Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were supposed to be the wave of the future. Part of the first generation of Europeans who grew up watching Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, they were two of the headliners of the surge of international players in the early 2000’s who helped change the NBA. It wasn’t just where they were from. It was who they were. Pau and Dirk rejected a lot of the traditional assumptions about big men. They weren’t bruisers who wanted to bang around the basket - they were artistes with the footwork of ballerinas who could score from all over the floor and do wondrous things with the ball in their hands.

The NBA didn’t know what they had with either. Dirk was taken at No. 9 in 1998 and Pau was taken at No. 3 in 2001 and both were acquired in draft day trades, with the Dallas Mavericks getting Dirk for Tractor Traylor and the Memphis Grizzlies picking up Pau for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Looking back on it, they should have went No. 1 in their respective drafts. The course correction came soon and it came hard.


Nikoloz Tskitishvilli

No. 5


Darko Milicic

No. 2


Andris Biedrins

No. 11


Fran Vazquez

No. 11


Andrea Bargnani

No. 1


Yi Jianlian

No. 7

For more than a generation, NBA teams were making any 7’0 from overseas with a pulse and a jumper a multi-millionaire because of Dirk and Pau. Instead, more than fifteen years later, as the two future Hall of Famers wind down their careers and play in their final EuroBasket, the league still hasn’t found anyone who can fill their shoes. There was so much more to their games than just being tall guys who could shoot the ball.

Dirk is as sui generis now as he was then. It’s easy to forget at this stage of his career, after 17 seasons, 1,400+ combined regular season and playoff games and nearly 50,000 minutes, but he came into the league as a tremendous athlete, with the quickness to blow right past most big men. Combine that with the ball-handling ability of a guard and shooting ability that takes a backseat to no one in NBA history and Dirk was one of the most unguardable 1-on-1 players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Dirk made a living making impossible shots, a reality which no one internalized until guys like Bargnani and Yi started trying to take them.

Pau wasn’t the same caliber of scorer but he was a more well-rounded player. While he was a 7’0 who could play on the perimeter, he was just as comfortable playing with his back to the basket and protecting the rim. Dirk was a pure PF - Pau was a C who could masquerade as a PF from time to time. Dirk was always best as a first option where Pau’s peak came as a second option behind Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers. What made Pau so great was that he was really good at everything - scoring, shooting, passing, rebounding and defending - so he could plug a lot of holes on a team and thrive next to any type of player.

Those Lakers teams were about way more than just Kobe.  Just as important was the duo of Pau and Lamar Odom, who played absolutely beautiful basketball in Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense. They were the best passing big man duo in the NBA since the days of Vlade Divac and Chris Webber in Sacramento. They toyed with teams with praying mantis like arms that covered up the paint and allowed them to play keep away on the glass. It was a match made in heaven on both sides of the ball and LA won three straight conference championships and two NBA Finals from 2008-2010.

Fittingly enough, it was Dirk who ended their run in 2011, as the Mavericks swept away the Lakers in the second round and sent the Zen Master into retirement. Styles make fights and Dirk was always a bad 1-on-1 match-up for Pau. Though, to be fair, no big man really matched up well with him. The two times they faced each other in the playoffs - the other time a 2006 first round series between Dallas and the Memphis Grizzlies - were both sweeps. Dirk was big enough to make Pau work for his points in the post and Pau had zero chance of guarding him 20+ feet from the basket.

Dirk was the original stretch 4, a player (who was literally) built in a laboratory to torment conventional big men like Pau. The only way to deal with him was to fight fire with fire. That’s why the San Antonio Spurs always put Bruce Bowen on Dirk instead of Tim Duncan. Dirk was more comfortable taking slower guys off the dribble than putting smaller guys on his back, an Achilles heel exposed by his old coach Don Nelson in the We Believe first round upset in 2007. Over the next few offseasons, he put everything together and became almost the perfect offensive player, biding his time until the Mavs were able to put enough defensive-minded players around him to eventually win a title in 2011.

