Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki

What makes us define an NBA player as “soft”? Is it a lack of willingness to fight for tough rebounds or dive for loose balls? Is it an apparent inability to make key shots in clutch moments? Whatever the basis, few high-profile NBA players have been labelled as “soft” as frequently as Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh have throughout their careers.

When I type the words “Dirk Nowitzki is” or “Chris Bosh is” in Google’s search field, “soft” appears as a suggested auto-complete for both players. Whether or not this is a fair perception is debatable, but the fact that this perception is prevalent is inarguable. They’re not elite rebounders or defenders, they both rely primarily on jump shots for their scoring, and neither one of them has won a championship. Do these characteristics mean that they deserved to be called out as soft players?

Considering the way Nowitzki and Bosh have performed so far in the 2011 playoffs, a variety of different descriptors come to mind at the moment: “deadly”, “dominant” and “elite” are a few of them. Nowitzki continues to play at an incredibly high level as he is one win away from leading the Mavericks to the Finals, while Bosh has surprised many of his critics by averaging over 24 points per game on 66 percent shooting in three games against the Bulls’ tough defense.

Maybe it will take a championship for either of these players to shed their “soft” label. Nevermind that Nowitzki has been one of the league’s best playoff performers over the past decade or the fact that neither player was provided with a championship-caliber supporting cast before this season — I’m supposed to accept the prevalent belief that their lack of toughness has been the main reason they haven’t achieved greater post-season success.

You know what I think is soft? Using “soft” as a catch-all description for players who don’t play, look or act the way we’ve come to expect from the positions they play. Nowitzki and Bosh don’t ply their trades in the fashion of many old-school, successful big men, but that doesn’t diminish the level of their overall effectiveness.  Neither the Mavs nor the Heat would have made it this far in the 2011 playoffs without their significant contributions and if they meet in the Finals, the champion won’t be determined by which team is less soft.

The playing styles and off-court personae of Nowitzki and Bosh haven’t always presented them as the type of battle-hardened warriors we are conditioned to expect on our champions, but there’s more than one way to achieve ultimate victory in this game — lest we forget, Pau Gasol has two rings. All that really matters is which team ends up with 16 playoff wins, regardless of how they got there. As Yoda might say: “Win or do not win, there is no ‘soft’.”