The Fundamentals: Why Dirk Nowitzki still means everything for evolving Mavs
The Mavericks go to great and impressive lengths to camouflage their simplicity. What is ultimately a fairly basic pick-and-roll offense is established by preliminary action — screens and the like intended to get the defense thinking and moving away from what’s to come. The intended device is the same whether its employed by teams from the NBA’s elite or squads from your local rec league, though the quality of its practitioners and the scripted setting Dallas employs aid in making the simple sophisticated.
Defensively, head coach Rick Carlisle does everything in his power to address his team’s limitations. Cross-matching is more or less guaranteed, as every game seems to present unique challenges in coverage. There are touches of zone (sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of desperation), scheduled help rotations from all angles, and a wide range of methods indicative of a well-prepared team.
Yet none of it is enough to disguise what is most simply evident: These Mavericks will only go as far as their offense takes them.
That statement, even still, brings Dirk Nowitzki into focus. Dallas restructured its roster this season to bring Nowitzki more help — most notably from a pair of ball handlers of very different talents and basketball worldviews. In Monta Ellis, the Mavs acquired a much-needed dribble penetrator, capable of compromising defenses from within. In Jose Calderon, Dallas found a lethal perimeter marksman and heady, low-risk orchestrator from without. The pair contrasts beautifully on offense, though even at their best seem to only reinforce Nowitzki’s value as an offensive centerpiece; for all that Ellis and Calderon offer as shot creators, the 35-year-old Nowitzki remains the bridge between them, and the true, efficient engine behind one of the league’s very best offenses.
That Nowitzki remains a focal point has less to do with touches or field goal attempts than general function. Dallas now has the luxury of leaning on Ellis, Calderon, or Vince Carter to conjure offense off the bounce. But working off of Dirk in the high pick-and-roll and/or the post (for the Mavs, one play type can quickly morph into the other) is nonetheless at the crux of how the Mavs operate — to say nothing of his influence even as a weak-side accessory. Rare are players of Nowitzki’s offensive prowess, a fact which Carlisle and the Mavericks on the whole seem to understand fully.
In that, the team’s offense typically courses its way through Nowitzki in some fashion. The most obvious is an outright score, an area of the game in which Dirk still works from a place of inevitability. Some defenders manage to bother him more than others, but there’s only so much that can be done in waving at the high release point of a lofting jumper. With better teammates and a healthy entrance to the season, Nowitzki has posted three-year highs in per-minute scoring and effective field goal percentage, all behind a usage rate just a few ticks shy of his prime levels. All this in what is his 13th season as a first-option scorer, having logged over 46,000 NBA minutes. The man is a marvel.
Over the weekend, Dirk dropped 40 points in just 34 minutes against the Pelicans, in the process becoming the sixth-oldest player in NBA history to reach that particular scoring benchmark. Ho-hum for an ageless wonder, for whom the very act of anchoring an offense has become second nature. It’s in that regard that Nowitzki separates himself most fully; there are talented scorers all over the league, some of whom put up points efficiently. Yet what makes Nowitzki perfect for offensive ballast is his combination of accessibility and pliability, particularly in the face of defensive pressure.
Seasons in which Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo are Dallas’ lead guards excluded, getting the ball in to Dirk is rarely a problem, even under duress. He’s quick to adjust when a particular placement isn’t working, and actively helps his ball-handling teammates to create workable entry pass angles. On top of that, Nowitzki gets a ton of respect from officials when fighting for post position; that vehicle alone is typically good for a foul call or two per game, allowing Dallas to reset its offense while drawing another team foul toward the bonus.
In all, that makes Nowitzki an easy target for necessary possessions — those moments when Dallas needs to boost its lead, tie the game, or stave off a run with a high-percentage look. Of course, getting Dirk possession of the ball often only introduces the next challenge: Nowitzki is so consistently potent in one-on-one situations that he sees added defensive pressure regularly. There’s a dramatic difference between having the ability to draw double teams and having the wherewithal to exploit them, and it’s in that distinction that Nowitzki has thrived as an offensive hub.
