Dirk Nowitzki isn’t passing the ball better than he ever has, necessarily, but he’s sharing the ball perhaps more effectively this season than ever before.

According to NBA writer Seth Partnow, through Saturday’s games teammates were shooting a higher percentage on 3-pointers off Nowitzki’s passes than on those from any other player in the NBA.

The Big German is averaging a modest 2.7 assists per 36 minutes of floor time, exactly in line with his career average, per Basketball-Reference.com. But it’s seemed like all season Dirk has looked more comfortable with his floor game, or his ability to see the court, read the defense, and make the right pass at the right time. It could be due to all sorts of factors, like improved teammates, a slightly different offensive system, or luck. (I’d definitely rule out the third one, though.)


That got me thinking: Who’s making those shots? How is each player shooting off of Dirk’s passes? Just how good has he become when it comes to sharing the ball, or were my eyes deceiving me?

Fortunately, I’m not going crazy, and neither is anyone who also believes Nowitzki is sharing the ball well this season. Below is a list of the five biggest beneficiaries of Nowitzki passes this season, ranked by field goal percentage on shots immediately following the catch. (All numbers courtesy of NBA.com.)

Player FGM FGA FG% 3FG 3FGA 3FG%
JJ Barea 22 32 68.8% 5 8 62.5%
Tyson Chandler 7 11 63.6%
Devin Harris 17 28 60.7% 8 13 61.5%
Monta Ellis 36 76 47.4% 5 15 33.3%
Chandler Parsons 16 34 47.1% 6 14 42.9%

The most eye-popping percentage belongs to backup point guard JJ Barea, who’s shooting an incredible 68.8 percent on field goal attempts off Dirk dishes. Devin Harris, too, is shooting above 60 percent from the field on such attempts, and his eight three-point makes off Nowitzki dimes leads the team. Tyson Chandler is shooting 63.6 percent off his frontcourt mate’s passes, but surprisingly that number is lower than his season average, which just goes to show you how good Chandler has been this season. He’s not second in the league in field goal percentage by accident, after all.

Overall, Nowitzki’s teammates are converting his assist opportunities into assists more often than any other player on the team who averages multiple assists per game. Per SportVU, 64.7 of Nowitzki’s 3.4 assist opportunities per game are converted into a bucket, a crazy-high number even on a relatively small sample size. Below is a list of the Mavs’ primary playmakers and their conversion rates.

Player AST/gm AST Opp/gm AST conversion rate Secondary AST/gm
Dirk Nowitzki 2.2 3.4 64.7% 0.6
Rajon Rondo 8.2 14.4 56.9% 0.6
Devin Harris 3.6 6.7 53.7% 0.5
JJ Barea 3.2 6.2 51.6% 0.5
Monta Ellis 4.5 8.9 50.6% 1.1
Chandler Parsons 2.3 5.0 46.0% 0.6

The four Mavs guards all dish out passes that lead to baskets more than half of the time, which is the type of stat every team would hope to see. Nowitzki, meanwhile, sits atop the list. He knows where to send the ball and how to get it there.

Below are three different examples of how Dirk has been able to find teammates this season. The first, a pass to Chandler for a dunk, comes off a pick-and-roll. Chandler’s defender, DeAndre Jordan, helps over on Nowitzki while Blake Griffin hedges Monta Ellis above the arc. Watch how quickly Chandler covers ground to get to the rim.

He’s standing almost 25 feet from the rim when Dirk makes the catch, but it takes him just one second to get all the way under the basket. Nowitzki quickly recognizes what Chandler is doing and delivers a pass over Jordan’s outstretched arms before Griffin can recover in time to contest Chandler’s easy run to the basket. In past years, teams might have sent either Nowitzki’s man or Ellis’s man over to double Dirk in the low post, but the big man has become so good at passing out of double-teams that it’s no longer a viable strategy. Besides, Chandler has such good hands and is so athletic that he can catch a pass basically as long as it’s in his general vicinity. It doesn’t take a John Stockton-level dime to lead Chandler toward the rim.

That doesn’t mean teams no longer double Nowitzki, however. We’ve still seen some, like San Antonio or Boston, double-team him if he makes a catch against a smaller defender in the high post.

This type of play could become more and more common if Rajon Rondo is the one spotted up on the weakside, as defenses don’t respect his three-point shot the way they did Jose Calderon’s last season, for example. However, in this case, it only takes Nowitzki one dribble to realize where he needs to go with the ball, and Rondo knocks down the open jump shot. Passing out of double-teams is no easy task in the NBA, and it’s something that took Dirk years to master. He never really faced consistent double-teams until around 2007, but by the time Rick Carlisle took over in 2008, he’d become lethal at finding the open man when faced with two defenders.

This last example is just awesome.

We don’t see Dirk Nowitzki make too many jump passes, so this one is entertaining enough for that reason alone. Still, Nowitzki made this drive with the vision and anticipation of a guard. You’re not going to see many seven-footers in the world who are able to make this play running toward the rim at full speed. Again, it helps that Chandler may or may not apply super glue to his hands before game; the guy never drops anything. Dirk’s pass was still on the money, though, and it led to vicious two-handed dunk.

Even as Nowitzki has admittedly struggled here and there with his shot this season, he’s still demonstrated the ability to share the ball effectively, just one element of his game that keeps his name on the short list of some of the league’s most impossible assignments, even at age 36.

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