Best Foreign Player in NBA History: Dirk vs The Dream

dirk nowitzkiolajuwon

This past Tuesday, Dirk passed Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon for ninth all-time on the NBA scoring list and thus became the leading scorer of all foreign-born NBA players. The question: Is Dirk the best foreign-born player in NBA history?

The answer is NO! The argument is between Dirk and the man he passed, Hakeem Olajuwon[1]. I love Dirk and he is want of the most entertaining players to watch in the NBA because of his unconventional awkward but brilliant style of play. I’m too young to have watched Olajuwon play, but I’ve seen plenty of videos and read plenty of articles that detail his wizardry in the post combined with his athleticism and overall skillset as a player.


Looking at Nowitzki’s career, his value has come almost exclusively as an offensive player, primarily as a shooting big man. He’s been transcendent in his shooting ability as a 7-footer and has been a lethal 3-point threat throughout his career. His ability to get his shot off over any defender have made him nearly impossible to guard at times. Despite the appearance of awkward footwork that gives the appearance of constantly rolled ankles and hyperextended knees, Dirk has been masterful throughout his career at creating space and using his body to block off defenders from affecting his shot. Combing his excellent ability to create space with his behind the head release, Dirk has been mesmerizing as a scorer. His patented one-legged fadeaway will always exist in the tales of NBA folklore as one of the most unstoppable moves of all-time.

Dirk's one-legged fadeaway is nearly unguardable.

Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway is nearly unguardable.

Dirk was also a master of efficiency and possessed the clutch gene. Dirk’s MVP season was headlined by his exclusive membership of the 50-40-90 club for FG%, 3FG%, and FT%. For his career Dirk has a 47.7 FG%, 38.4 3FG%, and 87.8 FT%. Excluding his rookie year in which he played just 20 minutes per game for 47 games and was still adapting to basketball in the United States as a spindly teenager, Nowitzki NEVER shot below 45% from the field, only once below 35% from three, and shot below 85% from the line just twice. Dirk has also maintained his reputation as a clutch performer throughout his career. He was huge in crunch-time during the Maverick’s 2011 playoff run turning in spectacular fourth quarter performances on a game-to-game basis.

However, for much of Dirk’s early career he was a defensive liability lacking the physicality to defend players like Duncan and Garnett on the block and also the foot speed to adequately defend pick and rolls. He did work himself into an average defensive player as his career progressed thriving at stripping opponents of the ball with quick swipes at the ball when they made their scoring move. Dirk, however, will never be described or mentioned as a defensive juggernaut or even an asset and that is the biggest factor in Olajuwon being the better player.

Olajuwon was as proficient as anyone in NBA history as a low post scorer. He developed incredible footwork combined with very good ball skills and superior athleticism. Hakeem’s “dream shake” rivals Dirk’s one legged fadeway in the historical context of NBA moves. He also possessed nice passing skills out of the post when drawing double teams. From his rookie season in 1985 through 1996 Olajuwon averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. During his prime years from ‘93-‘96 Olajuwon averaged 25+PPG, 10+RPG and over three APG and he also racked up the hardware collecting two titles in the non-Jordan years in ‘94 and ‘95, two NBA Finals MVP awards and the ’94 MVP.

the dream

The Dream victimized his opponents on the block even NBA greats like Shaq.

Olajuwon’s defense, however, gives him the edge over Nowitzki. Olajuwon is the all-time leader in blocks, a two-time defensive player of the year (’93 and ’94), 9-time All-Defense and led the NBA in defensive win shares from ’87-’90. Olajuwon led the NBA in blocks three times in his career and averaged over four BPG three times in his career. In other words, Olajuwon may be the second-best shot blocker and rim protector in NBA history behind Russell[2].


