Do we have to compare Karl-Anthony Towns and Dirk Nowitzki?

Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki are the two greatest shooting big men of all time. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves and former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki are the two greatest shooting big men of all time. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

The “greatest shooting big man of all time” argument is suddenly a thing, and the two names up for debate are current Timberwolves superstar Karl-Anthony Towns and former Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki.

Do we have to compare Karl-Anthony Towns and Dirk Nowitzki?

First things first: this is an exhausting debate.

Both are fantastic players. Nowitzki is a future Hall-of-Famer, and while it’s still quite early, Towns is on track to get there someday — provided he finds a bit more team success at some point.

To be clear, there is zero room for an argument suggesting that Towns is a better player than Nowitzki. That is not the debate we’re having here. Get back to me in several years, and perhaps it’s a conversation.

Clearly, there’s plenty of nuance to this debate, which we’ll get into shortly. The purpose of this piece is to clearly state that A) arguing this definitively in either direction is pretty much a fool’s errand, B) both players are extremely efficient shooters with distinctly different games.

At the same time, Mavs fans, please pay attention to the first point above. Any argument that Dirk is definitively the “greatest shooting big man of all time” (such as this piece from Mavs Moneyball) ignores plenty of convenient facts.

By the way, Nowitzki himself made light of Towns’ comments on the Mavericks television broadcast on Tuesday, so this isn’t simply a blog boys-initiated thing. Thank Towns and Nowitzki themselves for fanning these flames.

Statistically, Karl-Anthony Towns has been a better shooter than Dirk Nowitzki

When Towns nonchalantly stated to The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski that he was the best big man shooter of all time and followed that up with a “you can see the stats”, well … he wasn’t wrong. He was spot on.

First, here’s the quote repeated by Mavs Moneyball at the above link, first published by The Athletic (subscription required):

"Honestly man, I ain’t gotta play like nobody. I’m me. I’m the greatest big man shooter of all time. That’s a fact. You can see the stats. I ain’t got to play like no one else. Everyone trying to find themselves to be the second version of me when I’m the first version. I don’t got to be the second version of someone else. I’m already an original. I don’t have to be a duplicate of someone else."

Okay, KAT. Let’s check the numbers. Here are all relevant shooting statistics:

  • 3-point percentage: Towns 39.7, Nowitzki 38.0
  • 2-point percentage: Towns 56.8, Nowitzki 49.6
  • Field goal percentage: Towns 52.6, Nowitzki 47.1
  • Effective FG percentage: Towns 57.5, Nowitzki 51.2
  • True shooting percentage: Towns 62.1, Nowitzki 57.7
  • Free throw percentage: Nowitzki 87.9, Towns 83.5

Do we need to say anything else? Again, this isn’t a mic drop argument saying, “see, Towns is better”, but simply urging caution on the other side of things. It’s patently absurd to simply state that Nowitzki is the best shooting big man of all time and not consider, well, all of the above.

Now, back to the thing about there being plenty of nuance required when it comes to this conversation: while Nowitzki and Towns are both big men, their games are not all that alike.

For his career, Nowitzki attempted 55.7 percent of his shots from between 10 feet away from the rim and the 3-point arc. Towns has only attempted 18.1 percent (!) of his career shot attempts in that area of the floor. Shockingly, Towns’ career 3-point rate of .248 is only marginally higher than Dirk’s .220, which is more of an indictment on the Wolves’ offense over the last few years than anything else.

Nowitzki shot otherworldly marks of 46.8 percent from 10 to 16 feet and 47.4 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line in his career. Towns doesn’t operate from that space on the floor much at all, but he’s in the low 40’s for his career in those zones.

Towns is put into low-post situation a lot more than Nowitzki, and while he’s good with his back to the basket, he hasn’t been all too efficient over the past couple of years. (Another weird number: Towns’ career free throw rate is just .318, while Dirk’s clocks in at .347. Think how much better Towns’ overall numbers would be if that number could tick upward just a bit…)

The greatest shooting big man argument is a losing debate for everyone

It’s impossible to argue one way or the other when it comes to this debate.

Nowitzki was the OG when it came to stretch bigs, and there’s no question that he was revolutionary for the power forward and center positions, and for the game in general. His patented, one-legged fadeaway is its own thing, and it was an unstoppable shot for opposing defenses for the better part of two decades.

Nowitzki also played most of his career in a completely different offensive era, with worse spacing and less emphasis on the 3-point shot, and that only underscores the impressiveness of his efficiency and overall impact.

Towns is the best 3-point shooting big of all time, and he’s been effective in the paint and in the post as well. He doesn’t attempt many mid-range jumpers, and while we can point to the Wolves’ offensive scheme on his relatively low number of long-range attempts, Towns can be assigned some blame as well for not simply letting it fly more often.

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Towns and Nowitzki are different players. They are, without question, the two best shooting big men in NBA history, and we should be able to recognize that for what it is and enjoy marveling at just how unique and impressive each big man is and the impact that they’ve had on the game as a whole.