The Celtics wanted Dirk Nowitzki in the ’98 Draft. They got Paul Pierce. Who would have been the better pick?

Debate the answer with Chad Finn and Boston sports fans at The Sports Q.

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 13:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball against Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics in the first half at American Airlines Center on February 13, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks controls the ball against Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. –Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Welcome to’s Sports Q, our daily conversation, initiated by you and moderated by Chad Finn, about a compelling topic in Boston sports. Here’s how it works: You submit questions to Chad through TwitterFacebook, email, his Friday chat, and any other outlet you prefer. He’ll pick one each day (except for Saturday) to answer, then we’ll take the discussion to the comments. Chad will stop by several times per day to navigate. But you drive the conversation.

Paul Pierce is obviously a first-tier Celtics legend. It’s still strange to see him wearing another uniform, and he’s played for four teams now. But I just saw the highlights of Dirk Nowitzki going over 30,000 career points the other night, and it made me wonder: He was rumored to be the guy Rick Pitino wanted with the pick he used on Pierce [in the 1998 NBA Draft]. All things being equal, would the Celtics have been better off getting Dirk that night? – John C.


All these years later, I’m just glad Pitino didn’t trade the Celtics’ next five first-rounders to the Clippers to take Michael Olowokandi first overall. Because that seems like something he would have done.

That wasn’t just a rumor that the Celtics wanted Nowitzki. It was the reality. Mavs coach and GM Don Nelson slipped in front of them on draft night by trading with the Bucks for the ninth pick and taking Nowitzki. The Celtics “settled” for Pierce, who had been projected to go as high as second overall.

Here’s how Michael Holley, then the Celtics beat writer, explained it two days after the draft in the Globe:

Certainly, the Celtics are happy with their selection of Paul Pierce in the No. 10 slot. As general manager Chris Wallace said, “When it came to our draft board, we didn’t have Pierce in our state, let alone our neighborhood.” But many in the organization are still wondering, “What if?” as in “What if Dirk Nowitzki had not been taken before Boston picked?”

It turns out that the Celtics have dreamed of the 6-foot-11-inch Nowitzki for the past month. Their talk that they wouldn’t be able to sign him because of international concerns was a smoke screen to scare off other teams. Some teams bought it; Don Nelson didn’t. Rick Pitino and his staff were so confident that they could get Nowitzki that early during the draft, Celtic representatives were on the phone speaking with the 20-year-old center. Nowitzki was telling them how excited he was with the idea of playing in Boston. And then former Celtic Nelson, coach and general manager of the Mavericks, swooped in and made a deal with the Bucks.

What a dilemma, huh? Miss out on one future Hall of Famer, end up with another. If only all of Pitino’s drafts worked so well.

And what a question to consider: Dirk versus the Truth. The ninth pick versus the 10th in ‘98, both top-50 players in league history all these years later.

Per Win Shares and common sense, they are the two best players to come from the ’98 Draft – Nowitzki has 200.6 to Pierce’s 150.0.  (Vince Carter, picked sixth by the Warriors, is third, and he’s probably never going to still be dunking when he’s an AARP member.)


Nowitzki has scored about 3,000 more points (30,000 to 26,354). Nowitzki is the better percentage shooter across the board and superior rebounder. But Pierce accumulated nearly 1,300 more assists and 600 more steals. Both were the go-to scorer on a championship team.

Man, taking the bias of experience out of it – meaning all of the warm sentiments, nostalgia, and recollections of so many points and victories that Pierce accumulated during his 15 seasons with the Celtics – you’d probably have to lean Dirk.

And you know Celtics fans would have adored him – how do you say Larry Legend in German? – presuming that Pitino didn’t trade him 51 games into his rookie season for some stiff he’d coached at Kentucky like Mark Pope.

Of course, you can’t take sentiment out of it. Nowitzki could have been a Celtics legend. Pierce is. I’ll take the joy of what did happen over the enticing what-might-have-been. The pick here is Pierce. Good job not screwing that up, Pitino.

What do you guys say? Drop a step-back jumper on me in the comments.

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