Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are two of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. Both players are NBA champions, Finals MVPs, regular-season MVPs, and have impacted the game at the highest level. But is it possible to distinguish between them to come out with a conclusion on the better player?
Tim Duncan is a 5-time NBA champion and the player most responsible for a San Antonio Spurs dynasty, while Dirk Nowitzki is arguably the most impactful foreign superstar to ever grace the NBA court thanks to his skill set. Both players are first-ballot Hall of Famers and among the top-25 players who ever lived, but which one comes out on top? To put the debate to rest, it is time to compare Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki to determine the better overall player.
Scoring - Dirk Nowitzki
Tim Duncan averaged a career 19.0 PPG over his career, with his best scoring season coming in the 2002 season where he averaged 25.5 PPG. Duncan shot a career 50.6% from the field and 69.6% from the free-throw line. Hardly taking threes throughout his career, Duncan only shot 17.9% from three. On the other side, Dirk averaged 20.7 PPG on 47.1% from the field, 87.9% from the free-throw line, and 38.0% from three. Clearly a better all-around scorer, Dirk had his best scoring season in 2006 when he averaged 26.6 PPG.
Overall, Dirk Nowitzki is a better scorer due to his long-range shooting and unstoppable fadeaway jumper. Duncan had the patented off-the-backboard mid-range jumper but he could not shoot like Dirk which gives the German the advantage.
Athleticism - Even
Both superstars are not known for their athleticism, although they had slightly different games. Duncan was very powerful in the post and could bang down low with strong players all game long, while Dirk was more finesse and was not much of a defender. It is hard to distinguish between Duncan and Dirk because they both played under the rim. Duncan was stronger than Dirk and could absorb more contact while defending, but Dirk was longer at an inch taller which helped him score easier. Overall, this one is even.
Defense - Tim Duncan
This is not even close. Tim Duncan is arguably the best defensive power forward in NBA history and this is clear when analyzing his career. Duncan made a whopping 15 All-Defensive Teams and averaged a career 2.2 BPG. Duncan’s defensive awareness was the main reason the Spurs were as dominant as they were for over a decade, and his basketball IQ is hardly matched by any player ever. Dirk was never much of a defender, never making an All-Defensive Team and averaging only 0.8 BPG as a 7-footer. The advantage goes to Duncan and there is no argument there.
Clutch - Even
Both superstars are legends due to their abilities in the clutch. But they went about it in different ways. Duncan was the player who would make winning plays on either end of the floor, by blocking a shot or grabbing a critical rebound. He was a monster on defense, and also capable of being a go-to scorer in the clutch from mid-range or in the post.
Dirk was a special offensive player so he could pull off his one-legged fadeaway anytime he wanted, which meant opposing defenses were at the mercy of the German. Dirk was also automatic from the free-throw line so he was unguardable. Dirk was a better scorer in the clutch than Duncan, but Duncan was very capable of making winning defensive plays as well which makes this even.
Leader - Tim Duncan
Both superstars were incredible leaders, but it is hard to argue against Duncan for what he did over his career. Dirk never played with players like Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, but he did not lead a team as Duncan did. Tim Duncan was everything for the Spurs, and without him, there is no dynasty or a total of 5 NBA rings on Greg Popovich's hand; as great of a coach as he is.
Duncan was the best defensive player for the Spurs, the best leader, and the best all-around player for them. Dirk was the franchise star for the Mavericks and arguably their greatest-ever player, but this one has to go to Tim Duncan.
Basketball IQ - Tim Duncan
When it comes to basketball IQ, Tim Duncan has the argument for being the best ever. He did everything right on the court, hardly making a mistake or taking bad shots on offense. Duncan was always in the right place on defense and was extremely dominant on both ends of the floor. Whether on offense or on defense, Duncan ultimately was the reason the Spurs won games.
Dirk Nowitzki had a greater basketball IQ on offense and had multiple ways to score the ball, but he wasn’t as dominant as Duncan on defense. Duncan was also a better passer, rebounder, and overall better player thanks to his basketball IQ. The advantage goes to Duncan, although Dirk was also a very smart player.
Impact - Even
The impact of these two stars is too close to gauge. Tim Duncan had the better overall game but Nowitzki is one of the league's greatest scorers of all time. What Duncan brought on defense is what Dirk could bring on offense, and they are both players who can single-handedly win games for their teams. As players who played for the same franchise for their entire careers, Duncan and Nowitzki had Hall of Fame impacts for the Spurs and Mavericks respectively which makes this even.
1 on 1 Game - Even
Tim Duncan is arguably the most dominant 2-way power forward of all time. He had the size and skills to score and also get stops on defense in one on one situations. Duncan was the ultimate team player but he could get the job done in 1 on 1 situations. Dirk Nowitzki can't get stops like Duncan can, but his offense is so great that he manages to even it up with the Spurs legend.
Dirk was unstoppable when defended with one player, and he could win an NBA title when seeing double or triple teams as well as evidenced by his 2011 ring. Even if Dirk wasn't a great defender, he had an unstoppable one-legged fadeaway shot which is enough to make this category even.
Career - Tim Duncan
This one is not very close because Tim Duncan is the most accomplished power forward to have ever played the game. Duncan has 5 rings, 3 Finals MVPs, 2 MVPs, and a whopping 15 All-Star Team selections. Duncan accomplished everything in the game on both an individual and team level, and no player in the position comes close.
Dirk Nowitzki captured a very impressive NBA title in 2011 and also the 2007 MVP, along with making 14 All-Star Teams. But overall, it is clear Duncan had the best career of all-time as a power forward and it isn’t close.
Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki 4-1
Dirk Nowitzki was a better offensive player who was one of the greatest shooters ever, but Duncan did more to impact the game over his career. Tim Duncan's leadership on defense and his all-around game was the reason he captured 5 NBA rings over his career, which makes him the greatest power forward in NBA history.