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'98 Draft, PP vs. Dirk: 'D' the Difference-Maker?

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Back in March, my Dallas Morning News counterpart Tim MacMahon and I engaged in a spirited debate about the relative merits of star power forwards Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki.  Searching through the lively comments section of that piece recently, I came across the following line from one of the Mavs fans who had come aboard for the day to chat with us:

"And one last thing, [one CB member] stated he would take Pierce over Dirk...come on now, let's be real. [No one], and I mean [NO ONE], actually believes that..that's just a homer statement. And anybody who says [otherwise] is just, well, a homer."

Ironically enough, three months later, with our own beloved captain (aaaaaand Truth) Paul Pierce now the proud owner of not only a championship but a Finals MVP trophy, Tim has chosen to open just that discussion: Which of the two forwards is the best player of the 1998 draft class?  Not much homerism to be found here.

The crux of Tim's analysis:

If you wanted to make a case for Pierce, you could point out that his best teammate until this season was Antoine Walker. (And Walker's nothing special, as Dirk found out firsthand.) The trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen made the Celtics title contenders, but Pierce put the team on his back when it mattered.

The turning point of the Finals came when Pierce shut down Kobe during the Celtics' record-setting comeback in Game 4. Dirk has developed into a decent defender, but it's doubtful that he'll ever harass an MVP into a rough series.

The case for Dirk? That's tough to make right now, with the glare of Pierce's new hardware in my eyes.

In the interest of full disclosure and fairness to Tim's subjects in Dallas, Nowitzki has long been the more efficient scorer of the two.  Pierce is a 44 percent shooter whose career high is 47.1 percent from the field.  That latter figure happens to be Dirk's career shooting percentage, and the lanky forward has shot 48, 50.2 and 47.9 percent over the last three seasons.  He has the clear advantages in three-point and free-throw shooting accuracy (though Pierce has gotten to the line with greater regularity over the course of their careers).  So score a point for Dirk for efficiency of scoring.

But with that being said, I can't say I disagree with Tim's commentary.  Tim also covers the comparability of the players' career and playoff statistics in his post, and it's definitely worth a look.  As such, in the name of not re-hashing what's already been thoroughly covered, we primarily focus today on one of the true difference-makers between the two studs in question.

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For what it's worth, this isn't a discussion that simply comes down to who has the championship and who doesn't.  There have been plenty of greats to play in this league who didn't win titles, and no matter who the more impressive player is here, it's worth noting at the outset that both Nowitzki and Pierce are outstanding players.  There's still time for Dirk to win his title, too.

Again, Tim covered crunching the standard numbers between these two players.  The short-short story here (see Tim's piece for the particulars): Though Dirk is the more efficient scorer, Pierce has done a better job of getting in the lane and earning trips to the charity stripe -- and for their careers, Pierce leads in scoring average by less than a point per game.  As different size players at different positions, it's to be expected that Nowitzki is the better rebounder and Pierce has the higher assist numbers.  Both rank highly at their respective positions in each category.

All that in mind, it's for one primary reason outside the numbers that Pierce gets the nod here as the player more conducive to winning the ultimate prize for his team: Defense.

Last time around with this sort of discussion, there was some hot contesting of the assessment of Dirk as a soft defensive player.  While that's long been his reputation, he has done some work to begin shedding that label.  Even so, he isn't a lock-down guy or defensive difference-maker of any sort, and thus his track record on that end of the floor is still most kindly described as nondescript.

On the other hand, as Tim begins to touch on in his post, Pierce's effort and production at that end of the floor has truly been a revelation.  This guy was for at least a portion of his career a poor-to-mediocre defender at best (this hit a low point in 2004-05 and 2005-06 when Pierce seemed to be losing his man, failing to rotate fluidly enough in help, and committing bad fouls with a special sort of regularity).  Yet he put in the work and not only turned himself into a very good team defender throughout this season, but he truly became a lock-down stopper on the biggest stages imaginable.  Pierce moves his feet defensively better than he ever has, isn't as susceptible to the up-fake as he once was and seems to be creating loose balls by getting his hands in the passing lanes at every turn.

He frustrated LeBron James through most of seven games against Cleveland, held Tayshaun Prince to an utterly putrid series (32.4 percent shooting from the field) and used his physicality to help turn Kobe Bryant into a 40.5 percent shooter in the Finals.  In particular, it came out after the miracle comeback in Game 4 that Pierce had begged Doc Rivers to let him guard Kobe in the second half because he believed he could frustrate the LA star.  The change was made, and the rest is history. That exchange with Doc is the earmark of someone who truly wants to win.

Certainly, some of the improvement in Pierce's defense has due to the arrival of Tom Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett on the scene.  But ultimately, it was Pierce who committed to becoming a better defender, and it was Pierce who actualized his ability on that end of the floor.  It was Pierce who supplemented his offensive load with becoming a defensive stalwart when it mattered most.

Like everyone else who has ever played for a champion, part of the success Paul Pierce's team enjoyed had to do with the excellent play of his teammates (that's all we're saying about this issue for now folks, but feel free to steer it this way in the comments or to check out the corresponding section of Tim's piece, in which teammates are all the rage).  But it was Paul Pierce whose all-around game made him a late-game killer of a closer, the Finals MVP and a huge part of the heart and soul of a championship team.  Dirk Nowitzki doesn't have that yet, and speaking of heart and soul, the jury still appears to be out on that for him.

Dirk Nowitzki is a fantastic basketball player.  But not only can Paul Pierce score in volume the way Dirk Nowitzki can and gain comparable positional ranks in rebounding and assist creation, he has shown the rarely found ability to adapt in order to win.  He turned himself into far more of an unselfish play-making facilitator on offense this season, and he has spent the last couple of years killing himself defensively to do everything in his power to give his team a chance to win.  There is a complete package that comes wth Paul Pierce these days, both on and off the court.  Dirk Nowitzki is still working on that.  It wasn't just Paul Pierce's team that proved itself a winner this season, but with the toughness and true desire he showed throughout, it was Pierce too who demonstrated that he is no doubt a winner in his own right.

A winner of a championship.  A winner of an NBA Finals MVP.  And at this point, the winner of the battle for 1998 draft supremacy. 

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