NBA

Tale of the All-Time Tape: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki

This week, two all-timers will get their unofficial send-offs at the All-Star Game in Charlotte. Legends Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade were selected as special additions to the rosters as a swan song and an homage to their respective Hall of Fame careers. [Note: Dirk has not officially announced he will retire at season’s end, but all signs point to this being his final campaign in the league. Wade has maintained this will be his final season, despite semi-persistent rumors he could change his mind.]

Since the league is going out of its way to celebrate these two hoops luminaries, I thought it might be fun to take a break from the 24/7 madness of the NBA news cycle to look back at two careers which continue to be inextricably linked in spite of the vastly different backgrounds and playing styles of the two men. Both Dirk and D-Wade are no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famers — so we’ll be mentioning them again in the same breath three years from now — but which superstar will history remember more fondly? Let’s break it down.

[All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted, and are current through Monday’s games.]

HISTORICAL ACCOLADES:

The stuff they engrave on the plaque in Springfield; the absolute tip-top lines on the resume.

  • NBA Titles:
    • Dirk – 1 (1-1 in NBA Finals)
    • Wade – 3 (3-2 in NBA Finals)
  • Regular Season MVPs:
    • Dirk – 1
    • Wade – 0
  • Finals MVPs:
    • Dirk – 1
    • Wade – 1
  • MVP Top-5 Finishes:
    • Dirk – 3
    • Wade – 2
  • All-NBA Selections:
    • Dirk – 12 (4 First Team)
    • Wade – 8 (2 First Team)
  • All-Defense Selections:
    • Dirk – 0
    • Wade – 3
  • All-Star Selections (includes this season):
    • Dirk – 14
    • Wade – 13

CAREER STATS, REGULAR SEASON:

  • Games:
    • Dirk – 1,495 (4th All-Time)
    • Wade – 1,026
  • Minutes:
    • Dirk – 50,832 (3rd All-Time)
    • Wade – 35,013 (70th All-Time)
  • Points:
    • Dirk – 31,292 (7th All-Time)
    • Wade – 22,695 (30th All-Time)
  • Rebounds:
    • Dirk – 11,374 (27th All-Time)
    • Wade – 4,818
  • Assists:
    • Dirk – 3,623
    • Wade – 5,593 (46th All-Time)
  • Steals:
    • Dirk – 1,204 (84th All-Time)
    • Wade – 1,589 (33rd All-Time)
  • Blocks:
    • Dirk – 1,271 (51st All-Time)
    • Wade – 868 (123rd All-Time, 2nd All-Time among guards)
  • Player Efficiency Rating (PER):
    • Dirk – 22.6 (28th All-Time)
    • Wade – 23.6 (19th All-Time)
  • Win Shares:
    • Dirk – 206.2 (8th All-Time)
    • Wade – 119.8 (45th All- Time)
  • Win Shares per 48 Minutes:
    • Dirk – .195 (24th All-Time)
    • Wade – .164 (67th All-Time)
  • Value Over Replacement Player (VORP):
    • Dirk – 66.8 (18th All-Time)
    • Wade – 58.1 (25th All-Time)
  • Win/Loss Record:
    • Dirk – 909-586 (60.8%)
    • Wade – 597-429 (58.2%)

CAREER STATS, PLAYOFFS:

  • Games:
    • Dirk – 148
    • Wade – 177
  • Minutes:
    • Dirk – 5,895
    • Wade – 6,697
  • Points Per Game:
    • Dirk – 25.3
    • Wade – 22.3
  • Rebounds Per Game:
    • Dirk – 10.0
    • Wade – 5.2
  • Assists Per Game:
    • Dirk – 2.5
    • Wade – 3.9
  • Win Shares:
    • Dirk – 23.1
    • Wade – 21.6
  • Win Shares Per 48 Minutes:
    • Dirk – .188
    • Wade – .155
  • Win/Loss Record:
    • Dirk – 69-76 (47.6%)
    • Wade – 105-72 (59.3%)

OK, that’s a lot to digest, but let’s see what conclusions we can draw from the numbers, and then get into the more touchy-feely and/or subjective aspects.

From a pure volume standpoint, it’s no contest. Dirk’s longevity and durability (4th in games, 3rd in minutes All-Time) have led to an accumulation of stats almost no one in league history can touch. He missed more than nine games only once in his first eighteen seasons in the league, an incredible feat for a seven-footer. By contrast, Wade has just played so much less total basketball over the years, as his physical, attacking style of play and high-wire athleticism have made him prone to picking up significant injuries throughout his career. It’s fair to argue Wade’s style took much more of a toll on his body than did Dirk’s — and resulted in a decline in productivity at a much younger age — but the best ability is availability, and when you can pencil one guy in for 76 games a year and another for only 66, it matters.

