Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mavericks Paradox: Their Greatest Asset Is Also Their Greatest Weakness

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.

The Solution?

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.


  1. gotta say first off that I'm a P1, always will be, and i love you, man...

    I think you're forgetting a couple of things, though... The Mavs, although they did collapse in that series, were up 2-0 and on their way to 3-0 until D-Wade and the refs went crazy. And it's not a stretch to give the refs some credit for that collapse... go back and watch the tapes, and even read some commentary that's out there. It's not just local media that thinks so..
    Also, that same team was in the top three in defense under Avery Johnson. That's with Dirk as PF, Jason Terry as your starting point guard, and Dampier as your center. Hardly quality defensive players. My point there being that defense is about quality EFFORT and positioning. If your coach doesn't preach it, then your players won't do it. Rick Carlisle clearly hasn't gotten through to this team what Avery Johnson seemed to do from day one.
    Another thing: Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone were GREAT defenders. So, I think you lose something in your theory there.
    I think your focus is on the defense, whereas it should be on who's been the runningmate next to Dirk. He has NEVER had even one consistent player next to him that you knew would bring it on a nightly basis. Even Jordan, the greatest player ever, had that in Pippen. And Duncan has two in Parker and Ginobili. Kobe now has Gasol, Shaq had Kobe and then D-Wade, the list goes on and on.
    And one more point: Larry Bird didn't take it to the whole consistently, but what he had were two guys that he could dump it off to in the post that could score at any time. And I think that's another thing that Dirk has missed.
    Never had a consistent player next to him (after Nash and Finley, which was before his prime)
    Never had an inside threat to score.
    I think those, more than his defense, have been the reasons for his lack of playoff success.

  2. Bryce--
    Dirk's running mates are a different argument for a different blog--but I'll ask this question: is it the great supporting cast that makes the great player, or the great player that makes a great supporting cast? I would submit to you that Dirk doesn't have that killer instinct, or demand greatness, the way Bird, Jordan, Duncan, etc, did. Would Dirk win a title with Parker and Ginobili as his teammates? Or Pippen? I don't think so.

    Also--yes, Malone and Ewing were fine defensive players. I was using them more as examples of guys who had the "couldn't get it done in pressure situations for whatever reason" gene. It's a bigger picture thing that I believe applies to Dirk--a combination of many factors.

    Love you too.

  3. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I also like to see 7 foot big men use their height advantage down low on occasion.

    Dirk is awesome, just not awesome enough.

  4. Craig, this is a great post (and a great segment on the radio this morning.) I'm a huge Dirk defender and I get really ticked at people who put the bulls-eye on his back just because he's the only player they really recognize, but I think you're on to something here. And I think you're right that Dirk is the franchise, so this is the way it is for now; the only option, in my opinion, is to go out and grab the biggest free agent they can get their hands on (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, etc.) and hope that having someone of that caliber is enough to cover up for Dirk's flaws.

  5. Missed your show today and I'm upset about that. Monday is my day to sleep in.... plus, I'm in Peru. so... yeah... maybe next time you can call me and let me know when you're gonna be talking about this stuff...

    You may be right on the “big picture” thing.. but for the love of my soul, dear God, I hope you’re not.
    Jordan is a bad example. He’s the greatest player of all-time and we can’t compare Dirk to him. I was just using him as a point to my theory. Even the greatest of all-time needed at least one other dude who could take some pressure off of him. And his 2nd string of championships included someone who may have been the best rebounder for his size of all-time in Dennis Rodman.
    To your point about a great player making the team better? Well, let’s look at that Finals team. It was Dirk, and a bunch of 2nd to 3rd tier players. The Heat had Dwayne Wade and Shaq THEN a bunch of 2nd and 3rd tier players. They ended up losing, but they were favored. That’s the impact Dirk had on that team.
    I think a championship team is the right combination of superstar and role players. The Spurs found the perfect combination of players to play alongside Duncan in Ginobili and Parker. Guys who penetrate the lane and create for other people. I hear Bob Sturm mention all the time how important that is, and he’s right. Who have the Mavericks ever had that can do that? (and oh yeah, let’s not forget he had David Robinson as well, one of the greatest defenders ever, even past his prime)
    And we consider Kobe to be a "great" player, but we all know that until the Grizzlies confused Christmas with the NBA and gift-wrapped Pau Gasol, Kobe wasn't even close to winning another one. Even Kobe knew - and was very publicly saying it - he needed someone to help him out!
    Off-the-topic-but-still-somewhat-in-the-conversation-sidebar: I think Ewing just had bad timing. There was always someone else better than him (Jordan, Hakeem, Villanova.....?) And Malone also had the unfortunate chance to meet Jordan in the Finals.... twice. Jordan was the cancer to other people's chances to win a championship.
    Annnnnd this isn’t Bryce’s Blog so I’ll stop there.