The good times in Dallas didn’t last, however, as the Mavs gave up the Yin to Dirk’s Yang - Tyson Chandler - and spent the next few seasons wandering in the purgatory of the middle of the Western Conference. By the time they reunited the two in 2014, it was already too late. Dirk was 36 and in the tail end of his career and the NBA had changed. The stretch 4 position was no longer on the cutting edge. Teams were starting to get more comfortable with matching up with them on defense and they were much more aggressive in attacking slower big men in the pick-and-roll.

The Houston Rockets were unmerciful in attacking Dirk in a gentleman’s sweep in the first round of last season’s playoffs. He guarded either Terrence Jones or Josh Smith for most of the series and the Rockets put Dirk in the two-man game with his man and James Harden almost every single time down the floor. If he hung back, Harden had an open 3. If Dirk extended out, Harden went right around him. If the Mavs trapped, Harden made the easy pass to the rolling big man who was then in a 2-on-1 with Dwight Howard against the Mavs C. The end result was dunk after dunk after dunk for the Rockets. Mark Cuban made fun of them for being a predictable offense before the series started but when you can throw the ball through the front of the rim whenever you feel like it there’s no real reason to change up.

It was much the same story for Pau on the other side of the bracket. The Bulls were given a golden chance against a Cleveland Cavaliers team without two of their top three players for much of the series and they couldn’t get it done. The duo of Pau and Joakim Noah never really had any chemistry together - they made each other worse instead of better. There wasn’t enough space on the floor on offense and the Chicago defense couldn’t extend far enough out on the perimeter. The way the league is going, if your big men can’t defend in space there’s a ceiling to how good your team can be. It probably isn’t a coincidence the Bulls defense sunk from the top of the league to the middle of the pack once they inserted Pau into the mix.

Going forward, both Chicago and Dallas can only go as far as their aging 7’0 can take them. When you have a lumbering Goliath playing most of the game of your frontline, he inevitably becomes a major part of your identity on both sides of the ball. For the first time in their storied careers, that may no longer be a good thing for their teams. The real question is how a prime Dirk Nowitzki and a prime Pau Gasol would have fared against a pace-and-space team like the Golden State Warriors.

While Dirk devastated a proto-version of the Miami Heat in 2011, that was when they were still playing conventional line-ups with two traditional big men. What would have happened if the Mavs had returned to the NBA Finals in 2012 and Dirk had to guard either Chris Bosh or LeBron James? And would either of those guys have returned the favor and guarded him? More likely, he would have wound up chasing Shane Battier around the three-point line. What makes the 2015 Warriors so difficult is there’s nowhere to hide on defense. They won the championship by surrounding the MVP with four 6’6+ wings who can initiate offense and make plays off the dribble.

Golden State finished the small-ball revolution that Miami started. They weren’t worried about being posted up by bigger players. They figured they would get them right back the other way in the two-man game. In a game of post-ups vs. pick-and-rolls, Golden State figures they have the math to go their way every time and they haven’t been proven wrong so far. They went through the entire first-team All-NBA frontcourt in the 2015 playoffs - Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and LeBron James - as well as Dwight Howard.

At the same time, though, none of those guys were a prime Dirk or a prime Pau in terms of scoring with their back to the basket. Anthony Davis was only 21 years old in last year’s playoffs, still getting his feet wet on the biggest stage in the NBA. Dwight Howard was one of the most inefficient post scorers in the league last season. LeBron has become a better post player over the last few seasons but he’s still most comfortable operating as a ball-handler and attacking off the dribble. And for as gifted a player as Pau’s younger brother is, scoring has never been his forte - Marc’s career high last season (17.4 points on 49.4% shooting) is lower and less efficient than Pau’s career average (18.3 points on 51.3% shooting).

Whether the next generation of European 7’0 - guys like Jonas Valanciunas, Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert - succeed at the highest levels of the game or whether they fall into the same trap as the first generation of international big men who followed Dirk and Pau remains to be seen. The lesson the rest of the NBA learned the hard way is that guys like that just don’t come around very often. 20 years later, we are still waiting for the next Pau Gasol and the next Dirk Nowitzki and we could be waiting a while longer.