Things get trickier when we start to look at their production on a per-game or per-minute basis. It’s somewhat subjective because it depends how you prefer to consume greatness: a longer, slower burn (Dirk) or a flame that burns brightly but goes out more quickly (Wade). It’s difficult to quantify when exactly Dirk’s apex was because he was consistently great for so long. Most fans’ gut reaction would probably be to say his MVP season in 2006-07 at age-28, but beside the fact he eclipsed 50/40/90 shooting splits that season for the only time in his career (he came close several other times as well) and his team racking up 67 wins, it doesn’t stand out statistically from almost any of his other seasons during the 2000’s. He was equally deserving of the MVP in both ’04-’05 and ’05-’06, when his basketball soulmate Steve Nash took home the trophies. After ’07, LeBron, Kobe, and Wade became the faces of the league, but Dirk kept quietly cranking out quality seasons for another five years, including the title run in ’10-’11, which we’ll get to shortly.

Wade, on the other hand, has spent the entirety of his career as either a “pretty good” player, or a holy fucking terror, with nothing in between. Flash was MVP-worthy for most of his seven-year peak (roughly from ’04 through ’11), and despite his legendary run to Finals MVP in ’06, was often overshadowed by the ascendance of LeBron. The King casts his long shadow over every big picture aspect of the NBA for the last fifteen years, but no one will feel his historical impact more — for better and worse — than D-Wade. His absolute apex and corresponding “MVP window” were the ’08-’09 (30.2/ 5.0/ 7.5) and ’09-’10 (26.6/ 4.8/ 6.5) seasons, which just so happened to coincide with the first two of LeBron’s four MVP awards. Of course, LeBron would pay off his debt to D-Wade’s legacy over the ensuing four years, but that’s a separate topic.

We’ve been watching the kinda-sorta broken-down version of Wade for so long now, we tend to forget how the young, athletic version of Wade was an absolute MONSTER. Outside of his tendency to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman, he came along at the perfect time for his game. The hand-check ban and Defensive Three Second rules were just being implemented as he was rising to prominence, opening up his dribble-drive game, and he starred in the the era prior to the three-point revolution, which made his reliance on the midrange and lack of a consistent outside shot much less problematic than they would have been only a few years later.

Perhaps my favorite version of Wade was the all-court, hyper-athletic game-wrecker he was for the ’08 Redeem Team in Beijing. When stripped of his primary NBA responsibility as a shot creator — which, don’t get me wrong, he was also GREAT at — and unburdened from a heavy minutes load and an 82-game schedule, Wade was freed to go balls-to-the-wall on every possession, unleashing the apex predator he was at that moment in time. The other countries — who, to be fair, actually provided good competition that year — had no choice but to gameplan for USA’s primary offensive options, Kobe and LeBron, and Wade made them pay with play after play after play in the passing lanes, as a cutter, and in transition. Behold, one of the most incredible basketball plays I’ve ever seen:

I’ll never forget that play as long as I live. It was peak Wade distilled down to his essence: the disruption, the awareness, the athleticism, and the flair coming together in one quick flash of transcendence. He was basically the Redeem Team’s answer to Dream Team Charles Barkley — you knew he wasn’t the team’s best player, but you also knew there wasn’t anyone playing better than him.

[A quick aside about that ’08 Olympic team, because I’m a giant Team USA nerd: easily the best, most talented Olympic squad we’ve had, non-Dream Team division. It was a near-perfect roster: peak Kobe flanked by young-but-seasoned versions of LeBron, Wade, Bosh, CP3, Deron Williams, Melo, and Dwight Howard. Old Jason Kidd was there as a mentor and sage veteran, and the other three guys at the bottom of the roster (Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, and Carlos Boozer) weren’t good enough to where the coaches felt like they had to get minutes at the expense of the other guys. The Gold Medal Game vs. Spain was one of the most riveting basketball games I’ve ever watched. It was one of the only times I can remember Team USA not simply grinding down its opponent with superior talent, but rather having to out-duel a worthy adversary, and doing it. I’ve probably never questioned my patriotism more than when Rudy Fernandez posterized Dwight Howard. Aside to the aside: in addition to Wade, I also loved the Olympics version of Bosh that year. He decided (or the coaches told him) he was going to be the team’s defense/rebounding/energy guy, and he played the role like a fiddle. He was absolutely everywhere on the court, like someone took 2019 Montrezl Harrell, made him six-foot-eleven, and turned all the ability sliders up about 20%. Combined with his Miami tenure, let it never be said Chris Bosh was not an incredibly adaptable basketball player. OK, let’s move on.]

Point is, setting aside accomplishments for a moment (we’ll get there, I promise), if you needed one version of one player for one moment in time (the “Aliens play us for the planet” hypothetical), you would probably choose that vintage of Wade over any version of Dirk. The breadth of Dirk’s career as a player was certainly more impressive, but Wade had the higher peak, and in the calculus of many people, that distinction matters a lot.

