You could go anywhere on the Internet and see how difficult it must be to guard Dirk Nowitzki. Basketball-Reference considers him a legend. ESPN always ranks him among the best at his position. NBA.com has stats that will melt your mind. Heck, there are even plenty of articles on this site that make the same case.
It’s one thing to hear it from analysts, though, and another to hear it from former players. Big man Nazr Mohammed, a veteran of 17 NBA seasons and eight teams — he most recently played with the Chicago Bulls last season — wrote a column for The Players’ Tribune where he ranked the six toughest players he ever had to guard. No. 1 on the list was Shaquille O’Neal, whom Nowitzki will pass on the all-time scoring list soon. No. 2A was Rasheed Wallace, himself an excellent power forward who won a title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
No. 2B on the list was the Big German.
Wrote Mohammed on the Big German: “Frustrating. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think about what it’s like to guard Dirk Nowitzki … It’s his combination of skill, touch and balance that’s had big men saying ‘Damn!’ for nearly 20 years now.”
How does the longtime pro, who played against Nowitzki and the Mavs with the Spurs in the 2006 Western Conference Semis and again in the 2011 Western Conference Finals with the Thunder, feel about Dirk’s patented one-legged fade?
“That’s the kind of shot that would get the vast majority of big men pulled from a game immediately,” he writes. “Most coaches would probably try to strip that away from your game before you even made it to the NBA. In their eyes, it’s a soft shot for a big man. Traditional post players were taught to pound it in the paint, not back away from contact. But Dirk invented an entirely different idea of what a big man can be.”
For what it’s worth, Nowitzki averaged 27.1 points on 52.7 percent shooting in the 2006 series and 32.2 points per game on 55.7 percent shooting in the 2011 matchup. It’s no wonder he is where he is on this list.
Mohammed also mentioned the trend over the years of teams scouring Europe to find “the next Dirk,” only to come up empty-handed more often than not.
“The only problem is that there’s no one else in the world who has the same game as Dirk,” he says. “Probably never will be. With his unorthodox footwork and movements, there was really no way to prepare for a game against him.”
Again, Mohammed didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel by writing Nowitzki is one of the most difficult assignments he ever had to face — and that includes a long list of legendary centers and power forwards like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. But it’s always pretty special to hear from the source himself what it’s like to guard one of the best to ever do it.
I would suspect that, if hooked up to a lie detector machine, nearly every power forward who played a single minute in the last two decades would put Nowitzki at or near the very top of their own list. An outlet like The Players’ Tribune makes it possible, for sure, so hopefully more players will offer their perspective in the future.