Dirk Nowitzki might not be posting up as often as he once was, but there’s still not a more efficient player in the NBA on the left block.
This season, Nowitzki has absolutely dominated when shooting over his right shoulder, scoring a whopping 1.212 points per possession (58.3 percent on FGs) on 52 chances, per Synergy Sports. That number is the highest in the league among players with at least 15 such possessions. Getting even more specific, when he dribbles before shooting over his right shoulder — his one-legged fade — he’s scoring a league-leading 1.186 points per possession (56.1 percent on FGs). His next-closest competition among players with at least a dozen shots in such situations, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson, is scoring 1.077 points per possession. It might seem like a close gap, but it might as well be a mile wide.
It’s been Dirk’s extreme efficiency in the post which has put Dallas atop the NBA in points per possession in post-ups, per Synergy, scoring 0.93 points per possession overall. As a team, the Mavs have shot 46.4 percent in post-ups, fourth-best in the NBA. Nowitzki has scored 206 of the Mavs’ 253 points in the post this season. It’s basically all him, but he’s still getting it done.
The way defenders guard Dirk in the post has slightly changed over the years. When he first started playing in the post, teams would guard him with a big guy. However, Nowitzki was simply too quick for the bigger, burlier players of the era. So, around 2007, teams started checking him with smaller players and would double-team him with another small guard, swiping at the ball and acting as a pest. But once Dirk unleashed the one-legged fade, everything changed. Suddenly, he became an unguardable player no matter how you defended him. His ability in the post made him one of the most dangerous offensive players of the 2000s and his dominance on the block won Dallas a title in 2011.
He’s 36 now and the Mavs don’t run as many post-up plays for him, but clearly he’s still been able to produce at an elite level. What’s most impressive about the way Dirk has played on the block this season is how patient he’s been. It’s like the game is happening in slow motion to him — he knows exactly how to respond to every type of defensive coverage.
First, if the defender is playing him too far to the inside, he’ll just spin around them and lay it in. We used to see him do this a lot more in the mid-’00s, but he still has the quickness to pull this move off when the time is right.
That’s the last look teams want to give up, because a layup is the easiest shot in basketball. Here’s where the one-legged fade comes in to play. When a defender plays him straight up or slightly on his inside hip, Dirk will back him down with a couple dribbles and then let fly the iconic shot that will one day be a statue. This is the most unstoppable shot of the last 25 years.
Everyone knows how unstoppable it is, though, so everyone tries to stop it. Teams are double-teaming him when he picks up his dribble, believing that if they can get a couple hands in his face, he won’t be able to get the shot off. But Nowitzki has been there and done that, so he knows exactly what to do: pump fake. He almost does it out of habit nowadays; sometimes he’ll quickly turn and face up before pump-faking for what appears to be no reason. However, when his defender flies at him, the fake creates just the right amount of space for him to have a good look at the rim.
The good thing, too, about turning toward the baseline against a double-team is the second defender has no play on the ball. If Dirk were to turn over his left shoulder, for example, he would be spinning right into where the extra defender is coming from. That’s what happened to him earlier in his career when he was trying to figure out how to beat the double. But by turning away from it, he’s essentially wagging a finger in the second defender’s face. There’s no way a point guard is going to bother him on that shot, especially if the point guard is 3-4 feet away from him.
There are times, though, when the defense double-teams him early enough to prevent any type of dribbling or facing up to prepare for a shot. Dirk has grown so much more comfortable with passing out of double-teams over the years, to the point where defenses are statistically better off leaving him alone, if you can believe that. This season, Dallas is scoring 1.4 points per possession when Nowitkzi passes out of a post-up on the left block, the ninth-best mark in the NBA. Overall, the Mavs shoot 15-of-28 after a Dirk pass from the left block, good for a 53.6 field goal percentage. And many of those shots are three-pointers, which is even better.
Essentially, what this means is if Dirk touches the ball on the left block, it’s over. He’s either going to score it himself or someone else is going to put the rock in the hole. Once he touches the ball, it’s already too late, and nothing defenses have tried for the last 17 seasons has been able to stop it.