Dirk Nowitzki: A Softy We Can Get Behind

There’s such a stigma about softness in the NBA. It’s commonplace to idolize those players who embody toughness, who sweat blood, who play through pain, who seek out contact like Eddy Curry seeks out all-you-can-eat buffets, who fear no opponent. Now it’s just as normal to belittle the finesse players — the ones who spare viewers the macho routine, who don’t need to feel dominant to play basketball.

Basketball is a sport of grace, that requires the utmost focus and skill — the greatest player will be a meticulous tactician, a heady player who knows what he’s doing. Basketball is a game of grace and fluidity, but it seems that those qualities can only be appreciated if there’s a ferocity underscoring them.

It’s really not surprising that the embrace of manliness has come to the fore. As the NBA has evolved, the game has become decreasingly physical, metamorphosing from a game primarily defined by bruisers to a game appreciably defined by skill. Many feel a need for sports to be contests of strength and hatred for one’s opponents, so it makes sense that these fans would cling to those aspects of classic basketball and long for more of that style.

In the same way, these same people can’t help but berate those who act counter to their desires. Deviation from that course of aggression and physicality is inherently wrong, and those players who choose that alternate route must be ridiculed relentlessly for their decision. After all, they’re a bunch of sissies, obviously.

Not even getting in to the social concerns with some of these softness labels (words like “woman” and “pussy” come to mind), a trend has developed over the years in which the players coming over from Europe are necessarily soft, for it has to be a product of nationality, not training regiment, amateur-basketball factors, or anything else. (Or maybe it’s just that Americans are intolerant of other cultures and want to flaunt their “superiority.” Either way.) That is why there’s always a slight preoccupation with drafting foreign prospects or giving them a chance on an NBA roster.

It is true that this dubious nature has not just surfaced as a result of neanderthals’ preconceived notions, as European players have not had the greatest track record in the NBA. But the change in the physical nature of the game is only one cause of failure for international prospects. Rule differences, season length, cultural boundaries, and many other adjustments have a hand in the development or lack of development for these players.

Along with the clear division between the tough guys and the “wusses,” let’s say, there’s another duality that develops: the guys who live to hurt and get hurt are the icons of basketball — that is, they’re good. The ninnies? They’re just bad at basketball. There’s no better illustration for this phenomenon than Laker Nation’s treatment of Pau Gasol over the last four seasons.

In 2008, when the Lakers lost, he was a creampuff (an efficient one, at that, but damn me to hell if that matters — they lost!) who was helpless to succeed because he couldn’t handle the grind of the game. In 2009 and 2010, when the Lakers won, he broke free and somehow instantly became tough. This year, they lost again, and Pau was back to playing for the London Silly Nannies.

There’s a statistical correlation between Gasol’s success and the Lakers’ success in those four postseasons, and there’s no way that other factors could’ve possibly had an impact on his vacillating play. There’s no way Bynum’s absence in 2008 hindered him at all. There’s no way the team’s abandonment of the triangle offense limited Gasol’s play in 2011. He’s just too much of a pansy to handle it all.

This is interesting, though: it seems as if choosing whether to call a player soft or not is a matter of convenience. When it helps to excuse a player’s performance as a product of his cotton-candy nature, that’s just fine. When his performance need not be excused, though, his softness is no longer a topic of discussion. So …

What if the NBA had someone who exemplified the qualities of these players that are routinely labeled softies — but managed to use that softness to his advantage to dominate in the NBA? These playoffs have solidified one guy’s nomination for this role. That guy would be Dirk Nowitzki.

When you think soft, Nowitzki isn’t typically someone who comes to mind. After all, he screams, growls at his opponents, and likes to pump up the crowd. But take a look at his game.

This is a guy who has developed his jumper to have a natural fade on it, such that he falls away from opponents when he shoots. He had nine dunks all year. He attempted fewer shots per game at the rim than Tyler Hansbrough. He doesn’t really jump to contest shots. He shoots a lot of free throws, but many of the fouls he takes are slight taps on his arms, not Andrew Bynum-style maulings. You’ll often see him getting knocked off balance by smaller defenders in the post. And you don’t seem him intimidating other teams with hard fouls himself on defense.

You would attribute a lot of those characteristics to the wuss category, so perhaps it’s not the way that these guys play the game that makes people call them soft. Maybe a player has to be bad in order to be considered soft. Maybe we’re willing to look past finesse play so long as it results in wins.

There is no doubt people looked at Dirk in a different light just five years ago, when Dwyane Wade went off in the 2006 Finals, and the Mavericks crumbled after a confidence-building 2-0 lead in the series. Dirk was seen as soft then. The next year, after the Mavericks embarrassingly bowed out to the Warriors in a 1-8 upset in the first round, Dirk was still soft like ice cream. Now, though, no one’s saying that, even while his game has barely changed.

All this talk has surfaced lately about where Nowitzki ranks among all players in the league’s history, with some endeavoring to contend that he belongs in the all-time top 10. Whether or not that’s accurate, it might make some people realize that one of the greatest players to ever touch the hardwood is someone who has been called a weakling.

Maybe Nowitzki is the guy who can make it cool to be soft, who can break that mold of needing to be tough, who can be that graceful tactician without any underlying support of a grizzly nature.

Here’s to changing the culture of basketball for the better, Dirk.

Seth Carstens