So Long to 2 Legends
On April 10th, 2 NBA legends retired having left behind amazing legacies. Those legends would be shooting guard Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, and power forward Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. They've had great careers that isn't always seen on a yearly basis amongst NBA players.
Dwyane Wade was selected no. 5 by the Miami Heat in the legendary 2003 draft class. It didn't take long for him to make an impact with them. He helped them overcome an 0-7 start and reach the NBA Playoffs where they made it to the second round. At the ESPYWade said, "Coming out of that playoffs, I was like, 'Next year is going to be something.'"
Wade was right because not only did he up his game, but Miami traded for future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O'Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers. They posted 59 wins, but lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. Next season, coach Stan Van Gundy stepped down and legendary coach Pat Riley who was serving as an executive, became head coach. The Heat got it together and made the NBA Finals where they faced Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks. After falling behind 0-2, Wade historically put the team on his back winning the next 4 games and his first NBA championship. His averages of 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists won him Finals MVP. His quickness and explosiveness which had earned him the nickname "Flash", made him special and it was easy to notice. One quality that wasn't obvious, but made him more special, was his durability. In the final 4 games, Wade played over 40 minutes. Even in his final season, Wade was giving everything he had for a Heat team that played very inconsistent basketball. Unfortunately, his durability wasn't able to overcome injury-riddled 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons. Yet that didn't stop Wade from putting career years for the next 2 seasons. Wade had some of his most memorable moments featuring winning the scoring title in 2009, proclaiming AmericanAirlines Arena as "my house", after a buzzer beater against the Bulls, or posterizing center Anderson Varejao. When he wasn't doing that, he was breaking ankles, posterizing other big men, or swatting centers. And yet both seasons ended in first round exits.
Enter LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In the summer of 2010, the Heat signed the 2 stars while resigning Wade forming a big three. Wade actually signed for less money so the Heat could keep power forward/center Udonis Haslam. After losing to the Mavericks in year 1, Miami reeled off 2 straight championships. Even though LeBron won Finals MVP in both victories, the durability of Wade provided lots of help to those 2 championships. Unlike 2006, Wade battled through nagging knee injuries particularly in their final championship against the Spurs in 2013 where he scored 23 points in a grueling game 7. In the long run, it put a major dent into his explosiveness. It showed in 2014 as the Heat were outplayed in a rematch with the Spurs. LeBron would later return to the Cavaliers for a second stint while major injuries to Bosh would eventually force him to retire.
Two seasons later, Wade would bolt to his hometown of Chicago to play for the Bulls. Even though he helped them reach the playoffs, a contract buyout would lead him to the Cavs where he reunited with LeBron. He didn't even complete a full season in the land because he was heading back to South Beach. Not only was it a great reunion, but Wade led the Heat back into the postseason. Unfortunately, that didn't stop Wade from announcing that he'll retire after next season. But he still showed that he had lots left in the tank which made it a memorable final season. With battered knees, he still made people witness the greatness that was happening during his retirement tour. With opposing fans chanting his name and jersey swaps with opponents aside, moments like his amazing buzzer beater against the Warriors in which like 2009, he said that this arena is "my house". In his final home game, he dropped 30 points and in the final game of his career, he recorded a triple double. A beautiful curtain call.
Wade perfectly summed up the glory that came in his NBA career by saying, "I wanted to give [my fans] a full year, a full picture of my career. I wanted to say goodbye to everybody as much as I can, and I wanted to say thank you. I could play another year. But for me, it’s time. No one really gets to walk away from the game at the perfect time. No one’s ending is perfect. I have more left, but I don’t want to empty it all out. The passion and joy is not the same it used to be. My mind’s not 100% in it. And when it got to that point, it was time for me to walk away. I’ve given everything to this game." In the 72 years of the NBA, there will never be another Dwyane Wade.
Dirk Nowitzki had a much different story. He grew up playing basketball overseas in Germany, but didn't have the same hype going into the 1998 draft unlike other players such as Paul Pierce and Vince Carter. Nonetheless the Milwaukee Bucks chose to select him at 9th. Head coach and general manager Don Nelson of the Mavericks was confident in Nowitzki's ability to successfully adapt to the NBA, so he traded for him. The rest is history.
In just 6 seasons, Nowitzki was one of the marquee players of the NBA. At 7 feet, his ability to shoot 3 pointers and drive to the basket by putting the ball on the floor was something entirely new to the game. This play style was a perfect fit for Nelson's system which was called "Nellie Ball" dating back to his days in Milwaukee. It also helped the Mavericks emerge as a contender in a conference that already had powerhouses in the Spurs and Lakers. Unfortunately, by the time the playoffs came, this play style was not fit to win a championship. Throughout the Nelson and Nowitzki era, the closest the Mavs came to a championship was in the 2003 conference finals against the Spurs where an injury to Nowitzki in game 3 ruined their chances of making the NBA Finals. In 2005, Nelson stepped down despite the Mavericks having a 43-22 record. Avery Johnson took over and they would watch former point guard Steve Nash eliminate them.
