In the midst of the decay of Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki has become the late 90s perimeter version of Tim Duncan: the elder statesman that ages, but evolves with something beyond grace, something both practical and creative. At age 37 and in his 18th season, Dirk isn’t so much reinventing his great game as re-purposing and fine tuning it.
Forever known as an all-time shooter, Dirk’s career averages are 51.4% eFG and 38.4% from three. Through 12 games in November of 2015-16, he’s scoffing at those numbers with a career-best 60.8% eFG and 53.3% from three. He’s taking less shots and getting to the line less than at any other point in his career, but at 37 the 9-5 surprise Mavs are happy to trade a bit of volume for unnatural efficiency.
Basketball-Reference stats as of 11.22
Bill Simmons of Bill Simmons fame created the 50-40-90 club as a statistical marker that takes into account quality shooting from three measures: FG% (50%), three-point accuracy (40%), and free throws (90%). Prior to this season, just eight players (including Dirk) had achieved the informal milestone: Kevin Durant, Steve Nash (four times), Jose Calderon, Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, and Larry Bird. In early 2015-16, three players are trying to join that company: Utah’s Joe Ingles with his 13 minutes and three FGAs/game, Steph Curry and his transcendent season (51.5%, 44.1%, 93.8%), and a 37-year-old power forward named Dirk.
Where’s this coming from after a 2014-15 appeared to be the beginning of the inevitable downward slope of Nowitzki’s career? Last season his eFG and three-point shooting were both below career averages. The team as a whole struggled to find an identity after acquiring Rajon Rondo in December. Of their top-20 five-man lineups in 2014-15, Rondo appeared in just two of the top-ten based on point differential per 100 possessions. Four of the bottom-five lineups featured Rondo.
It’s not all about Rondo though as the Mavs made significant off-season changes including acquiring Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, and Zaza Pachulia (three of the top-four minutes/game players on the new roster). A healthy Ray Felton and Chandler Parsons are helping as well. To communicate the lack of continuity from last season, the guy who assisted most of Dirk’s baskets was Monta Ellis with 84 assists in 77 games in which Dirk appeared. He was just a hair over one assist-to-Dirk per game. In 2015-16, Deron Williams is already close to two assists/game to Dirk which is a decent indication Williams is adopting the Rick Carlisle offense in ways that Rondo didn’t and the Mavs are benefiting by getting the big man better looks.
Even though his three-point numbers are most staggering, it’s his work inside the arc that’s equally deadly. From three-to-16 feet, he’s getting over 35% of his total field goal attempts and from those spots he’s shooting either career-best (10-16ft) or near-best (3-10ft). These are remarkable stats of the Barry Bonds variety – as in, Hall-of-Fame player gets older and somehow keeps getting better, but Dirk’s head and neck haven’t grown in comical ways and in place of Balco it’s just his shooting coach Holger. Just your normal German tandem shot genius and savant pupil.
So while it’s easiest to compare Dirk to peers of his own age, comparing him to this season’s most dominant player does a better job of conveying how deadly he’s been. In terms of volume, Nowitzki at his finest couldn’t touch the Curry we’re seeing this year with his five threes made/game on nearly 12 attempts/night. Where a conversation can be had though is around accuracy. Anything that’s weighted towards threes rightly skews in Curry’s favor as he’s massacring our notions of what a volume three-point shooter looks like. For Dirk to be shooting 53% from deep while taking nearly four threes/game is unprecedented. No player in the league has ever hit two threes/game while shooting over 50%. With 68 games on deck, it’s entirely likely that a combination of opponent adjustments and wear and tear bring Dirk closer to his career averages, but at this snapshot in time he’s shot the ball as well as anyone in the league and done it at 37-years-old.
Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone have each had more prolific post-age 37 seasons than what Dirk’s doing this year. They shouldered great loads on good (or bad) teams, but with the exception of Kareem’s timelessness, Malone and Jordan rightly struggled to remain efficient as they aged. Nowitzki’s early season has the makings of a masterpiece. He doesn’t need to be compared to the senior division as he’s still good enough to compete seamlessly with world beaters ten years his junior. He’s truly a master of his craft in his execution and adaptation. His fadeaway and the high arc are romantically iconic. The sun’s going to set on him like it does all of us, but for now he’s traveling through space in a stasis of sorts where time doesn’t seem can’t seem to touch him.