“You know, you’ve gotta see what’s out there,” Nowitzki said. “I hit the cutter a couple times [in Monday's game against Orlando] — guys did a good job cutting at the right moment. If the cut’s not there, you usually swing, swing, and the way you beat the double team is on the weak side. If there’s a shooter open, or if they run at the shooter, you’ve gotta show and go, get in the lane and create some stuff.
“It’s all about getting the ball out without a turnover. [Earlier in my career], I did turn the ball over more [in double-team situations] than I do now, but you’ve just gotta be smart with it. Sometimes even the most simple pass out of a double team is the best one. You can try to thread the needle to a shooter on the weak side and that’s the one that gets intercepted when you should have just passed it out and let someone else make the play. So you learn with experience that the easiest pass is sometimes the best one.”
That simple kick-out that Nowitzki describes is a more reluctant play for many star scorers than it should be. There’s a clear temptation to play out of double teams in a way that earns the shot-creator credit — whether in hitting a difficult shot over two defenders or making the pass that leads directly to the score. But Dirk’s redirection of the offense generally goes to the best option available, be it a cutter in position or merely a perimeter teammate who can make the next play in the sequence. As a result, even his assists tend to be unspectacular, though completely essential to Dallas’ offensive stability:
If Nowitzki weren’t able or willing to make the most straightforward pass out of pressure situations, Dallas wouldn’t have won the 2011 title, wouldn’t have gone on a run of 11-straight 50-win seasons with Dirk as a primary contributor, and wouldn’t be able to subsist in its current form. That simple act — which, to be fair, is far more challenging than it seems — is elevating and steadying on a systemic level. It has been the basis for so many Maverick points since Nowitzki’s emergence, and it’s a dimension of his game for which Dirk is rarely given enough credit. Working from the post against modern NBA defenses is incredibly tricky as it is, yet Nowitzki manages to make use of that space while shooting an impossible percentage and barely committing any turnovers at all.
Other post threats power into offensive fouls, stumble into travels, or fret against oncoming doubles. Nowitzki does none of the above, and as a result outclasses most of the low-post elite. Look at how he measures up in efficiency against some of the league’s other prolific post-up threats, courtesy of Synergy Sports:
Above stats regard post-up situations specifically. “PPP” is points scored per play in the post, accounting for field goals made and missed, turnovers committed, and shooting fouls drawn.
It’s not by coincidence that Nowitzki’s strengths — efficient shooting from the field and a low turnover percentage — correlate with the strengths of the Mavs on the whole. It’s in that careful, concerted effort that Dallas goes about making up for its other limitations. The fact that the Mavs rank just outside the bottom five in offensive rebounding rate isn’t such a big deal when making so many of their initial shots. Their relatively low free throw rate isn’t as much of a concern when Nowitzki is capable of creating a good look for himself or a teammate on command. And overall, the Dirk-driven capacity to avoid turnovers helps the Mavs buoy their offense while subsequently positioning themselves to defend.
“[Keeping our turnovers down is] so important to us because turnovers lead to the catastrophic plays on defense that can’t be guarded,” Carlisle said. “When you do that, it runs up your defensive points per possession and it makes the game so much more difficult. Those turnovers are extremely deflating when they happen.”
That’s true for any team, particularly one with the 24th-ranked transition defense in terms of points allowed per play. Dallas doesn’t have the athleticism to retreat on the fly and salvage its turnovers, meaning that every offensive misstep has the potential to put the Mavs at a defensive disadvantage atop its preexisting ones. Nowitzki’s particular talents and vision help to minimize them, effectively helping an already poor defensive team from stumbling into more dangerous territory. These Mavericks will only go as far as their offense takes them, in part because their offense — and Dirk’s low-cost creation, especially — doubles as damage control.
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