Both players raised their level of play in the postseason and increased their scoring averages. Olajuwon averaged 25.9 PPG with a 52.8 FG% in 145 career playoff games compared to his career regular season averages of 21.8 PPG with a 51.2 FG%. Nowitzki has averaged 25.6 PPG in 135 career playoff games, compared to a career average of 22.5 PPG in the regular season. Dirk’s career rebounding numbers have also improved in the playoffs, jumping from 8.1 RPG in the regular season to 10.1 RPG in the postseason.

Olajuwon was a force offensively and defensively in leading the Rockets to back-to-back championships in ’94 and ’95. In the 1994 playoffs Olajuwon averaged 28.9 PPG, 11 RPG, 4.3 APG and 4.0 BPG. Olajuwon’s dominance in the ’94 playoffs culminated in a Finals matchup with the Knicks and its star center Patrick Ewing. Olajuwon won the much anticipated matchup with Ewing in the series:

1994 NBA Finals Gm 1 Gm 2 Gm 3 Gm 4 Gm 5 Gm 6 Gm 7 Totals
Hakeem Olajuwon 28 25 21 32 27 30 25 26.9 ppg 50.0% fg 9.1 rpg 3.6 apg 3.9 bpg
Patrick Ewing 23 16 18 15 25 19 17 18.9 ppg 36.4% fg 12.4 rpg 1.7 apg 4.3 bpg

After saving the Rockets with a block of John Stark’s series-winning three point attempt in Game 6, Olajuwon had 25-10-7-3 in the Rockets’ game 7 victory to earn his first title.


Olajuwon led the Rockets to back-to-back titles in ’94 and ’95.

During the 1995 playoffs, Olajuwon averaged 33.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 4.5 APG and 2.8 BPG. The Rockets swept the Magic in the NBA Finals in which Olajuwon faced off against another all-time great center in Shaq. Olajuwon averaged 32.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG and 5.5 APG[3] in the series and won his second consecutive Finals MVP.

Nowitzki had his own historical run that culminated with the Mavericks defeating the “Big 3” and the league-wide enemy, Miami Heat. Nowitzki averaged 27.7 PPG and 8.1 RPG during his 2011 postseason run. His shooting percentages of 48.5-46-94.1 were incredible. Nowitzki simply couldn’t be stopped in the Conference Semifinals against the Thunder when he averaged 32.2 PPG including going 59-61 on free throws in the series. The Mavericks won the series in five games and Dirk scored 48 in Game 1 and 40 in Game 4.

Dirk earned Finals MVP as the Mavs upset the Heat.

Dirk earned Finals MVP as the Mavs upset the Heat.

Nowitzki’s Finals performance earned him the MVP as he led the Mavs to a 4-2 series win. His go-ahead layup in the final seconds of Game 2 capped off one of the greatest comebacks in Finals history as the Mavs trailed by 15 with just over seven minutes remaining. In Game 4 while battling a high fever, Dirk drove to the basket for a key bucket to extend the lead to three in the final seconds as the Mavs went on to tie the series at 2-2. Nowitzki’s Game 4 was a testament to his resiliency and competitiveness after struggling with his shot early, but coming alive in the fourth quarter to help the Mavs emerge victorious.

Place in History

Nowitzki and Olajuwon both belong among the NBA’s greatest players. Olajuwon is one of the best centers in the history of the game and a case could be made he is an all-time top 10 NBA player. Nowitzki has been vastly underrated throughout his career playing in the same era as other great power forwards in Duncan and Garnett. Nowitzki certainly deserves to be mentioned as a possible top 25 player of all-time. Nowitzki forced NBA teams to reconsider how they evaluated and valued international players.

[1] In order to create an argument, Tim Duncan is not considered foreign born coming from the US Virgin Islands. If Duncan classifies as foreign born he’s obviously the best foreign born player ever.

[2] Blocks were not kept as a statistic when Russell. If they did well let’s just say he would’ve had a lot of blocks and more than Hakeem.

[3] To be fair Shaq was a beast himself averaging 28-12.5-6.3. For the sake of my argument I hope you ignore footnotes.


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