33 year-old Dirk Nowitzki, still basking in the glory of newly-minted titles like NBA champion and Finals MVP, opened the 2011-2012 season out of shape. The impending consequence was the worst campaign of his professional career: Nowitzki registered his lowest player efficiency rating since 2000 and shot the lowest percentage from the field since his rookie year.
Conveniently lost on us is that Dirk fared even worse the following season. He missed the temporarily retooled Mavericks’s first 27 games in 2012-2013 after summer knee surgery, and looked a shell of the MVP-caliber performer he’d been the majority of his career. Even more disheartening was his level of play compared to the substandard mark he set just a year earlier. Nowitzki managed PER and win share thresholds well below his 2012 marks, and still declining minutes, usage, and free throw rates reinforced the reality that no one wanted to realize: Father Time had come for Dirk.
So when news broke last spring that Nowitzki planned to take a “significant pay cut” when his contract expires after this season in hopes of luring that fleeting big fish on the free agent market, it wasn’t surprising. His intention to retire a Maverick had been known for years, and the same could be said of his selfless, franchise-first outlook on big picture matters. Nevertheless, it seemed Nowitzki had fallen prey to the well-worn athlete’s curse – an inability to properly gauge the glow of his twilight. Just how valuable an offer was Nowitzki – a banged-up 34 year-old coming off the two worst seasons of his career, remember – expecting he’d get? Glorified floor-spacers don’t command maximum salaries or anything close to it, and that appeared the role that Dirk would play for the remainder of his final contract.
But that was then; this is now. And Nowitzki is currently playing better basketball than even the most optimistic Mavs fan could have predicted. Even better is that it’s an altered brand of play that – health permitting, of course – seems relatively sustainable for the duration of his career.
The raw numbers don’t scream major improvement. Dirk’s per-game statistics are a near mirror image of those from when his precipitous decline began in 2012, and fail to represent seachange even compared to last season’s marks. But digging below the surface elicits a far different takeaway. Dirk isn’t just comparatively superior to the past two years these days, but his production and efficiency stacks up favorably against the two most successful campaigns of his career, too.
Nowitzki’s championship came in 2011 and he won his lone regular season MVP award in 2007. Dirk at 32 and 28 years-old – the tail end and right in the thick of his prime – was unquestionably one of the league’s several best players. Performances like this one weren’t routine but hardly shocking, either; Nowitzki was an offensive force the likes of which basketball had never seen. Make no mistake: by Dirk’s own admittance, he’s fallen below that exalted rank now. But still, he’s as effective today in his respective role as any he’s ever played.
The PERs, offensive rating, points, true shooting percentages, and even usage rates above paint a familiar picture of Nowitzki playing at a First Team All-NBA level. He was rewarded thusly in 2007 and fell just short four years later, but doesn’t deserve and won’t receive a similar accolade at the close of this season. That speaks to the increasing stranglehold a select few among the league’s hierarchy have on such awards, and more importantly the lightened load Nowitzki shoulders for Dallas as a 35 year-old with mounting health maladies.
Quite simply, Dirk doesn’t create offense with the ball the way he did in his heyday. That’s a fact best exemplified by the descending nature of his amount of points scored via free throws and the painted area from 2007, to 2011, to present day. Age and injuries have sapped Nowitzki of the mobility and explosion that made him an impossible cover a half-decade ago, and Dallas has adjusted its offense accordingly. He explained as much on The BS Report over All-Star weekend.
“I still get my isos and post-ups; mainly on the left or right block from 14-15 feet is where I still do some damage if I do get the iso,” he said to Bill Simmons. “We got away from some of the high-post iso I used to run a couple years ago because I just don’t have the drive off my legs to go to the basket anymore.”
Nowitzki’s evolving shot-charts confirm that development.
Despite no consistent drop in field goal percentage, Dirk is currently taking fewer than half the amount of shots from the free throw area he did in 2007. His comments ring true with regard to more frequently playing on the block, as well. Nowitzki has traded forays to the rim for post-ups on either side of the paint as time has passed, a fact supported by steady dips of the former and rises of the latter with each shot-chart above. Clearly and just as important going forward is that Dirk’s extreme shooting proficiency across the floor is unaffected by this metamorphosis. He’s actually a more accurate finisher today than at any other point in his career, progress owed to the nature of those attempts; these days, they’re coming within sets and via pass as opposed to a dribble.
The ingenuity of Rick Carlisle and the unique construction of Dallas’s roster has been instrumental to Dirk’s rebirth. With his star mostly exhausted of off-dribble creativity, Carlisle has fully committed to Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon as primary ballhandlers. 150 of Nowitzki’s 406 buckets this season have come after a pass from Ellis or Calderon, many of which are of the simplest variety: a jumper after an “iced” side pick-and-roll, a trailing three-pointer in secondary transition, or open shot on the weak-side after a skip pass. And though there’s more to Nowitzki’s new scoring routes, of course, rare is the Dallas possession that devolves to vanilla, prolonged isolations.
Dirk has become a deadly on-ball screener this season, and most of them are of the high-flying variety that come after Nowitzki receives a pin-down of his own. That type of action confuses defenses, and makes Dirk’s pop ever-difficult to contest as defenders scramble to stop the primary action after after the preceding one. Nowitzki also frequently benefits from inverse-type picks where he gets a cross-screen from a smaller teammate into a quick-hitting post-up.
No matter if he’s the initiator or benefactor of screen-centric action, Nowitzki has never relied more on off-ball movement and team-wide offensive flow than he has this season. That Carlisle has managed to build a top-four offense around his aging star and that pair of dissimilar guards speaks not only to the coach’s underrated acumen on that end, but the all-encompassing threat Nowitzki continues to pose to defenses. And should he maintain this level of play or even something close to it for the remainder of his career, it’s easy to imagine Dallas – with ample flexibility this summer and next – rebuilding itself with Dirk as a dead second or even third banana behind marquee players to-be-named.
“It’s fair to say that I will take a paycut [this summer],” Nowitzki reiterated to Simmons over the weekend. “I’m sure we’ll find a nice agreement for both sides where we can have a good team for the following years and where I still feel respected.”
And if the Mavericks can indeed land that elusive star player or two in the next couple years, Nowitzki will need to dream a bit bigger than “good.” For with Dirk’s sudden renaissance comes renewed hope and possibility this franchise hasn’t enjoyed since his post-title malaise began in 2012.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com.
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