Dirk Nowitzki

How do I know I’m a certified NBA stats geek? Any time a player has an exceptional performance like Dirk Nowitzki’s virtuoso 48-point game on Tuesday, I typically go right to the Player Game Finder on Basketball-Reference.com to see how that performance ranks historically. In this particular case, I learned that only two players since 1991 have scored over 40 points with 15 or fewer field goal attempts in a playoff game — Nowitzki with 48 points on 15 attempts and Terry Porter (!) with 41 points on 14 attempts in 1992. If that doesn’t put into perspective how awesome Dirk’s performance was, I’m not sure what could.

Because Nowitzki has never won a championship ring, he isn’t widely considered to be one of the elite post-season performers of the modern era. It’s difficult to argue against this perception because, after all, rings are ultimately how we measure players. As ridiculous as it seems to many that people continue to compare Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan, those comparisons will never go away if Kobe ever captures that sixth ring.

Nowitzki’s dominance in this year’s playoffs has me ruminating about where he ranks among players in the post-season, starting with the beginning of the Magic-Bird Era. Magic and Bird both made their NBA debuts in the 1979-80 season, so that seems like a good starting point for the sake of this discussion. In terms of how we compare players, I went with “Win Shares per 48 minutes” (WS/48) among players who have appeared in at least 50 playoff games and averaged at least 30 minutes per game.

In a nutshell, Win Shares are meant to measure how much a player contributes to his team’s success. The method for calculating this stat is exactly as convoluted as you’d expect, but as a reference point it helps to know that an average player should have a WS/48 score of around 0.1 — Jason Terry, Landry Fields and Rudy Fernandez were the three players to play at least 1,500 minutes and finish with exactly that score this season.

That’s enough of an introduction — let’s get to the money chart. Since the 1980 playoffs, 29 players have played in at least 50 games, averaged at least 30 minutes per game, and have a career post-season WP/48 score of at least .150.

Well, well. That’s an interesting list, isn’t it? Most of the great players you’d expect to see are there, albeit not in the order you’d probably expect. The fact that Dikembe Mutombo, Horace Grant and Ben Wallace made the cut would seem to indicate that this metric takes defensive contributions into account. Nine of these players (LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Adrian Dantley, Amare Stoudemire, John Stockton, Shawn Kemp and Dikembe Mutombo) never won a championship, but Stoudemire is the only one to never actually make the Finals.

It’s no shock to see Michael Jordan at the top — let’s face it, we’d have to disqualify this metric immediately if it didn’t rank him first. As for LeBron James, our personal feelings about him don’t change the reality of his talent so I can’t quarrel with his runner-up status. And in third place is our boy, Dirk, ahead of Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and everybody else.

I don’t consider this list to be as insane as a lot of people might. There’s no disputing the greatness of Magic, Duncan, Shaq, Bird and Kobe, but they all won their championships with assistance from another player on this list. Would Magic have a ring without Kareem? Would Duncan have a ring without Robinson and Ginobili? Would Bird have a ring without McHale? And then there’s that whole Shaq/Kobe/Wade/Gasol thing.

This ranking or any list of its kind conjured up by exceptionally complex statistics should never be regarded as the gospel truth about who are really the all-time greats of the modern NBA era. But I do think they provide excellent discussion fodder. Personally, I think it’s not crazy to point out that at least one of the LeBron/Dirk/Dwight trio would almost certainly have a ring by now if they had assistance from another top player. If you want to blame them for not being able to carry mediocre supporting casts to a championship, that’s your prerogative.