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.

With ALL of that said, the numbers actually play a relatively small role in explaining exactly why Dirk Nowitzki is playing at level comparable to his MVP best. After a tough rookie year and a mini-breakout (17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) as a sophomore, Dirk’s put together an 11-year run that’s as remarkable for its consistency as it is for its incredible productivity. Since 2000-01, he’s averaged 24.3 points and 8.8 rebounds- with no season worse than 21.8 points or 7 rebounds- and has produced six seasons of 24+ points and had a streak of nine years with at least 8.4 rebounds per game. During that run, he’s made 10 trips to the All-Star game, been selected to the All-NBA 1st and 2nd Team four times each (one of these tallies will rise to five this season) and won the 2007 MVP award and led the Mavs to within 55 minutes of the 2006 championship.

What's different now? In short, Dirk has become the badass that he frankly wasn't in 2006 and 2007. This isn't to suggest that he's assumed some sort of testosterone-soaked Kobe-MJ alpha dog role, but rather that his on-court confidence has soared to a level only attainable to those that are a) prodigiously gifted and b) have overcome devastating adversity and answered critics (and maybe some self doubt?) as to the true potential of those gifts. The guy that shot 10-33 (1-9 from 3) with seven turnovers in Games 4 and 5 of the 2006 Finals, as the Miami Heat seized the series' momentum? That dude's gone. Dirk Nowitzki has elevated his game to a level not seen in at least four years, if ever, not because he's improved his jumper or added a new move to offensive arsenal, but because he's re-ascended to the top of his profession after staring down the worst adversity (I'm talking on-court, although we should probably not forget the crazy chick that used to live at his pad) the sports world had to throw at him.

Given his aforementioned conditioning and low(-ish) impact style, the next few years may not give us an aging Dirk, but the second phase of an incredible prime that was in danger of being lost.


dave m.. said...

Terrific post. Methinks his place in history is very much linked to winning or not winning a ring... and more-so than other greats that have fallen short. Being a Lakers fan, I'd be perfectly happy if he'd phone in the rest of the series and exit quietly, stage left. May not happen that way though.

Anonymous said...

Well done. As a Mavs die-hard, even reading your skepticism in hindsight made my blood start to boil, but it's understandable, and it was certainly the prevailing wisdom at the time. Kudos for evolving your opinion and revisiting what you said in the past. You're right that you were far from the only nay-sayer, but you are the only one i've seen own up to it.
Great read. Go Mavs. Long Live Dirk.

Anonymous said...

GREAT POST - i didn't leave him for dead in 2007 but i was skeptical if he could ever be a top 30 player after that. You said it best in the last paragraph - he's not the super machismo, testosterone soaked alpha male that KG, Kobe, Iverson, Jordan, etc. were but by facing so much adversity and overcoming it he's become a stoic, cold-blooded assassin along the lines of Duncan, Hakeem, and Moses. He remains wildly underrated to me because while i think most hardcore fans recognize his greatness, i think it's taken a while for casual fans to give him his due. When i talk to casual fans they seem to view him as just a seven-footer that shoots a bunch of jumpers but who's soft (a label that still irks the hell out of me - watch him battle down low with the likes of duncan, garnett, marion, gasol, odom, bynum, webber, etc. over the years and tell me he's soft; it's total bullshit) and a choker (a distinction i've never bought with dirk; for every warriors series, he's also had one like the 06 west semis against the spurs when he put the team on his back for the whole series, culminating with a splendid game seven when the spurs had no answer for him, when his overtime heroics wouldve made larry bird proud), but not a superstar or an all-time great. But the facts are the facts: he's been the heart and soul of a string of 50-win teams (think about how much cuban has kept changing the team on the fly and they keep succeeding because dirk could always make it work), a guy whos unique ability to create shots gives the mavs so many options and covers up so many of their shortcomings. it's gotten to the point that if i need a bucket in the last 2 minutes, dirk is the guy i want taking it because with his size and skill set no one can guard him, there isn't a shot he can't make, there isn't a spot he can't hit from, and there isn't a situation where he can't create some sort of shot. even his defense and rebounding have always been better than given credit for in my opinion, as he's become good at using his length on defense and has toughened up considerably since his rookie year to be able to bang bodies down low and grab his share of boards. all year i vouched for dirk as the 2011 nba mvp, and now dirk is validating my support with his brilliance by pushing the mavericks lightyears ahead of where every pundit predicted they could go. all factors considered i completely agree with emile - with the possible exception of tim duncan (and even that's a bit of a stretch), dirk is by far the most underappreciated superstar of his generation.

Anonymous said...

Diiiiirrrrk! Take Dat WitCHEWWWW!!!
As a Laker fan, deep down I know that had Kobe Bryant not existed, Dirk would be my favorite player. They are essentially the same player: both are old-school, cerebral players that can pick apart opposing with their deadly mid-range game, which is a lost art in today's game replaced by those hyperathletic dudes that dribble the air our of the ball, jumping INTO guys trying to draw fouls..
I too was upset when you talked about 2006-2007 Dirk.. I'm still convinced Mark Cuban cost them the title in 2006. And I'm not half-kidding about that one.
Anyways, much respect to Dirk. If anyone deserves to dethrone the Lakers, it's Dirk and the Mavs. Still hoping the LakeShow can take game 3 tonite and hopefully tie up the series and regain the momentum in the series.

Anonymous said...

Just to point something out quickly about Dirk's lower rebounding numbers this season... don't forget that he's now surrounded by a team that includes Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler (pretty decent rebounders themselves) and Jason Kidd (one of the best rebounding PGs in the history of the league). Without those guys getting their share, I suspect Dirk's RB stats would be a little closer to his career avg. But I'm sure he doesn't mind trading that for the playoff position those teammates have helped him get to right now.

Anonymous said...

One thing that you could point out is that Dirk's #5 in the history of the NBA in Win Shares/48 minutes in the playoffs for his career. It's a rather exclusive list in the top 5. Ranking in at #40 is Kobe Bryant.

Anonymous said...

Fakers fans... Kobe SUCKS!!!

Ginger G. said...

This is excellent. This is a guy who is consistent from year-to-year and plays like a beast even when his team is providing him little help in this last playoffs round. And his fourth quarters... man! I am a Lakers fan, but I don't think Bryant is playing at the same level that Dirk is, at present (sorry, I'm a Laker fan but I'm not blind to Bryant's shortcomings).