We are a few weeks removed from two of the greatest players to grace an NBA court hanging up their kicks for the last time. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki walked very different paths as stars of the league, but their careers constantly overlapped, most notoriously in a pair of NBA Finals. It’s almost fitting that they left the game at the same time and now the initial hoopla has died down from their retirements, let’s see who wins a head-to-head battle one last time.
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On the surface if you purely count rings then Dwyane Wade wins the head-to-head ledger 3-1. The star duo actually met twice in the Finals, with Wade claiming the 2006 championship, only for Nowitzki to exact his revenge in 2011 – the first year LeBron James and Chris Bosh were in Miami. Playing with Hall of Fame talents like the two aforementioned studs and Shaquille O’Neal helped D-Wade play in 32 more postseason games than Nowitzki, but Dirk played a more prominent role in his teams’ playoff W’s. Nowitzki is one of just six players to average 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs (two of them have played under 20 games) and was the catalyst during Dallas’ 15 consecutive postseason appearances. Wade is no playoff scrub, but I’m giving Dirk the slight edge.
Edge: Nowitzki (Just)
During his last NBA game ever Dwyane Wade overtook Elgin Baylor to move into 29th all-time for scoring. He’s never been regarded as the greatest offensive guard, but Wade, a career 22.0 PPG scorer, holds his own in this category. Unfortunately, Dirk Nowitzki made a name for himself in the NBA on the offensive end of the court. His trademark fadeaway jump shot will be played on highlight reels for year’s to come and with 31,560 points to his name (6th most all-time) Dirk is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in NBA history.
This one goes to Wade fairly easily. For parts of his career, Nowitzki was a fine defensive player, but when his team was excelling he had a shot-blocking presence playing alongside him. If you include playoff totals, no guard has blocked more shots in the history of the league than Wade, who featured in three All-Defensive teams compared to Dirk’s zero. D-Wade has nearly 1,900 steals to his name throughout his regular season and playoff career combined and Nowitzki can’t really compete with him here.
WADE – 2006 NBA Finals Game 3
In just his third NBA season, Wade and the Heat stormed to the franchise’s first NBA Finals and quickly found themselves down 0-2 to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs. With the series shifting back to Miami, Wade and his teammates were facing a crucial Game 3 and things weren’t looking good late as Dallas held a 13-point lead with less than seven minutes remaining. With the title slipping out of their grasp, Wade turned it on reeling off 12 of his game-high 42 points from that moment onwards, as the Heat launched a now-infamous comeback.
Wade finished the game with a game-high 13 rebounds and fittingly broke up Dallas’ potentially game-tying inbound play as time expired, giving Miami a 98-96 victory. It was the first of four straight W’s for the Heat, who went on to win the franchises first championship in six games. For all the late-game heroics, iconic dunks and memorable performances Dwyane Wade has dished up in the 21st century, his final six and a half minutes of Game 3 altered the 2006 Finals and stand out as the crowning moment in his storied career.
NOWITZKI – 2011 NBA Finals Game 2
Almost five years exactly to the day since that Dwyane Wade fueled comeback, the Mavericks found themselves once again locked in a battle with the Heat for the Larry O’Brien trophy. The shoe was on the other foot this time with Nowitzki and the Mavericks trailing Miami by 15 points at one point in Game 2, only to claw their way back into the contest. Dirk wasn’t the catalyst during their comeback, but over the final three minutes, Nowitzki went on a personal 9-3 run, hitting clutch basket after clutch basket to help tie the series at 1-1.
A go-ahead three, followed by the picturesque game-winning lay-up are standout moments from Nowitzki in the ’11 Finals that fans will take about for years to come. In LeBron James and Chris Bosh’s first season at Miami, many expected them to waltz to the championship (sound familiar) and while the Game 2 triumph didn’t instantly lead to a Mavericks run, it gave them the belief that they could topple Goliath. Dallas went on to win the series in six games on Miami’s own court, helping Dirk and Dallas abolish their ’06 demons.
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It’s hard to compare both feats, given their eerie similarity. A bit of personal preference might determine which one you believe is the better performance, with Wade fueling his ’06 comeback and Nowitzki delivering the final blow in ’11. Either way, it’s close and given the way Miami’s Game 3 win flipped the entire series I’m giving Wade this one.
Edge: Wade (Just)
Nowitzki’s resume stacks up well against almost any player in history and Dwyane Wade puts forth a decent argument in this category. Dirk has the edge in All-Star appearances (14 to 13) and All-NBA selections (12 to 8), but D-Wade owns more championships (3 to 1) and All-Defense nods (3 to 0) with a scoring title (2007) to his name as well. Both superstars own a Finals MVP from their previously mentioned playoff triumphs, but when you get into NBA records Nowitzki pulls away in this field. Both Wade and Nowitzki own almost all of the noteworthy Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks franchise records respectively, but Dirk’s longevity has seen him climb higher up the career total lists, making it hard to pick against him.
There might not be a more popular athlete in Miami/Dallas than Dwyane Wade/Dirk Nowitzki. However, the global impact that Dirk has had by building one of the greatest careers we’ve ever seen makes his legacy hard to compete with. With an iconic offensive move at his arsenal, Nowitzki transformed how big men play the game and helped usher in the current chapter of 7-footers who can stretch the floor with their long-range shooting – more than making up for their defensive shortcomings. Take nothing away from Wade, he’ll be loved forever in South Beach, but short stints in Chicago and Cleveland hamper his legacy when comparing it to Dirk’s.
Edge: Nowitzki (Just)
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VERDICT – DIRK NOWITZKI
It might not be fair to stack Wade up against the greatest international player ever (I’m not including Tim Duncan in this category). He holds his own when comparing his career to Dirk Nowitzki’s, but there is a clear winner. Had Dirk failed to get revenge against Wade and the Heat in 2011, then this argument would be different, but probably still fall the big German’s way. Nowitzki changed the league with his play and his loyalty to the Dallas franchise in an era where player empowerment/movement is at an all-time high only enhances his place among the all-time greats. D-Wade will go down as one of the greatest two-guards to play the game, don’t get me wrong. However, Dirk Nowitzki wins the argument over who had a better NBA career.
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