Monday, May 9, 2011

The Evolution of Dirk


May, 2009. The NBA Playoffs. Dallas vs Denver. That's when I first noticed a change in Dirk Nowitzki. Something was different. He was better. Not that he had turned from a mule into a thoroughbred--Dirk was always a great player. But it was the first time that, after a playoff series loss, I said to myself, "I can't really pin that one on Dirk." Yes, he had a poor defensive series against Denver, but we were used to that. Something had changed for the better on the offensive end (and would soon change on the defensive end as well), but I couldn't put my finger on it.

During the following '09-'10 season, I recall saying on the show many times that I thought it was Dirk's best season ever--even better than his '06-'07 MVP campaign. And then, this past '10-'11 season, he was even better. I've been amazed that he's continued to grow in his 30's. Most stars are what they are by their mid-20's, and they stay at that level until age takes it's toll. Dirk is one of the few stars who has kept improving late in his career. Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Nash also come to mind, but I think Dirk's late growth spurt is even more impressive.

What is behind the Dirk metamorphosis?

The Knock on Dirk

For years I watched Dirk and found him both a marvel and a frustration. We had never seen a 7-footer who could shoot like that from the outside. We had also never seen an uber-talented 7-footer who could’t dominate inside. We could never understand how year after year in the playoffs, teams could bother Dirk with an undersized defender. Bruce Bowen, Ryan (Ryan!) Bowen, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, James Posey, Stephen Jackson--it didn’t make sense. Why doesn’t Dirk just post these guys and be done with it? A lot of that was because of how he was raised and what Don Nelson did and didn’t require of him early in his development.

I used to also think that Dirk’s light weight was the reason that he wasn’t comfortable in the post. But, notice how Dirk’s dimensions compare to the other great big men in NBA history:

Kareem A-Jabbar -- 7’2, 225
Shaquille O’Neal -- 7’1, 325 (freak)
Wilt Chamberlain -- 7’1, 275
David Robinson -- 7’1, 235
Hakeem Olajuwon -- 7’0, 255
Dirk Nowitzki -- 7’0, 237
Robert Parish -- 7’0, 230
Bob Lanier -- 6’11, 250
Tim Duncan -- 6’11, 248
Bill Walton -- 6’11, 210
Moses Malone -- 6’10, 215
Kevin McHale -- 6’10, 210
Bill Russell -- 6’9, 215

As you can see, Dirk compares favorably size-wise to most of these great big men. Some of those big men were able to live inside without Dirk's size, so what's the difference? These metrics don’t account for strength, and maybe that’s what Dirk doesn’t have--but I doubt it. I think his lack of interior presence has had more to do with a lack coaching--and lack of want-to. But that was Old Dirk. Welcome to New Dirk.

The Numbers

According to the stats, Dirk has been a better postseason player over the last three years than at any time during his career. His recent series against the Lakers was his best ever. Compare his LA series stats with the numbers from the two series that most consider his finest: ’06 vs San Antonio, and ’06 vs Phoenix. Also, compare his numbers vs LA to his low-water mark, the series in ’07 against Golden State:

2011 vs LAL: 57% FG, 73% 3PT, 94% FT
2006 vs SAS: 52% FG, 12% 3PT, 91% FT
2006 vs PHX: 46% FG, 50% 3PT, 89% FT
2007 vs GSW: 38% FG, 21% 3PT, 84% FT

57%, 73% and 94% vs the Lakers? Those are unheard-of-type numbers. Dirk is better now. And, there are more numbers that back this up. Dirk’s TS% (true shooting percentage, a formula which combines FG, 3PT and FT percentages) and his eFG% (effective field goal percentage, which combines all three and gives more weight to the shots that count for more) have both been higher for the last three postseasons than ever before:

2001-2008: Never had a TS% higher than 59% or an eFG% higher than 52%
2009: 63% TS, 53% eFG
2010: 64% TS, 57% eFG
2011: 61% TS, 53% eFG

Clearly, he’s improved his offensive game and efficiency during the last three playoff runs compared to earlier in his career. But how? I went into geek mode this weekend and watched a lot of old Dirk game tape, from the ’03 playoffs against the Kings and Spurs, the ’06 Finals against the Heat, and the ’07 Golden State series. There are many reasons why Dirk is better now, and one of those is direction.