The next season started a new era in Dallas since it was the first full year with Johnson at the helm. The season was a huge success as the Mavericks won 60 games. They even got over the hump against the Spurs in the semifinals. In the 7th game, Nowitzki countered Tim Duncan's 41 points and 15 rebounds with 37 points and 15 rebounds along with a clutch 3 point play to force overtime. There wasn't any revenge for Steve Nash, who could only watch his former team reach the Finals to play the Miami Heat. The Mavericks stormed out to a 2-0 lead and appeared to be on their way to their first NBA championship. Then with bad officiating and Dwyane Wade, the Mavericks lost the final 4 games in excruciating fashion. Nowitzki and owner Mark Cuban ripped the referees to their horrid officiating which saw Wade shoot an outrageous 97 free throws. But any grudge about the defeat in 2007 wasn't seen. The Mavericks won a franchise record 67 games and Nowitzki won MVP while averaging 25 and 9 while shooting 50, 40, and 90 from the field. The only problem was that he was named MVP after losing to Nelson's Warriors who were only 2 games over .500. A coaching change win 2008 and more playoff disappointment followed for the next 3 seasons. It was looking more likely that Nowitzki would never win the big game. Then came the 2010-2011 season.
The Mavericks won a surprising 57 games and Nowitzki wasn't showing any signs of age. That didn't stop the experts from listing them as underdogs in their first round matchup against the 6th seeded Portland Trail Blazers. The Mavericks won the first 2 games, but lost the next 2 which saw them blow a 23 point lead in game 4. They put any doubts to rest however by winning the next 2 games. Up next, the 2 time defending champion L.A. Lakers. All it took was 4 games for the Mavericks to win in what was a shocking sweep. Their final test in the west was the Oklahoma City Thunder who's young core featured Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook, and James Harden. Yes, this was the NBA back then. Instead of seeing 2 big threes in Miami and OKC clash, Nowitzki had enough of the hype surrounding other teams. He went off in the 5 games played, averaging 32 points while shooting a whooping 55%! When asked about him after game 1, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, "I thought Dirk was pretty good tonight. I thought we defended him as close as we can -- obviously, too close. He's a bulldog down low. He's so crafty clever and he has so many awkward shots that go in. There are some shots he made tonight that are undefendable. He's been doing it for a lot of years against a lot of great players. He had a good rhythm. He got off to a good start. He was making shots and then we were fouling his jump shots and he's a terrific jump-shooter." He also told power forward Serge Ibaka to not get down if he gets caught in a blizzard of one legged fadeaway from Dirk. The only problem according to him was, "I didn't think he was going to make as many shots." The final test, was a rematch with the star studded Miami Heat.
This was the final chance for Dirk to win that long awaited championship. 11 years of postseason failure (he didn't make the playoffs in his first 2 seasons) have come full circle. There was no way the Mavericks could afford to lose another series with it likely being their last chance at a title. And yet the Heat's star power looked like it was too much. They won game 1 and they built a 15 point lead in game 2 with 7:13 left. Then something amazing happened. The Mavericks began to chip away at the deficit. And when it was 86-90, Dirk decided to put this game away himself. He did so with a jumper to make it a 2 point game, a layup to tie it, and a 3 pointer to take the lead with 26 seconds left. But the Heat weren't done yet, as a Mario Chalmers 3 pointer tied the game. But Nowitzki had enough. He tried to drive right on Chris Bosh, turned around, changed his dribble from right to left, hesitated, drove, ballgame. Miami did win game 3 to take a 2-1 lead and it didn't look any better in game 4, as Nowitzki was battling a fever and a horrid start to the game. But he kept shooting and like game 2, the Mavericks were back in the game. Only that when Dirk had the ball in the closing moments, they were winning by one. And with one simple rip and go to the basket, the Mavericks had all but tied the series. 29 points from Nowitzki and a clutch 3 by guard Jason Terry propelled them to a 3-2 series lead. One game from ending all heartbreak. Throughout game 6, the Mavericks led, but they needed one more shot to put away the game. Nowitzki would answer the call with a fadeaway to end any hope that Miami had. Nowitzki and the Mavericks were finally champions. The Finals MVP was undoubtedly Nowitzki, the guy who had fully transformed a team that was once a laughingstock into a winner.
Nowitzki's Mavericks still remained a playoff team, but the championship clearly showed that if he had never won had he lost a second time to Miami. There were still years where his greatness was on full display, such as in 2016, where Nowitzki led an heavily aging squad into the playoffs averaging 18 points. In 2017, he recorded the milestone of 30,000 points with his trademark one legged fadeaway. The last 2 years saw the Mavericks enter a rebuilding phrase even though it's going to be short with the drafting of Luka Dončić and the acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis. This hasn't stopped Dirk from showing the talent that he still has. Sadly, there was a ton of speculation that he would retire - but he didn't say so until after his final home game where he scored 30 points in a Mavericks win.
He addressed the fans by saying, "As you might expect, this was my last home game." His message was that, "This is obviously super, super emotional. Just too many people to really thank. I put you guys on a helluva ride with a lot of ups and downs, and you guys always stuck with me and supported me, so I appreciate it." To see a guy have as good a career as anyone can have was truly special. Then to see a guy like Nowitzki tackle every doubt that was made about him over time is even more special. There are other players that have games strongly related to Nowitzki's, but there will never 100% be another Dirk Nowitzki.
Two players. Two players who have brought so much greatness to the game of basketball. Dirk and Dwyane might've been different kinds of players regarding their style of play, but they both brought lots of greatness to the game in a way that hasn't always been seen in the NBA. For that, they have earned their place amongst the NBA's greatest players of all time.
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