Here we are yet again, left sorting through the wreckage of the latest Mavericks playoff disaster. What is left for them to not accomplish? They've authored the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history. They are the only team in modern NBA playoff history to lose in the first round as a 1st AND 2nd seed. Expectations are consistently high for the franchise each postseason, and those expectations consistently come crashing down like the Hindenburg each year. So what is the problem?
A Different Animal
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the 50 greatest players ever. He's a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the most destructive offensive forces in the history of the game. He is also the only constant in a decade's worth of Dallas playoff failures. Coaches, point guards, wingmen, centers, bench players--they've all been switched out dramatically over the past 10 years, but the team's leader and superstar has stayed the same--and so has the end result each year.
What Dirk gives you on the offensive end (and even that can be somewhat limited, as we'll get to in a moment), he also takes away on the defensive end and in the leadership department. He presents a real challenge for a franchise that tries to build around him--can you win a title when your best player is your worst defender? And not just your worst defender--he's a guy who plays power forward, which is traditionally a very important defensive position. Practically every NBA champ has had a power forward who was able to get down and dirty--able to defend the rim, clean the glass, play good/great man to man defense, and be an enforcer. Sometimes you can get away with an average defender at power forward and still win a title, but you better have Russell or Kareem or Shaq as your big man, not Haywood and Dampier.
Your best player can't be your worst defender. Your best player must lead by example. Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Walton--they were all able to hold their teammates to higher standard because they were playing at a high standard at both ends of the floor. Even Magic and Bird, not world-class defenders, were still very smart, very hard working, very effective defenders. Teammates respected them and listened to them because they knew they were squeezing every last ounce of defensive ability out of their DNA. Their teammates would think to themselves "I can't slack on defense because he's not slacking, and I don't want to let him down--or have him get pissed at me and kick me in the nuts on national TV!"
Does Dirk have that kind of respect? Can Dirk ever jump on his teammates for not playing defense? I don't think so--because HE doesn't play defense. So, Dirk can't feel comfortable assuming the Kobe-Duncan-Jordan role of true leader, demanding excellence on both ends of the floor. That is a huge fundamental problem. Teams need to be led. They need to be led by their superstar. They need to be led vocally and led by example, and those two are not mutually exclusive.
Dirk: Power Forward?
Every year in the playoffs, games turn into a layup drill for the Dallas opponent. Why? One big reason is because the Mavs have a 7 foot power forward who plays like a 6'8 small forward. Let's face it--Dallas would be a considerably better team if Dirk had stopped growing at 6'8. That would allow him the ability to play the 3 (the position that his game his designed for), and the Mavs could go and get a true power forward to play alongside the center of their choice--greatly fortifying thier interior defense. We all get upset with Haywood and Dampier for not protecting the rim enough, but consider their plight: they have no power forward to help them. Even a great defender like Duncan has struggled to control the paint without a Robinson or Horry or other long defender to help.
Watch the tape from any playoff series (last year's Denver series was a great example). Most of the time you will see a flat-footed Dirk on 'defense'--reaching instead of moving his feet, not blocking out, not rotating in time, and generally playing sub-par man to man and help defense. It's my opinion that, unless you put Dwight Howard next to Dirk on that front line, you can't win an NBA title with your best player playing front-line defense like that. NBA champs always do two things well: protect the rim, and attack the rim. Dirk rarely does either.
Dirk: Unstoppable on Offense?
Pro-Dirk historians will look back at this latest playoff series and cry "it wasn't Dirk's fault--he averaged 27 points and 8 rebounds per game!" It's what they always do--point to his series averages, but it's a tremendously shallow look at his impact on a series.
Look at his game-by-game in this series for a better idea of his impact against the Spurs. He had a poor game 2 (Mavs loss at home), a poor game 4 (Mavs loss) and a poor start and finish in game 6 (Mavs loss). And, he was barely double-teamed the entire series.
Game 6 is a prime example of the Dirk myth. History will show that he scored 33 points on 13 of 21 shooting--great numbers, no doubt. But the box score doesn't show that Dirk lost his composure in the first 16 minutes of the game, and helped dig a giant hole for his team in an elimination game. Silly fouls, missed shots, poor defense, and lots of yelling. Not any way for a superstar and leader to respond. And, while he was great in the third quarter helping the team comeback to tie the game, in the final 7 minutes of the fourth quarter, Dirk made only one shot, and wasn't exactly a huge help on defense. It was a two-point game with 7 minutes to play, and then Dirk disappeared. The pro-Dirk historians will, a few years from now, simply remind you that Dirk scored 33 that night, and that it wasn't his fault. I would strongly disagree.
That 18 footer, which is money in the bank during the regular season, is not a lock in the playoffs. Teams apply a bit more pressure, which makes that shot a bit more difficult, as do the circumstances. If Dirk could take it to the rim on a nightly basis, like he did in game five of the Spurs series, his legend might have a happier ending.
Make no mistake: Dirk is THE reason that Dallas has won 50 games for 10 straight seasons. Not Nellie, not Cuban, not anyone else--Dirk is the man. For the regular season. It's hard for any of us to criticize Dirk because he's such a nice guy and such a great asset to the Mavs and the community. But you would be ignoring the elephant in the room if you think that he is not a primary reason for their playoff failures. NBA basketball changes in the postseason--regular season heroes often can't duplicate their greatness in the second season. Karl Malone, George Gervin, Patrick Ewing--and Dirk, are prime examples of that.
It's simple: you can win a title with Dirk on your team, but you better go and get LeBron or talk Bill Russell out of retirement (and into a fountain of youth), or it's not going to happen. You need a transcendent player or truly dominant center to win with Dirk. The Big German is what he is--that will never change. And something else will never change--to win in the NBA, your best player can't be your worst defender. It undermines his leadership credibility--and that is what is known as a fatal flaw.