Coaches

Don (and Donnie) Nelson deserve full credit for discovering, drafting, and believing in Dirk. But I believe that, as a coach, Nellie stunted Dirk’s growth. Watching ’03 Dirk, you see a player who was still raw in many ways, but who had developed into a full-blown All-Star. He had become what his Dr. Frankenstein had wanted: a freak show of a 7-footer with a deadly long range shot. Nellie never required Dirk to post up, and never asked anything of him on the defensive end.

Dirk spent a lot of time that postseason living on the perimeter on offense (a common theme, as you’ll see). On defense, he was the definition of flat-footed. He was very poor guarding his man, yet made up for it on the boards--he didn’t rebound well through technique as much as he did through desire (an early indication that he was indeed somewhat comfortable inside).

As we know, Dirk didn’t finish the playoffs that year. In his “Book of Basketball,” Bill Simmons writes “The ‘soft’ tag started in ’03, when Dirk refused to limp around with an injured knee in the Conference Finals...strangely, nobody remembers this decision now.” I’m not sure that’s accurate. I remember Cuban wanting Dirk to play through it, but Nellie thinking it was too risky. I don’t remember if Dirk wanted to play or not. Anyway, that’s where some think the ‘soft’ tag started.

Enter Avery Johnson. Dirk seemed to grow under Avery--he had some of his best years under the Little General, including his MVP campaign. Yet, watching the Heat and Warriors series, there were still some things that needed to be corrected. I watched Games 3 and 4 from the ’06 Finals. We all remember the Game 3 meltdown--Dallas up 13 with 6:30 to play in the game. Do you know how many times Dirk took his smaller defender into the paint during that last 6:30 (while Dwayne Wade was leading the furious comeback by attacking the lane)? Twice. And one of those was with :03 left (which resulted in a trip to the line, where Dirk missed the game-tying free throw). For the final 6:30, Dirk lived on the perimeter. One time he got the ball 15 feet from the rim with little Jason Williams guarding him. What did Dirk do? He passed the ball.

That’s something that has changed. Against Miami, Dirk refused to punish shorter defenders--Haslem and Posey were always able to get position on him (meaning they easily pushed him from 15 feet away out to 20 feet away). Not anymore. Example: the Lakers series, Game 2. Phil Jackson tries to slow down Dirk by putting Ron Artest on him. Dirk responds by telling Jason Terry “I’ve got this--get me the ball,” and he scores easily over Artest from different ranges. ’06 or ’07 Dirk would have passed the ball. Not now. Another example: 4th quarter of Game 2 this year vs Portland. Dirk posts LaMarcus Aldridge (a guy almost his exact size--yikes!) and backs him down--he damn-near looked like Barkley! And, Dirk and Mavs dominate those quarters and protect home-court. (The Denver series in '09 was one of the first times I could remember an opponent trying to get really physical with Dirk and it having no effect whatsoever. Up until then, the knock on Dirk was always "play him tough and tight--he doesn't like that." You don't hear that any longer.)

Game 4 against Miami was bad. It was a 2 for 14 clunker from Dirk (although he did get the line 14 times). His 16 points were not what his team needed from him. They needed their 7-footer to be a 7-footer. He was very much a wallflower in this game--unable to impose his will. By this time, the notion that Dirk was a 7-footer who played like he was 6'9 was cemented.

The 2007 Golden State series was worse. I watched Games 4 and 6 (both Dallas losses). I seemed to recall that the Warriors double-teamed Dirk a lot, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. They did run all sorts of chaotic looks at Dirk, and double occasionally, but it was mainly Stephen Jackson playing a very tight and aggressive man-to-man on Dirk. They clearly flustered him. Dirk was firing up wild, off-balance, on-the-run, fade-way shots from long range, or making wild passes out of perceived trouble. He was rushing when he didn’t need to rush. He never tried to take advantage of his size. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, he was even more of a wallflower than in parts of the Miami series. He was so out of sorts against the Warriors that he shot a near-career low 84% from the free throw line during the series. It was as though Golden State had convinced Dirk that he wasn’t a good player. Nellie’s voodoo brainwashing tactic had worked.

(Two things I noticed while watching that matchup against the Warriors: Avery Johnson was, at that time, the most tightly-wound human being alive. I'm surprised he didn't jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge during that series. And, Mark Cuban had a goatee! I had totally forgotten about that facial-hair experiment of his. But you know what? It looked good! He should have stayed with it.)

