Dirk Nowitzki is having an all-time season.

As it stands today, the German is set to become just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 18 points per game in his age-37 season or later, according to Basketball-Reference. Of the thousands of players who have suited up in this league, only four have done what Nowitzki is currently doing.

Player Season(s)
Dirk Nowitzki 2015-16
Karl Malone 2000-01, 2001-02, 2002-03
Michael Jordan 2001-02, 2002-03
Dominique Wilkins 1996-97
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1984-85, 1985-86

Even scaling down from a historical perspective to an individual level, Nowitzki is having a terrific season. His 51.6 effective field goal percentage ties for the sixth-best mark of his career, he’s rebounding at his highest volume since the 2012-13 season, and he’s scoring 21.1 points per 36 minutes, just 1.4 off his career average of 22.5. In short, he’s not having the type of season you’d expect from 37-year-old, 18-year veteran of the NBA, playing heavy minutes as the geometric focal point of a team.

Dirk Last 4As the pressure of the playoff chase has intensified, Nowitzki’s productivity has increased as well. That’s the mark of an all-time great player. He’s scored at least 22 points in four consecutive games, a feat he’s accomplished only one other time since the end of the 2011-12 season. The Mavericks have needed every single one of those points, as well, as most of these games have come down to the final minute. His shooting chart during that time (pictured right) is green all over the place. His numbers during this four-game run: 26.8 points per game on 57.1 percent shooting, 47.6 percent on 3s, and 89.5 percent from the line.

What’s behind the recent leap? The answer is probably much deeper than simply a scheme adjustment or Nowitzki tweaking something in his jumper. This could simply be a case of a great player stepping up at the right time. But, at least on the surface, the Mavericks do appear to be doing some things different as of late that have helped create a better environment for Dirk to be Dirk.

For starters, he’s playing much more center. In the last four games alone, Nowitzki has played the 5 for 38 minutes, according to nbawowy.com. During those minutes, the German has scored 33 points on 23 shots, averaging 1.46 points per possession and a scorching 63.0 eFG percentage. Not to take anything away from the Mavs’ stable of centers by any means, but the floor opens up so much more with Nowitzki at the center spot, as it creates better driving lanes for the Mavs guards and, most importantly, forces opposing big men not accustomed to defending 25 feet from the rim to step out and contest Nowitzki jumpers. That, of course, is much easier said than done.

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Nuggets center Nikola Jokic backs off just a few feet from Nowitzki, who was cooking that night in Denver, and that little shade of space is all he needs to get a good look at the rim. A power forward would probably have stuck to him a bit more, as they defend shooters far more often than centers do. In the Denver game, the Mavs surrounded Nowitzki with four point guards during one stretch. It was incredibly exciting to watch and led to a ton of open jump shots via inside-out basketball. Dirk was the beneficiary of this open jumper when, again, his defender (this time Kenneth Faried) backed off just a hair too far to contest his shot.

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Penetration is key in creating open jump shots on the outside. While the Mavs have lost five consecutive games, it isn’t due to a lack of strong offensive creation. The guards are attacking the basket more frequently and the ball is moving much sharper on the perimeter, a trend that goes back to the addition of David Lee as the backup center. Not surprisingly, Nowitzki has capitalized more than any other player on the team, especially when opposing teams switch a smaller player onto him. Below, for example, there’s nothing Monta Ellis can do to contest this shot.

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Wesley Matthews didn’t even get into the lane, but he turned the corner so hard off of the Nowitzki screen, and the play started so low on the floor to begin with, that Indiana was forced to switch. Nowitzki makes the catch and takes what for him is a wide-open jump shot. Ellis is there, sure, but he’s almost a foot shorter than the German. Were that Myles Turner, it would have been a much more challenging shot. But because the Mavs forced Indiana to do something it didn’t want to do, Dallas generated an easy look for a red-hot player.

Perhaps a better illustration of the effect driving can have on the defense is below. Deron Williams takes a Nowitzki screen and immediately finds himself in the teeth of the defense, forcing the Pacers to collapse. From there, it’s an easy kick-out to Nowitzki for an easy 18-foot jumper over the much smaller George Hill.

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Ellis even gambles a bit, anticipating a pass to Nowitzki which he himself made hundreds of times in his two seasons with the Mavericks. Still, he’s powerless in that situation to make any type of play on the ball, having to cover so much ground from the weak-side corner just to get to Dirk with a chance to make something happen. Dallas spaced the floor beautifully and it paid off.

Nowitzki remains an offensive force, even at age 37, but his job becomes much easier when his teammates can get into the lane and muck up the opponent’s defensive discipline. Teams focus on Nowitzki more than any other Maverick, but if his teammates can attack decisively, Dallas can dictate the defense and more often than not find an easy look, often for the player the defense doesn’t want to see shoot.

Oftentimes when Dirk has a 25-point game, Twitter is abuzz with “He’s still Dirk Nowitzki” tweets. What he’s shown during the last week, however, is not that he’s still who he is, but rather he’s never been anyone else. He’s not putting up vintage performances; he’s having confirmation games. Nowitzki is an unquestionably great player and he’s reminding us all that to think otherwise is downright silly.

Combined with Chandler Parsons’ continued tear, Nowitzki has carried the offense in the last four games. The longer his explosive performances continue, the better chances the Mavericks have to bust out of this losing streak and put themselves in a favorable playoff position. While it’s no doubt disappointing to see the team come up empty during a time when Dirk is so unstoppable, it’s just as refreshing to know that he’s playing up to and beyond expectations at the time of the year when you hope to see that from your best players. The Mavs have always gone as far as Nowitzki will take them, and should he continue playing at this level, the wins will eventually even out and that’s an exciting proposition for this team.

Appreciate Nowitzki’s magical season while you can, because it’s virtually unprecedented, as is nearly everything else he’s done in his career. It’s what we’ve come to expect, but don’t take it for granted.

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