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Dirk stands to be even more efficient with improved supporting cast Subscribe via RSS

Kia Awards: Dirk Nowitzki

Dallas' Dirk Nowkitzki is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Player of the Month.

Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban have made it their mission for the past decade to surround Dirk Nowitzki with a capable supporting cast full of players who can fit in with the system and complement Nowitzki’s own strengths. The 2011 title team was an example of their finest work, as the front office gave Rick Carlisle everything he needed to construct a perfect offensive strategy that highlighted what those players could do as opposed to what they couldn’t do.

As Nowitzki prepares to enter his age-36 season, it’s becoming even more important not only for the front office to continuously add strong complementary players, but also for Dirk to apply less stress to his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean playing fewer minutes — the Dirk we saw last season was not the low-post-banging Nowitzki of the mid-2000s, for example — but it does mean putting him in position to play off of other players more so than he did, say, five or six seasons ago.

The pieces are already in place for exactly that to happen. Monta Ellis and Devin Harris were terrific creators last season, and the additions of Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson, and Raymond Felton give Dallas three more facilitators, players who can create for themselves and for others — all the while allowing Nowitzki the freedom to play a less physically taxing brand of basketball. Banging in the post takes a toll on even the strongest players, as does driving the lane and taking contact. Over the course of the past half-decade we’ve seen Dirk gradually shift his game further from the basket toward the three-point line, and the results have paid off. Last season, despite playing the second-fewest minutes per game since his rookie season, he put together one of the most efficient seasons of his career.

THE TRANSITION

It wasn’t long ago that Dirk was playing 3,000 minutes or more per season, meaning not only did he remain healthy enough to play, but he played a lot. From 2006-2010 (age 28-31), he averaged 36.8 minutes per game. In the four seasons to follow, that number was reduced to 33.1 per night. Players generally stay on the floor for fewer minutes per night as they grow older, but not every player alters his game as much as Nowitzki has while also remaining just as deadly.

Nowitzki took 121 three-pointers during the 2009-10 season, a year in which Dallas won 55 games and earned the second seed in the Western Conference. That number nearly tripled in 2013-14, when Dirk launched 329 treys and made more (131) than he even attempted four years prior. That ’09-10 season is significant because it was the last time Nowitzki averaged more than 34.3 minutes per game. His activity has been on a general decline in the years since, but his efficiency has not experienced a similar drop-off. In fact, it’s actually on an upward curve.

Even as Dirk has played less minutes and farther away from the rim, his scoring has remained in line with his elite career average. In fact, in three of the last four seasons (each of which he’s played below his career minutes per game average) his points per 36 minutes mark has been significantly higher than his career average of 22.6. He’s also enjoyed three seasons with an effective field goal percentage above his career average, which is unheard-of among players in the supposed twilight years of their career.

How’s it possible? The three-point shot. In the table below, you’ll see Dirk’s minutes per game, points per 36 minutes, eFG, free throw rate (number of free throws attempts per field goal attempt) and three-point rate (percentage of FGA from behind the arc), win shares per 48 minutes, as well how far from the rim he was on average per attempt each season. (All numbers via Basketball-Reference.com.)

Dirk Being Dirk

Season MPG Pts/36 min eFG% FTr 3PAr Avg distance Win shares/48 min
09-10 37.5 24.0 49.8 0.392 0.081 13.7 .194
10-11 34.3 24.2 54.5 0.376 0.142 14.4 .213
11-12 33.5 23.2 49.5 0.343 0.205 15.6 .175
12-13 31.3 19.9 51.6 0.265 0.216 16.3 .145
13-14 32.9 23.8 54.9 0.295 0.258 16.7 .199
Career Avg 35.9 22.6 51.4 0.375 0.195 14.7 .208

As Dirk has grown older, he’s taken a higher volume of threes and far fewer free throws and has still remained just as valuable to the team in terms of win shares. Threes are obviously worth more than two-pointers, and because he’s such a sharp-shooter, Nowitzki has been able to score even more efficiently these past four seasons than he was able to in his physical prime. Most star players are much more stubborn when it comes to reinventing their games to adapt to physical limitations caused by aging, but Nowitzki has willingly accepted his age and has remained a super efficient player because of it.

That process has also been made easier by being surrounded with playmakers. Nowitzki and Ellis brought out the best in each other last season. Dirk, especially, benefited from Ellis’s elite driving ability. Per NBA.com, when Ellis was on the floor last season, Dirk shot 53.7 percent from 15-19 feet from the rim, an insanely high number. That number dipped nearly six percentage points when Ellis was on the bench. Nowitzki also shot a dramatically higher percentage and from 20-24 feet when Ellis played. The pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop games allowed Nowitzki to not only find easy jump shots, but also doing so while avoiding bruising contact.

This season, with a healthy Harris and the additions of Parsons, Nelson, and Felton, the Mavericks will have even more players able to drive the lane and create for others. Nowitzki will find even more open shots around the perimeter and could realistically have an even more efficient season in 2015 than he did in 2014. For example, Dwight Howard, Parsons’s old running mate in Houston, shot six percentage points better from the restricted area when Parsons was on the floor than when he was off, per NBA.com. Parsons was also one of only five forwards in the NBA last season to average at least 16 points and four assists per game. He’s a high-profile acquisition who makes his teammates better. In that same vein, Jameer Nelson has averaged seven-plus assists for the first two times in his career the last two seasons, despite playing for a team with less offensive options than the Mavs now have. The ball will be shared this season, and Dirk will benefit the most from it.

Rick Carlisle’s and the front office’s goal for years has been to give Nowitzki an outstanding supporting cast and reduce his minutes if possible. This season Carlisle will certainly have that opportunity. And if we learned anything from last season, it’s this: Dirk no longer needs to be a superstar for the Mavericks to be successful, but he will likely put up superstar numbers nonetheless.