Which brings us to Rick Carlisle. Carlisle has been perfect for Dirk--a coach that equally stresses both ends of the floor. It’s no coincidence that Dirk’s three best postseasons (stats-wise) have come under Carlisle, who has positioned Dirk closer to the basket than any previous coach. And, he’s finally playing some defense! During the Lakers series, Phil Jackson openly complained that Dirk was “being too physical with Pau Gasol.” When has that ever been said about Dirk?

Speaking of his defense, the change is noticeable when you watch Old Dirk vs New Dirk. In the past, he would play defense by placing his hand on his man’s hip, giving two feet of space between he and his man, and keeping that distance no matter what the man did--like a dance step (which is fine outside against a quick guy, but not in the paint against a big guy). He would also bend over too much, I thought--making his 7-foot frame more like a 6-9 frame. Fast forward to the Lakers series: Dirk guarding Gasol. He used his chest and legs much more. He bodied Gasol, instead of dancing with him. He got physical. He bumped him. He moved his feet. He refused to give ground. It was a drastic departure (for the better!) from how he used to defend. He’s still not a great defender, but he’s no longer terrible.

Last year at this time, I wrote a blog entry about Dirk’s defense, and how you can’t be weak at the power forward position on defense and still win a title. I said the Mavs needed to get a top-flight defender at center if they wanted to get away with Dirk’s defense at power forward--and they did. Credit Tyson Chandler’s arrival, along with Carlisle’s coaching and Dirk’s late-career desire, as the three factors that have helped make Dirk a better defender.

A True Leader

Remember when Dirk would yell at his teammates, and it just didn’t seem right? Now, it seems right. He now gets on his teammates at the right times, and for the right reasons. It used to be out of frustration only. Now, he chooses his spots, like a leader. I think one reason is that he now gives full effort at both ends of the floor--not to mention the fact that he’s raised his game on both ends, and thus can expect more out of those around him.

There has always been the question of the quality of supporting cast for Dirk, and it’s a legitimate argument. Certainly Chandler is much better alongside Dirk than Raef LaFrentz in ’03 or Eric Dampier in ’06 and ’07. Would the Mavs have won it all those years with Chandler? No. But he would have helped. I also noticed that Terry and Josh Howard has some really poor stretches in ’06 and ’07. But I think that only tells part of the story. When Dirk really started to raise his game to it’s current better-than-ever level it was in 2009--back when everyone was complaining about his supporting cast. Ditto for 2010. So that leads us back to Dirk.

What else happened in 2009? In addition to Carlisle taking over, those were the playoffs when the sordid story of Dirk’s fiancee Crystal Taylor came out. I think this may only be a small part of the puzzle--very small. But, in a way I think that toughened Dirk. I think it made him less trusting. I think the way the public reacted to it pissed him off--or perhaps the fact that it went public at all. If your personal life is picked apart like that by the masses, it has to have some effect on you.

Anything else happen around that time? I think the arrival the year earlier of Jason Kidd helped--a lot. Kidd joined Dallas in time for the New Orleans series in '08, which they lost. But that wasn’t really on Dirk or Kidd--that was all on Josh Howard (who was so bad in that series that the Hornets refused to guard him on offense--he shot 25% from the field against them, so they embarrassingly begged him to shoot). Howard was awful, on and off the court. But Kidd’s presence was helping lay a foundation for Dirk’s growth.

Another thing that happened around that time: Dirk turned 30. I believe that when he hit that age, it started to sink in. He didn’t want to be remembered as soft. He didn’t want to join Barkley and Malone and Stockton as the greatest players to never win a title. A middle-age crisis, if you will. I think it dawned on him that time was running short, and he had better do everything he can--squeeze every last ounce of ability out of that 7-foot body. And he has.

Today, Dirk is better. The stats show that he’s shooting the ball better than ever before. He is now a threat to not only shoot from the outside, but to drive or to post. He’s playing better defense. He’s a better leader. He’s just better. His unusual late-career growth culminated with a series against the Lakers that any NBA 7-footer, past or present would be proud of. Dirk was the alpha-male. Not Kobe. Dirk.