  6. Craig, thank you for the insightful post. It can be difficult to have an objective conversation about this subject with some fans and even media; as you suggested, this is the elephant in the Mavericks room. It is easy to wear the Dirk glasses; he seems like a great guy and he's certainly giving and loyal to the community. All that said, since 2007, I have been engaged in an almost identical discussion with friends. In short, my belief is that Dirk is not Batman, as some in the local media have analogized, rather he's the ultimate Robin. Consider that early on in his career he was asked who his all time favorite NBA player is; his response, Scottie Pippen. As even the casual fan knows, the Bulls won multiple titles building around Jordan, not Pippen.

    To ellucidate my point, let me approach from a different angle. I do not believe Dirk the player is the problem; it is the building a franchise AROUND Dirk that is the problem, and that hangs solely on management's head. Give me LeBron or Dwyane and the next player I select is Dirk, virtually every time. But I would never start by building around Dirk. His game is simply too deficient for championship basketball; yes, even after considering the ridiculous offensive numbers he has logged over the years. How many different sets of players and coaches has he worked with over the past decade? All to the same basic result. As the centerpiece to each of those teams, it should not surprise observers that no matter the style of player brought in to back him up or coaches with new or tricked up systems, the result is inevitably that those players and the team as a whole take on Dirk's characteristics, i.e., finesse, and not the other way around.

    Short of having a transcendent player next to him that can shift focus off of Dirk on both ends of the court, as you suggested, I do not see any solution other than to break ties with Dirk and start rebuilding. His deficiencies in power and quickness, as well as defensive skill and intensity are just too serious to overcome at this point in his career. Had Dirk played in the '60s or '70s and had a team built around him then, he would have likely won a championship or two, but not today. Today's playoffs are all about power, quickness, and intensity. Therefore if you want to build a championship team you build with those characteristics in mind, and you start with a player that exudes all three. Note that even the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons, the most recent squad with the least star power, had a front line with Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace - both legit power players. Dirk's game is phenomenal, but considering the style of modern NBA playoff basketball, it is simply not good enough come April. The problem started when we as fans started to believe the company line that Dirk is Batman, when in reality he's the best of the best when it comes to being Robin. Until fans and the organization take off their Dirk glasses and accept this reality, it will continue to be more of the same.

  7. Junior --

    Besides LeBron, which of the other potential "big 3 free agents" do you think the Mavs (with Dirk) would have the best chance at winning a title with: Bosh or Wade?

    I love the idea of Bosh returning to Dallas, but at 6'10'' 230, is he really the low-post presence that could make it work along side of Dirk? Like you said, if Dirk was a 6'8'' SF and Bosh played next to him at PF, with the other current pieces still in place (Haywood and Damp at C), then I might like the Mavs chances...
    But would the scenario of: Bosh (5), Dirk (4), Marion (3), Butler (2) work with Bosh sliding to the 4 and Haywood or Damp playing the 5 when Dirk is on the bench, be enough to get this team over their playoff hump?

    Or, do you think adding Wade at SG, would be a legitimate answer to having another star, taking some pressure off of Dirk and allowing him to continue to do his thing at PF?

    Obviously LeBron makes just about anyone a contender, but I would love to hear your opinion on the other two players joining the Mavs current roster.

    Great blog post and topic by the way,


  8. The Dirk solution is a difficult one solve, because transcendent players and dominant centers aren't out there to be had. I have a suggestion how about a point guard will penetrate (the main reason Barea plays so much), Dirk to work on his passing out of double teams, the Mavs spacing in half court, and more young blood (you can't to get selfish old players who whine about their roles).

    Will any of that bring a title to Dallas? Probably not, but you have to try a new approach. We are too far down the road to trade Dirk and get anything better than 30 cents on the dollar. I have a few players I'm interested in, what about you Craig?

  9. Maybe you'll see this, maybe you won't but it's a good look at the draft history of our beloved Dallas Mavericks.

    When is Cuban and Donnie Nelson going to be held accountable for their piss poor draft choices over the last 10+ years?