Now, naturally the analysis would be incomplete if we didn’t discuss the playoffs, and as a consequence, RINGZZZ. This portion of the proceedings is going to be triggering for some people, so I will do my best to approach it with the appropriate level of care and sensitivity. Wade’s career stacks up pretty favorably with Dirk’s when we remove regular season volume and accolades from the equation, but we also have to consider the mitigating circumstances. Dirk played the entirety of his career in the much-tougher Western Conference, making it more difficult to a) crack the playoff field in the first place, and b) make a deep run once there. Even so, from Dirk’s age-22 season through his age-37 season, the Mavs only missed the playoffs once: 2012-13, a year in which Nowitzki sat the first 27 games due to injury. [The team went 12-15 in Dirk’s absence before rallying to finish the year at an even .500, trailing the 8th-seeded Rockets by four games.]

His track record in the playoffs is a mixed bag, no doubt. The run to the 2011 title is unassailable: they beat a 48-win Blazers team, Kobe’s Lakers, the Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder, and the Big Three Heatles. At the same time, Dirk accepting his 2007 MVP Award in a suit after his 67-win juggernaut got bounced in the first round by the 8th-seeded, “We Believe” Warriors is an indelible image. Had those 2011 Finals broken the other way, we would view Dirk’s career through a very different lens, but even so, his presence alone guaranteed a baseline of contention for fifteen solid years, a claim exceedingly few players can credibly make.

Wade has enjoyed somewhat more playoff success, but he’s played in the East his entire career, and  — to put it mildly — he’s had some help. He was comfortably the best player on the ’06 title team, but Shaq was still Shaq, even if he was no longer the apex, destroyer-of-worlds Shaq from a half-decade earlier. [Quick aside: what a weird roster for a championship team. That squad would be the 6-seed in the East this year, right? The mid-aughts were a strange time in NBA history.] The ’04-’05 Heat reached the Conference Finals in a year where a convincing argument could still be made for either Wade or Shaq as the team’s alpha dog. So outside of ’06, a team with Dwyane Wade as its unquestioned best player has never made it beyond the second round of the playoffs.

Which of course brings us to LeBron. Those two extra titles bolster Wade’s case any way you look at it; always better to win championships than not. But it’s hard to ignore the fact he won them as a wingman (albeit an insanely high-end one) for one of history’s greatest players at the absolute peak of his powers. His tip-out offensive rebound to a LeBron three late in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals (which we’ll eventually end up remembering as one of the five or so greatest games in NBA history) was one of the ten-plus insane things that all had to go in Miami’s favor for that game to end the way it did, and he put up a 23-and-10 in the ensuing Game 7 win as well. So Wade was obviously an integral part of the success of the Big Three era in Miami, but in many people’s minds, the original sin of how the team came together and the failings of the first year (hi, Dirk!) stain everything that came after. Consider this: in thirty years, what will most people remember about those four seasons? The Decision. “Not one, not two, not three…” Ray Allen and Game Six. And choking against the Mavs in 2011. That’s about it, and fair or not, none of those things reflect particularly well on Dwyane Wade.

Again, on balance, having more rings is never going to be a debit on the historical ledger, and the marriage of LeBron and D-Wade did give us plenty of magical moments, such as:

But when compared to a legend like Dirk, who carried his team as the undisputed alpha for as long as he did and never enjoyed the benefit of playing with anyone in remotely the same stratosphere as LeBron, it’s hard to give D-Wade more than partial credit for those extra chips.

Wade gets some benefit from positional scarcity, being (at minimum) the fourth-best shooting guard of all time, depending on how you feel about Jerry West. Amid the shift to “position-less” basketball (a phrase I dislike but is useful for our purposes here) in the modern era, Wade stands out as a player who has always occupied a very specific, concrete position. He’s about as ‘shooting guard’ as it gets. Dirk is tougher to pigeonhole into a position because his game was so evolutionary for a player of his size. In the end, he probably gets remembered as a power forward, which results in him getting lumped in with a group of other legends whose games couldn’t have been more different, like Barkley, Malone, Duncan (not actually a power forward but don’t get me started), Garnett, and others. It’s easier to definitively say “this is how good Dwyane Wade was” because we have a historical frame of reference for him, whereas Dirk redefined the very notion of what a big man can be and how he generates value. And while Dirk will always be a unique animal because the pressure his shooting put on a defense was just so devastating, he has to get some credit for the way the arc of NBA history is now bending in his direction, with every team under the sun attempting to draft and develop stretch bigs and find the “next Dirk.” [Here’s a hint: stop looking. There isn’t one.]

In the long run, I suspect history will end up looking at Dirk a bit more fondly than Wade. The stylistic uniqueness, the sheer statistical volume, the signature move, and his longevity as an undisputed team leader and #1 option for a contender give him the edge. And fair or not, history will probably give more weight to him taking down Wade (and LeBron and Bosh) in 2011 than it will to Wade besting him in 2006. But there is no real loser here, and we’ll get to relive it all again when these rivals’ paths cross one more time in 2022 as they are enshrined in Springfield together. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy one last ride this weekend with these two legends and champions. Auf wiedersehen and farewell.

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