The Dunking Deutschman

Watch a highlight reel of Dirk's vicious slam dunks from the 2014-15 season!

We hear all the time about how Dirk Nowitzki influences the opposing defense. His mere presence on the floor is oftentimes enough to completely alter the way opponents approach defending the Mavericks because he’s such an efficient and well-respected shooter.

Through the years, the Mavs have been able to use that respect to their advantage, manipulating the amount of attention Nowitzki receives and turning it into open shots for other players. Perhaps no coach he’s played for has done it better than current head coach Rick Carlisle, whose pick-and-roll offense thrives not only on Nowitzki’s All-World shooting ability, but also on all the options which open up because of the way defenses go out of their way to keep the German in check.

The term commonly used to describe that effect is “gravity.” Every player has gravity, just like every floating object in space does, whether it’s a star, planet, or rock. But, just as is the case in space, each NBA player has his own varying intensity of gravity and pulls and bends defenses to different degrees. The easiest way to apply this is to think of every offensive player as a planet and every defender as his moon. Most teams play man-to-man defense more than 99 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports, and typically in a man-to-man defense a defender will rarely stray more than 5-10 feet from his man unless he’s helping elsewhere on the floor. But, for the most part, every defender is primarily worried about his own man, and every other opposing player is little more than a secondary concern.

Unless, of course, that player has a strong gravity pull of his own. If your average NBA player is a planet, think of Nowitzki as the sun. Everything he does and everywhere he goes influences the way the defense moves. No matter what he does, he always has multiple sets of eyes on him. He faces double-teams, he gets pushed and grabbed, and he has to fight just to catch the ball several times per game.

With his star receiving all that attention, Carlisle not only has to find creative ways to get Nowitzki the ball, but he’s also free to design plays that force the defense into making a difficult choice: A player can either check Dirk or the player with the ball, but not both, and his choice will determine who scores. It’s like getting the choice between defensive driving or paying a fine after getting a speeding ticket: No matter what you choose, nothing can change the fact that you still got caught.

But before we get too far into how Nowitzki alters defenses, let’s look at a few different ways he gets the ball, particularly to shoot three-pointers, in the Mavs’ system. We’ve seen a variation of this two-man hand-off play between Nowitzki and a guard for years, whether it was with Jason Terry or, more recently, Monta Ellis.

On a play which develops that quickly, defenders are left in a really tough situation. Are they switching? Are they sticking to their own guys? Whatever they decide, they have less than a second to decide. In the play above, neither Markieff Morris nor P.J. Tucker checked Nowitzki, leaving him all alone for three. Gerald Green attempted to help out, but because his man, Richard Jefferson, was positioned so well on the opposite side of the floor, he couldn’t get there in time to really contest the shot, else he would have left Jefferson equally wide-open. The result is three easy points.

Another thing the Mavs have been doing more often in the last few seasons is double ball-screens, using both Nowitzki and the center to screen the ball-handler’s defender, and afterward Nowitzki frequently pops for a jumper while the big man rolls to the rim.

Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, responsible for guarding Nowitzki, became concerned with the rolling Tyson Chandler. meanwhile, both Robin Lopez and Tim Frazier were guarding Ellis. The open man, Nowitzki, is one of the last people on Earth you want to leave that open for a three-pointer. This play forced Portland to make a difficult snap decision, and the Mavs capitalized.

Finally, Dirk has tortured defenses with his patented trailing three for nearly two decades.

The only counter to a play like this is for Nowitzki’s man to pick him up when he crosses the halfcourt line, and more and more teams are starting to do that. While doing so eliminates the demoralizing trailing three-pointer, it turns the possession into a 4-on-4 for the Mavericks, which opens up all sorts of space for other players. And because Nowitzki is a power forward and is usually guarded by the opposing team’s best-defending big, the German being defended 45 feet from the basket makes finishing at the rim easier for others as well.

Along those same lines, the only way to prevent Nowitzki from getting easier shots in halfcourt sets is to just stick to him for the entire possession. On the play below, Harrison Barnes simply refuses to help out against a J.J. Barea drive because he’s too concerned with checking Nowitzki.

While it’s probably a wise choice — Dirk is No. 7 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list — clinging onto him and leaving Barea open cost Golden State on that possession. To give you a better idea of how extreme the defense was, here’s an image showing Barnes quite literally attaching himself to Nowitzki’s hip.

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In the above example, Barea eventually pulled up for a jump shot at the free throw line. However, following a designed Nowitzki ball-screen, the road all the way to the rim may as well be paved with gold. Here’s an example of Ellis exploiting Nowitzki’s defensive effect last season.

This is the type of play we’ll probably see Deron Williams make very often this season, and Dirk’s effect on defenses alone should go a long way toward helping Williams increase his shooting percentage at the rim in 2015-16.

Now, while Ellis still finished very nicely at the rim, extending over center Robin Lopez to drop in the layup, he had such an easy time getting into the lane in the first place because of the way Aldridge defended Nowitzki. It’s no surprise that Portland, coached by former Mavs assistant Terry Stotts, would show such respect for Dirk, because Stotts certainly knows what he’s capable of.

Here’s a series of images from that gif which better illustrate how Aldridge winds up in “no-man’s land.” Notice the way his body is positioned as Ellis drives, and how all he can do is turn his body to watch the play unfold rather than rotate to offer help defense. The reason: If he helped out, Nowitzki would be all alone. The German’s mere presence was enough to completely remove Aldridge from the play, and it resulted in a layup for his teammate.

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This is perhaps the most unique element of Nowitzki’s game. He creates shots for others multiple times per game simply by standing still without the ball in his hands. Not many other players in the history of the game can make that same claim, as most elite shooters rely on ball-screens or ball-movement to create space, and most dominant centers force the defense’s hand only once the ball enters the post.

It also helps to explain why, year after year, Nowitzki’s on-off splits are fairly extreme. When he’s on the floor, everything becomes just a bit easier for everyone. Dallas’ offense has long been brilliant with Nowitzki, and while the team has still hummed without him on the court, there’s a big difference between top-10 in the league in every category and, say, top-3. Here are some of his splits from last season.

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This is what analysts are talking about when they mention Dirk and his “gravity.” Nowitzki truly is a unique offensive player and he’s left an equally rare impact on the way the game is played.

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