spring, a true assassin, and I certainly never imagined writing that about Dirk Nowitzki.

That was in 2006. 2006. The exact same thing could be said about the Big German now. It’s been five years. What other older, “past-his-prime” superstar can you say that about? Is Kobe as good now as he was in 2006. Shaq? KG? Duncan? Nash?

Dirk has a formula and it works. He’s never relied on athleticism, never suffered any devastating injuries. Amazingly, as awkwardly as he runs and jumps, and as tall as he is, you would figure his knees or back would’ve given out at some point (This year, he missed the most games he’s ever missed in a season. He missed nine). But somehow, Nowitzki has been able to average somewhere around 22-23 points and nine rebounds on nearly 50-40-90 percentages for over a decade. That’s never been done before, and figures to stand as the model of consistency for a long time.

Kobe Bryant gets credit for his consistency, that relentlessness that allows him to score on players 10 years younger, and do it at a rate that may eventually make him the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. But what about Dirk? Is he not just as relentless? A once long-shooting big man who changed his game, bringing it inside and into the high post to help Dallas win. He discovered the fountain of youth by knowing he had to change, realizing he couldn’t survive on 23-footers as his ankles weakened and his back stiffened.

So why isn’t he number two? I could cite the championship separator, but that’s too easy. The same things that make Dirk such a unique player – the soft touch, the outside shooting, the passing – hurts him. Nowitzki is a power forward through and through. But when your four is more adapt at shooting than he is at defending the basket and blocking shots, it hurts. Where else will that come from? You can get scoring from anywhere. But if Dirk isn’t flanked by a physical animal inside, it automatically puts the team at a disadvantage. It’s his one Achilles’ heel. Garnett could never make the big shots Dirk has. He was never a get-the-f$%^-outta-my-way offensive leader. But you can more easily flank someone like that with other players who are. The Celtics did it. Now, they have a ring and two Finals appearances in three years.

2. Kevin Garnett
You want to know how close the call is between Dirk and KG? Check out their head-to-head regular-season numbers from the past 13 years: in points per game, Dirk has the edge (23.3 to 23.1), in rebounds per game, KG has the edge (11.9 to 8.3), in wins, Dirk has the edge (17 to 16), in assists and defensive numbers, KG has the edge and they’ve done all this by playing the exact same amount of minutes (38.4).

You’ll hear Dirk touted as the better player simply because he rises to the occasion in big games while Garnett never has. That’s slightly narrowed-minded.

The whole “clutch” argument is invalid to me. For the record, I’m not a fan of “clutch.” Is KG not “clutch” because he passes up shots now to get the ball to Ray Allen? I would call that smart. Was KG not “clutch” in 2004 when he put up 32, 21, five blocks and four steals in a Game 7? You roll with the punches. You make some shots. You miss some. Being clutch isn’t always about making the big shot. Sometimes, it’s the key block or the extra pass. Sometimes, it’s just delivering that important screen, and we all know KG can do that. Being clutch can’t be quantified because being clutch is being able to keep your wits even during a pressure-packed game with 20,000 bloodthirsty fans in the stands and millions more watching on television, knowing whatever you do will be slowed and evaluated, your night developing into a goat or hero-complex. Garnett was never the best offensive player in the final minute of a game because guess what, Garnett was never the best offensive player period. Is KG not one of the best late-game defensive players? Why can’t that be “clutch?”

If you’re going to call out KG for not being a “clutch” offensive player than you better do the same with Dirk on the other end. He’s not exactly the guy you want facing down the opposition’s best player with the game on the line. Instead, we seem to define “clutch” as one thing only. In that sense, yes Dirk is insanely clutch. But ask Pau Gasol if Garnett is clutch. I’m sure the 2008 Finals will be a reminder. Matter of fact, ask any big man in the league. Garnett is the last person they want defending them with the game on the line.

In his prime, Garnett was a force of nature. The only thing he ever lacked was a go-to offensive move in the post, and a selfishness to want the ball down the stretch. That’s it. Everything else was a 10. His rebounding numbers were incredible. During his prime, Garnett had a run of eight-straight years averaging at least 11.4 rebounds a game. Read that again.

Realistically, Nowitzki and Garnett are even. There are too many variables. I should’ve just said 2A and B. But that’s not fun. I’ll take Garnett because while he was always capable of great offense, he did things defensively that Nowitzki just can’t do, and could never do.

1. Tim Duncan
The Yoda of NBA power forwards. Some will argue he’s really a center, and you could make a case, but the majority of TD’s career was spent flanked by “true” centers. Duncan came to symbolize the ultimate big man, a combination of Garnett’s voracious defensive ability with the offensive skills and touch of Nowitzki, and he did it all with the same exact look on his face that he’s had since Ja Rule was hot.

This past season marked the first real sign of Duncan’s decline. Before that, he had put together 13-straight years averaging somewhere between 18 and 10 and 25 and 13. He won championships, Finals MVPs, MVPs. He faced down Shaq and beat Goliath in the Diesel’s prime. He extended and then validated David Robinson‘s career. He helped make Gregg Popovich out to be a genius, turned Tony Parker into an All-Star and Manu Ginobili into one of the most dangerous players in the game. The reputation of San Antonio and every Spur fortunate enough to play with the Big Swimmer directly correlates back to him. Without him, there are no titles, there are no big playoff stages for Parker to win a Finals MVP or Ginobili to hit crazy shots. San Antonio’s dynasty didn’t die until Tim Duncan could no longer win playoff games by himself, and that didn’t happen until the man was 35 years old.

There’s no real reason for him to even be on this list. It’s not even a debate. Any comparative list without Duncan at one is fallacy.

What’s your argument?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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