For the sake of comparing players in NBA history, it makes for a rather mundane argument to try to rank anyone other than Tim Duncan as the greatest power forward of All-Time. Even though the Big Fundamental spent considerable time towards the end of his career at center, his peak and prime occurred when he served as the four in Gregg Popovich’s lineup.
An interesting conversation arises, however, when you try to determine who comes in second just behind Duncan. Over the course of several decades, we are presented with numerous candidates whose stellar resumes all qualify them for consideration: Bob Pettit, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few.
My focus, in this discussion, will be on the latter two in that list, and after studying their respective careers I hope to glean which of the two – Garnett or Nowitzki – should rightfully be regarded as the second greatest power forward of the 2000’s era.
Kevin Garnett came into the league in 1995, a first round draft pick of the Minnesota TimberWolves straight out of high school. Though he was slotted early as a small forward, playing alongside eventual All-Star Tom Gugliotta, Garnett would eventually take over as the full-time power forward and made every All-Star team from 1997 to 2011.
His individual prowess would crest in the 2004 season, when KG was voted as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Despite his unparalleled athleticism and talent on both ends of the floor, the TimberWolves continually struggled in the playoffs, never once reaching the NBA Finals in a top-heavy Western Conference.
Garnett finally realized his ultimate dream when he won a championship as the defensive anchor for the 2008 Boston Celtics. After being traded from Minnesota, he had to adjust his game to no longer being the offensive centerpiece, and it worked wonders as the “Big Three” reeled off 66 regular season wins and won Boston their first title since the days of Larry Bird.
Dirk Nowitzki, on the other hand, came into the league with far different expectations. Whereas Garnett became the franchise cornerstone almost immediately, Nowitzki arrived in Dallas after a draft day trade for Robert Traylor and initially fell in the pecking order behind established pros like Michael Finley and Steve Nash.
Dirk, too, would eventually become a perennial All-Star, though not before a couple subpar early seasons. His individual peak occurred over the course of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, when he led the Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance and the best record in the West the following season – earning the league MVP award in the process.
Although the Mavericks fell to the Miami Heat in 2006 despite holding a 2-0 series lead, Nowitzki and company would eventually earn their revenge in 2011 when they reached the Finals yet again and rallied back from a 2-1 series deficit. Dirk’s legendary performance in the Finals ranks as one of the greatest playoff runs of All-Time, thus earning him the coveted title and the Finals MVP award.
So how do we go about comparing these two behemoths of the sport? They both achieved similar accolades during the prime of their careers, and they both eventually won a championship after being forced to adjust their individual games.
You could look at Garnett’s more complete overall game as being indicative, but the pair had such insanely different styles of play – especially considering that Dirk was by far and away the better shooter.
You could look at team success as being an indicator, but the two players had incomparable levels of help in the way of supporting players. When the TimberWolves struggled, Garnett had to make do with the help of guys like Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak while Dirk had Michael Finley and a future MVP in Steve Nash.
On the flip side, KG had the privilege of being paired with two other All-Stars in Boston with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, while Dirk’s championship run in 2011 came with past-their-prime guys like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion at the helm.
*It’s worth noting that Tyson Chandler was a large part of the 2011 Mavericks’ title as the defensive anchor, but his best days came previously in New Orleans.*
What we can do, to better facilitate this comparison between Dirk and KG, is to look at the raw numbers. Absolute Player Value has come in handy previously as a tool for determining who was more deserving of individual awards and accolades. Let’s take a look at how the pair stack up when APV comes into play.
When you look at career averages, Kevin Garnett takes the early advantage behind a career APV of 13.33. Dirk comes close but ultimately falls short with a career APV of 12.81. And again, when you look at the peak of their careers, Garnett has the upper-hand with his 2004 seasonal APV of 19.65, whereas Dirk’s 2007 season falls short with an APV of 17.15.
Career accomplishments and accolades aside, these numbers tell us that Kevin Garnett was the more valuable player at the peak of his powers and over the course of his illustrious career. What makes it more impressive is his sustained excellence over 21 years, while Dirk has only been in the league for 18. Although his talent has fallen off in recent years, Garnett’s career APV is still higher than Dirk’s despite playing more seasons.
So for the sake of establishing a positional ranking, I think it is fair to say that Kevin Garnett is the second-best power forward of the 2000’s, and Dirk Nowitzki is the third-best. It was confirmed on September 23rd that the TimberWolves’ elder statesmen has elected to retire after a contract settlement during this offseason, and Nowitzki might not stick around for much longer either.
It is clear that the best days of Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki are firmly in the rearview mirror, but it helps to reminisce at times to remember how phenomenal these two players truly were in their primes.