In the past, Dirk simply took what the defense gave him. Now, Dirk takes what he wants. And, what he wants is a ring--and thanks to a brilliant series against the Lakers, that window is still open.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Giro

The Tour de France is the world's biggest bike race, and always will be. The Giro d'Italia is Italy's version of the Tour--a three week stage race that takes in all parts of the country. The Giro has always played second fiddle to the Tour, and that will never change. But the Giro is a magnificent race in it's own right, and in many ways it's better than the Tour. (There is a third Grand Tour, the three week Vuelta a' Espana, or Tour of Spain, but it's very spare in comparison to the Tour and Giro)

Until the Armstrong Era, if you were to be considered one of the true greats, you needed to win at least one Giro. Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain--they are all more famous for winning the Tour multiple times, but they also won Giros. Armstrong never cared about the Giro--his fame and fortune were built around only one race--the Tour. Since Armstrong helped take the Tour's popularity to new heights, team sponsors also became much more interested in doing well in France in July as opposed to other races in other months. So, now more than ever, it's all about the Tour. Too bad for the Giro, because in many ways the Italian race embodies the beauty of the sport better than the Tour.

The leader of the Tour wears the yellow jersey, both as an honor and so that spectators can spot him as the peloton whizzes by. In the Giro, the leader wears a pink jersey (insert homophobic joke here). The newspaper that sponsored the Tour was printed on yellow paper, thus a yellow jersey. Same thing in Italy--the national daily sports page was (and is still) printed on pink paper, therefore a pink jersey for the leader. They yellow jersey is the most coveted piece of cloth in cycling, but I like the look of the pink jersey better. I can't explain why, I just think Merckx, Hinault and Indurain (pictured) all looked better in pink (insert second homophobic joke here).

One of the best things about the Giro are the fans. They love cycling in France, but they love cycling in Italy. A typical Frenchman is reserved, while a typical Italian wears his emotions on his sleeve--and it shows on the roadside. The 'tifosi' as they call them, worship the sport like few others. I would say the two countries where cycling is the most popular would be Belgium and Italy. For a decade, the top sports heroes in Italy have been cyclists. The nation was torn in half during the Coppi vs Bartali years, and later during the Moser vs Sarroni battles. Perhaps it's their hot Italian blood, or the always-flowing Italian red wine--whatever the reason, Italian fans get into the sport more than the French. And while the Tour has become a huge international event, the Giro is still very much still an Italian domestic celebration.

The Giro also wins the annual battle with the Tour for the hottest podium girls. Yes, winning a stage is prestigious. Yes, winning a stage can make a career. Yes, winning a stage keeps the director sportif off your back for a while. But it's also a nice reward after a hard day's work to get a kiss (and possibly a happy ending) from one of these race representatives.

Another reason to like the Giro is the fact that the organizers do a better job with the route each year than the Tour bosses. They mix it up--a lot of tough early stages, and tough stages balanced with easier ones throughout the three weeks. The Tour is more locked into the same, predictable formula: eight days of flats, then a weekend in the Alps, then more flats, then the Pyrenees, then flat to the finish. Last year's Giro route was greatly varied, which made for one of the most exciting stage races ever.

And then there is the Italian culture. Every cyclist lives on a diet of pasta, and there is no better pasta in the world than in Italy. The scenery along the route is incredible--whether it's racing along the Mediterranean coast, up the steep Dolomites, or past the Coliseum in Rome, there is always a spectacular backdrop. Remember the movie "Breaking Away?" The main character, Dave Stoller, was obsessed with the Italians and the Italian racing culture. The food. The music. The language. The women. The gold chains. Organized crime. What's not to love about it all?

While LeMond and Armstrong won a combined 10 Tour titles, only one American has ever won the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten (riding for the Dallas-based 7-Eleven sponsored team) braved blizzard conditions over the Gavia Pass to claim the leader's pink jersey, which he never gave up. The storm that day was so bad, and most of the riders so underdressed, that many simply couldn't descend the mountain--their arms and legs trembling so much that they couldn't steer their bikes. Others suffered from hypothermia and frostbite. Many simply quit the race and jumped into the team car. Hampsten kept going, and authored one of the greatest chapters in cycling history.

There will be no American winner this year, and probably not one anytime soon. But if you like events with history, passion and excitement, you'll like the Giro d'Italia. Yes, I'm excited about this race--or is that just a cannoli in my pants?