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.
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.
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.