Recognition for Dirk is long overdue

DALLAS -- There is not a more overblown storyline during these NBA playoffs than the new, vastly improved Dirk Nowitzki.

Not Nowitzki, who has been phenomenal while leading the Dallas Mavericks to the Western Conference finals for the first time in five years. Just the new and improved part.

No matter what you might hear on TV, Nowitzki isn't in the process of proving he's the kind of player who can put a team on his back during the playoffs. He's been one of the NBA's premier playoff performers for more than a decade, as evidenced by the fact that he's one of four players in history with career postseason averages of better than 25 points and 10 rebounds.

The sudden change in the perception of Dirk that occurred while the Mavs busted out the brooms on the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers is simply proof that people haven't paid close enough attention to his career.

"I've had decent playoffs," Nowitzki said, a rather large understatement for a man who dropped 50 points in pivotal Game 5 the last time the Mavs advanced to the West finals. "I just couldn't put us over the top."

Reaching that goal and winning a championship is Nowitzki's sole goal for the remainder of his career. However, it shouldn't take a title for the basketball world to recognize the German's greatness.

Coach Rick Carlisle can be charged with slight exaggeration after declaring Dirk as one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history earlier this week, but there's no doubt that Dirk is on an extremely short list of the most elite players without a ring. Among power forwards, he ranks right up there with Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.

Barkley, in his role as a lovable pot-stirring TNT analyst, has been behind the wheel of the Dirk bandwagon during these playoffs. And Barkley's loud opinions weigh heavily on a player's perception. But here's the deal: The Round Mound of Profound has been dead wrong about Dirk in the past.

Remember all the rants coming from the studio a couple of years ago after Dirk dared to give an honest answer when asked about the strengths of the different defenders Denver would use against him? That was supposedly irrefutable evidence that Nowitzki was soft and didn't have the toughness to lead a team to a title?

All Dirk did that series was average 34.4 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. Guess it was his fault the Nuggets knocked out the Mavs in five games, huh?

"Dirk has always been incredible," said Dallas big man Tyson Chandler, an opponent when Nowitzki's 26.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game couldn't get the Mavs past the Hornets in the first round in 2008. "I think the difference is he has a different cast now, different guys around him."

In other words, Nowitzki is having a typical postseason by his standards. That, combined with the kind of stingy defense that hasn't been associated with Dallas and the production of Nowitzki's teammates, has put the Mavs in position to challenge for their first championship.

In fact, Nowitzki's scoring average (26.8) is lower than it's been in four of the previous five playoffs. The exception was in 2007, when he had the worst series of his career while the No. 8 seed Warriors stunned the 67-win Mavs, a low point that apparently outweighs all of Dirk's great playoff moments in the minds of many.

I've heard that Nowitzki is finally attacking the basket like superstars need to do in the playoffs. Hate to break it to folks, but he's still first and foremost the most prolific and potent midrange shooter in the game. His effective post-up game, which he developed during Avery Johnson's reign as the Mavs' coach, is based on a one-legged fadeaway. He's averaging a respectable 7.9 free throws per game during this playoff run, which is only two-tenths more than his career average.

"I attack the same," said Nowitzki, who couldn't care less about what critics and analysts say.

There is the theory that Dirk has suddenly developed the intangibles it takes to be the star of a title team. Maybe he has become a better leader in recent years. He does trust his teammates more now, but that has a lot to do with the quality of his supporting cast this season.

But to say Nowitzki's toughness is something new?

"It's a joke," Carlisle said.

He's the same guy who had a tooth knocked out by an elbow during his first postseason and checked back into the game 33 seconds later to finish off a 30-point performance in a sweep-avoiding win. He's the same dude who drove for a Game 7 overtime-forcing and-1 during a 37-point, 15-rebound masterpiece to finally knock off the Spurs in 2006. He's the same player who blocked out highly publicized personal hell to put up huge numbers against Denver in 2009.

It's not surprising to see Nowitzki put on this sort of playoff show. He's been doing it, with few exceptions, for the last 11 years.

"I don't think he's changed a whole lot, but winning helps," said Jason Terry, Nowitzki's longest-tenured teammate. "Surrounding yourself with a better cast of characters definitely helps. He's locked in. It's that prize. That prize that everybody wants; he knows this is our time."

It's past time Dirk got his due as one of the best playoff performers of his era. Better late than never, which is the same way he feels about a championship.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.