Dirk Nowitzki’s reign as Europe’s NBA all-time great may be short lived | NBA

Basketball has distinctly North American origins: it was invented by Canadian Dr James Naismith while he was teaching at a Massachusetts YMCA. However, since the first basketball game was played back in 1892, the sport has grown into an international concern. Last week, the NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary by naming its All-Time European Teams, voted on by fans and European basketball experts.

The first team was filled with familiar names. Along with two current superstars in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, and Slovenia’s Luka Dončić, of the Dallas Mavericks, the roster was completed with three retired players who had a huge impact on the NBA: Spain’s Pau Gasol, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki and France’s Tony Parker.

The second team included only one current player, Serbia’s Nikola Jokić, who just so happens to be the reigning MVP. Alongside Jokić were four players who never quite became household names but helped establish the viability of European players in the NBA: Toni Kukoč and the late Drazen Petrović, both from Croatia, Lithuania’s Arvydas Sabonis and Serbia’s Peja Stojaković. All of those four except Stojaković have already been enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Determining which of these players was truly the best is an impossibly subjective task, especially when many of them split their careers between the NBA and international leagues.

A few years ago, however, this writer argued that – judged solely on his exploits in the NBA – Nowitzki had the most important career of any European basketball player. He is sixth on the all-time scoring list, just above Wilt Chamberlain and right below Michael Jordan. The German was a 14-time All-Star and has both an NBA MVP and a finals MVP to his credit.

Tony Parker won four championships with the San Antonio Spurs, but as important as the Frenchman was in that dynasty, Tim Duncan was the star of those teams. Pau Gasol helped the Los Angeles Lakers win back-to-back championships but as Kobe Bryant’s sidekick. Meanwhile, when the Dallas Mavericks shocked the world by defeating LeBron James’s Miami Heat in the 2011 finals, they did it on the back of Nowitzki, who spent his entire 21-year career with the franchise (also a league record).

Currently, Nowitzki towers over his competition as having the best NBA career of any European player. Yet, there’s that word “currently.” Nowitzki was 40 when he stepped away from the game: his accomplishments were as much a product of his longevity as his undeniable gifts. There is plenty of time for the younger European superstars to eventually overtake him.

Let’s look first at Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is only 27 and already has two NBA MVPs under his belt, alongside six All-Star nods and the league title he won last year with the Bucks in a finals in which he excelled. Considering that he’s only getting better, it feels that – barring injuries – the two-way threat will continue to accumulate awards throughout his career.

Antetokounmpo, in fact, is once again an MVP candidate this year, where he joins two fellow players who happen to hail from outside the US. The other two frontrunners are Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid, who was born in Cameroon, and Jokić, who is the same age as Antetokounmpo.

While 2019 Rookie of the Year Dončić, Nowitzki’s successor in Dallas, isn’t a serious contender for this year’s MVP award, it’s still remarkable where he is in his career in relation to his age. He was named to the NBA’s All-Time European first team, despite being just 23 years old. Nowitzki himself has admitted that he has begun signing his former Mavericks teammate’s jerseys.

Germans friends that come visit always buy jerseys. I say: hold on let me get a sharpie and they say: oh no. That’s ok. This is actually Luka’s. Do you mind getting it signed… 🙄

— Dirk Nowitzki (@swish41) April 12, 2022

With the right amount of health and luck, maybe the two most important factors in any athlete’s career, any (or all) of these three players could surpass Nowitzki. Beyond that, there will be more great players to emerge from Europe who will be in the position to best those that came before. There is nothing static in sports: records are broken, accomplishments are eclipsed and even the longest-reigning king will eventually face challengers to his throne. What will never change will be those who came first: the ones that proved that European players could not just compete but establish themselves as pivotal figures in what has become a truly global sport.

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