Friday, May 6, 2011

Dirk Nowitzki- Prime, Interrupted

Dirk Nowitzki is an exquisite basketball player. He’s drawn comparisons to both the greatest shooters and the most versatile big men in history, but in reality Dirk is a one-off prototype. A seven-footer that’s not only comfortable putting up a one-legged 24-foot fadeaway, in his hands that shot is a legitimate weapon. He can also get out on the break and is as good as any player ever at his size at putting the ball on the floor.

I should probably admit that the creation of this article was fueled by a somewhat selfish need to make amends. Not only have I never taken the time to write an article whose sole purpose is to sing the praises of Dirk Nowitzki, the first thought that comes to mind on the subject of writing about Dirk is my evisceration of the man following the Mavericks’ 2007 first round loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. In the aftermath of that defeat, which arrived on the heels of a devastating collapse in the 2006 Finals, I referred to the Mavs as “damaged goods,” boldly proclaimed that Dirk would never be a “true superstar” and (I swear this made more sense at the time! C’mon, you remember!) described the gap between Dirk and Mehmet Okur as negligible

While he was already the best player in franchise history and a likely Hall of Famer on May 15, 2007, when he accepted his trophy at the second-most awkward MVP ceremony of my lifetime- I still give a slight nod to David Robinson accepting the award mere minutes before being smeared on the bottom of Hakeem Olajuwon’s shoe- there seemed to be a cloud of inevitable disappointment hanging over Dirk. That he was an absolute nightmare matchup and perhaps the most offensively versatile seven-footer of all time was undeniable, but equally undeniable was the perception that fate was conspiring against him, and that history was more likely to group him with the likes of Alex English than with Karl Malone and Larry Bird.

Now, to be fair, I’ve not dogmatically maintained that same position for the past four years. Dirk’s evolved since those back-to-back debacles, and my assessment of his career has done the same- and we’ve come a long way. Dirk, whose legacy I (and I was not alone) massacred and left for dead in May 2007, has managed to navigate the minefield of 2006-07, while maintaining a level of statistical excellence that’s allowed him to mount an assault on the upper echelon of the NBA record books:

- His 22,792 points are good for 28th all-time (ABA/NBA combined) and fourth among active players (he trails Shaq and Kobe by ~5,000 and is 529 behind Kevin Garnett). With another three 78-game (his career average) seasons averaging 22 points per game (21.8 is his worst over the last 11 years), he’d be the ninth-most prolific scorer in history.

- According to Basketball Reference, he’s posted a PER of at least 22.5 in each of the last 11 seasons, including four seasons of 25+ (that matches the career totals of Magic and Bird, and tops those of Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Elgin Baylor).

- His career PER of 23.7 ranks 15th on the NBA’s all-time list, and is good for sixth among active players. Immediately behind him on the all-time list? Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Oscar Robertson.

- Only 11 times in NBA history has a player shot at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 90% from the free throw line. Four of those seasons belong to Steve Nash, two to Larry Bird and one each to Dirk, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Jose Calderon and Steve Kerr. Of the 11, only three came in a season in which the player posted a PER of 24 or better- both of Bird’s (27.8 in 1987-88, and 26.4 in 1986-87), with Dirk’s 27.6 in 2006-07 in between.

- Over his first 13 NBA seasons, Dirk has made 47.6% of his field goals attempts, 38.1% of his 3s and 87.7% of his free throws. Five other players 
in history- Nash, Price, Miller, Calderon and Jeff Hornacek- can make the same claim. Not only is frontcourt representation missing from this crew, not one of Dirk’s fellow sharpshooters has a career rebounding average that’s within five of his career mark of 8.4 per game.

- Wondering about other guys with 
at least 22,000 points and 8,000 rebounds? That a solid lot too.

Although Dirk is 32 years of age and wrapping up his 13th NBA season, his exceptional conditioning and easy-on-the-knees style suggest he’ll tack on quite a few miles to his odometer before calling it a career. As genuinely great as he’s been, and for all accolades he’s received, it seems as though he’s still under-recognized for having a resume as impressive as that of all but a select few in history. When Dirk Nowitzki retires, he will likely do so as one of the 15 or 20 greatest players in NBA history.

As great as he’s been by the numbers- and those are some pretty sweet stats- what’s striking about Dirk’s game is how, four years after the heartbreaks of 2006 and 2007, it’s simultaneously undergone significant change, while remaining nearly identical. In terms of simple visuals, little has changed with the experience of watching him play. If, for all these years, Dirk had been forced to play in a shower cap (the hair would be a tipoff), it’d be tough to pinpoint the period in his career from which a given highlight originated. This isn’t Michael or Kobe becoming more ground-bound as they entered their 30s, or Magic quietly becoming more postup threat than king of the fast break, or Patrick Ewing becoming almost exclusively a perimeter threat in the second half of his career.

And statistically, while he’s receded from his peak production of 2006, Dirk is every bit the player he’s been throughout his career. While his rebounding average has dropped from its peak (it’s worth noting that while his rebound rates are down as well, they still compare favorably to his career averages), he’s shot the ball more effectively across the board, and based on his Usage Rates, has actually managed to assume an even larger role in the Mavs’ offense.