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.
There are all kinds of change, but the most lasting and legitimate kind of change comes over time. It comes from things like experience, trial and error, practice, habit, development and often criticism. For all the excitement of this year’s playoffs, two changes stand out:
The first change has been gradual, subtle but frequently targeted for criticism. LeBron James is an easy target and always will be in the same way that MJ was ripped before he won titles and the way Kobe has been attacked before and after winning titles. Losing, the Decision, the Global Icon, the commercials, quitting accusations, rumors of uncoachability, ridiculous free agent demands and mountains of attacks and assaults in print and spoken word—it’s all been thrown at LeBron and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, it will continue to pour down on him. In the process of amassing hate from all corners of the basketball-watching and consuming public, LeBron went through the growing pains apparently required of NBA stars: incremental playoff progress followed by inevitable defeat by the league’s senior gatekeepers. In Cleveland, Bron lost to a veteran Pistons squad, Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a 4-0 Finals sweep, the KG-led Celtics (twice), and somehow to a hot-shooting Orlando Magic squad. After all those playoff losses and criticisms, he’s finally getting after it with the kind of intensity we’ve always associated with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, with the game on the line, he put the clamps on Derrick Rose. LeBron was the best player on both sides of the court and was rewarded for his efforts with a 3-1 series lead.
A few years ago LeBron commented, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” Homicide aside, we saw the comments and took note. Kobe busied himself with back-to-back titles and three straight finals appearances while LeBron continued to get bounced out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’d be beyond naiveté to ignore the southern migration and the Wade/Bosh upgrades. Bron is surrounded by the best #2 and 3 options in the league. With those two stars flanking him, he’s managed to improve his overall game. He’s been named to all-defensive teams in the past, but we haven’t seen anything like the lockdown job he put on Rose last night or the dive-for-the-ball intensity he showed in the late fourth. Maybe it’s the support of Wade and Bosh or maybe it’s the relief they provide, but this LeBron is different. He’s playing with an energy usually reserved for the lesser-talented players of the world and he somehow has an endless supply of it. His post-play and post-game celebrations are indicative of someone who’s giving a damn—whether his outburst are aimed at critics, opponents or history doesn’t matter much. Focus and commitment are questions of his northern past.
The other change born of these playoffs: the stoic evolution of Dirk Nowitzki—a few weeks shy of 33 years old. The Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, but Dirk’s likely been the MVP of these playoffs. He’s playing chess to the defenders’ checkers. He’s cancelling out the best defenders on every team and doing it with a style that’s foreign to the NBA game in more ways than just being a German import. He’s always been an efficient scorer and in his career the Mavs are 6-1 in playoff games where he scores over 40 points. Like LeBron, Dirk’s has his own basketball bouncing skeletons in the closet. It’s taken a long four years to cleanse himself of the stain laid on him by Stephen Jackson and the Warriors in the 2007 opening round playoff upset, but he’s returned to MVP form and then had the audacity to surpass it with something that appears to be a casual effort which isn’t to say he’s not trying, but that everything is somehow easier. Like James, any questions of Dirk’s toughness or heart have been silenced by his virtuosic performance in these playoffs.
With LeBron and Dirk, there’s been nothing disingenuous about their change. There’s no re-definition or worshiping false idols. They still carry the parts and pieces we’ve questioned over the years, but they’ve layered on so much more that we have to squint to see the old traces and even then, our eyesight’s still not strong enough.
It feels odd seeing two NBA juggernauts collapse in the span of a week, but that’s what’s happening. Last week it was the Spurs who were not unable to adapt. They did everything possible (swapped out values, souped up the system, cozied up with the three point line) to keep title hope floating, but the legs can’t always do what the mind demands of them. Now it’s the Lakers turn to take the painful escalator down, but what’s waiting for them at the lower levels is foggy and I assume it’s hot like a cool hell would be.
Expectations absolutely matter, but at the same time, predictions and prognostications don’t. We didn’t expect the Lakers to be down three games to none after Friday, yet here we sit. We could see the Spurs slide coming and we had time to digest it, play with the thoughts, accept it and move along to a Lakers vs. Celtics III or Lakers vs. Heat or something along those lines. This Lakers devastation (for them and their fans at least, devastation seems wholly appropriate) has been sudden even though it’s been in the making for over 1,300 games. This is a team that has been remarkably consistent over this most recent four-year span. They’ve lived in the Finals for the past three years and in three of the past four years, they’ve landed on the same 57-25 mark for the regular season. Statistically speaking, they’ve been a better team in 2010-11 than they were in 09-10.
Then Andrew Bynum was born. After his annual stint on the Lakers sideline with the standard issue Bynum-knee-injury, Andy resumed basketball activities with anger. He’s played better for longer in the past. We’re all familiar with the promise of this deer-legged 23-year-old who the younger Buss preferred to build the team around back in that tornado-ish start to the 2007 season when Kobe-to-Chicago was story du jour. While Bynum over Bryant was laughable in 2007, the hints of greatness are revealing themselves every time Bynum scowls, calls out his teammates or dunks without jumping. Whether Bynum’s tapping into some of that compulsive dark matter that fuels Kobe or just doing what many 23-year-olds do: Becoming Himself, we don’t know. Whatever the case, Bynum is developing which should be a great thing for the Lakers.
Here they sit in a 0-3 shithole, surrounded by their own foul odors in Dallas, Texas of all places. Who shot JR? Who the fuck stole the Lakers’ basketball brains is the more confounding mystery. A better, meaner, nastier Bynum, an improved bench, another year in the triangle for Artest—the Lakers aren’t favorites just because they still hold the crown. Beyond the stats, the players and the stories tell us the Lakers should beat the Mavs. This series hasn’t even been close though. The Mavs have been the better team every game and have deserved each of their three wins.
From Madrid to LA, everyone expected Pau Gasol to be his usual, steady, all-star-ish self. Over the past four seasons, he’s probably been the Lakers most consistent player and shown us that he’s capable of true, honest growth. For Pau, it was never a question of technical expertise. Perhaps it was too easy to slap a Euro label on him and call him soft. When Pau was bullied physically and mentally in the 2008 finals it reinforced the stereotype, but Gasol reinvented himself as a bearded Spaniard who screams, awkwardly initiates confrontation and is willing to do so while still maintaining the grace of technical mastery of game that has made him an all-star. Prior to this playoff matchup, the Lakers were 8-2 against the Mavs since Gasol joined the team in 2008. It’s never been about Pau vs. Dirk (who’s battled his own Euro stereotypes over the years) or Spain vs. Germany or anything even remotely along those lines. But in 2011, these graceful seven footers can be defined by their contrasting performances in this second round series. Dirk is acting as a conduit for greatness for this Mavs team. He’s the center of everything they’re doing whether he’s scoring the ball or attracting double teams that lead to hockey assists and it’s led to renewed appreciation of his game. Meanwhile, Gasol has been a case study in fatigue—likely mental and physical. Something indescribable and indefinable has finally caught up with Pau Gasol. Maybe it was stalking him all these years or maybe he contracted it like a sad disease striking when the Lakers required any and everything in his vast arsenal. You can’t read or listen to anything about the Lakers in this series without hearing “What’s wrong with Pau Gasol?” At the moment, that’s the unanswerable riddle.
By comparison, Kobe’s performance is easy to grasp. We’ve become accustomed to him living on the edge with acrobatic jump shots, triple pivots and old man shot fakes. He’s walked that line and teetered between success and failure, and mostly landed on the positive side. Only now it’s harder. It’s nothing but jump shots for 48 minutes, but that makes perfect sense. The guy has logged over 1,300 games and 48,000 minutes of basketball, consistently at the most meaningful levels of the sport—Christmas day games, games on national TV, playoff games, finals. Like his post peer Tim Duncan, it’s been inevitable. Kobe didn’t take two years off to refresh himself like MJ. Instead, he won titles and played 201 games (not counting USA basketball) over the previous two seasons. He’s still breathing fire and instilling fear in fans and hyperbolic commentators, but he’s not carrying the Lakers like he has. That the team is folding into the playoffs as Kobe’s game becomes less dynamic confirms the obvious (but still taken for granted) value of his on-the-court performances to this Lakers team. For all Kobe’s dramatic shots and game winners, the losses have been equally magnificent beginning with the Pistons demolition in 2004, the blown 3-1 lead against the Suns in 2006, the Celtics record-setting comeback in 2008 and finally the Mavs shock and awe campaign in 2011. When Kobe’s Lakers lose, it’s typically so definitive that it precludes a drastic change.
This isn’t a time for tears or eulogies though. If the end is near, there are a couple of obvious choices you can make: The first is to adapt. Adjust your lifestyle or habits to survive for as long as you possibly can. The other is to get settled into a recliner with a pack of cigarettes and a six-pack and stay committed to your values. For the Spurs, the decline was protracted enough that Pop could make survival-based adjustments. Phil hasn’t had that same luxury, but for all his Zen methods, you get the feeling he’s loyally married to his system. The old, rusty triangle worked long enough and well enough to leave Red Auerbach in the rear view of Phil’s gaudy accomplishments for all of eternity. And with Phil forcing the sun to set on his own watch, there won’t be any re-tooling or Pop-like adjustments. It’s sudden and confusing (mainly the Gasol piece of the puzzle), but Phil’s Lakers are finally on the precipice good-bye.
(Altnerate considerations: Kobe as player-coach, aside from Phil; what drastic changes will defeat bring?)