On the Inside: Dirk Nowitzki

2016-17 Exit Interview: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki addresses the media for exit interviews.

Throughout the last several weeks, we have published end-of-season breakdowns for some of the key Mavericks as part of our “On the Inside” series. Imagine never having seen the players before, and this is the scouting report. Read all of them here.

This was an unusual season for Dirk Nowitzki.

He played at least 30 minutes in a game just once in 2016, and that was on opening night. He missed 24 of the team’s first 29 games with lingering Achilles soreness. That’s far from the norm; previously, Nowitzki had missed more than nine games just once through 18 seasons. In his absence, the team struggled. Dallas won just eight of its first 29 games, a hole which ultimately proved too steep to climb out of as the Mavs missed the playoffs for just the second time since 2000. Some might have thought his best days were too far behind him to ever see again, while others brought up the possibility of retirement.

But when he came back, the 38-year-old was productive for a player of any age despite playing out of position at center for much of the season. From his return on Dec. 23, Nowitzki led the Mavericks by scoring 19.7 points per 36 minutes, adding 8.9 boards, 2.1 assists, and a block. During his best stretch of the season — from March 5-21 — the German compiled per-game averages of 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.0 percent from deep, good for a 59.5 effective field goal percentage.

That period came toward the end of the Mavs’ best stretch of the season; from Jan. 12-March 23, Dallas sported a 20-13 record. But by then, the club had already played 71 games and was essentially out of the playoff race. For Nowitzki, however, that run came right in what would normally be the meat of his season. That nine-game run in which he averaged 18 points and seven rebounds came in his 36th-44th appearances on the year. By the time he finally reached his peak form, the season was already winding down.

That doesn’t mean it was a lost season, statistically speaking. The 7-footer continued to put up numbers most other players will never come close to matching. For example, he shot above 37 percent from beyond the arc for the 13th season in his career, which ties for fourth-most ever. He averaged 19 points per 36 minutes for the 17th consecutive season, which ties Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone for second-most all-time behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was also his 13th season with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher and a turnover percentage of 10 percent or lower, which is a new NBA record. (He moved past some guy named Michael Jordan.)

He also reached the 30,000-point milestone, becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to do so. It might have been the coolest regular-season moment in Mavericks history, another once-in-a-lifetime achievement by a guy an entire generation of Dallas sports fans has grown up with.

Mavericks Celebrate Dirk’s Milestone

Mavericks fans and teammates surround Dirk Nowitzki as they celebrate him reaching 30,000 points for his career.

So even though Nowitzki’s injury basically delayed the start of what could have been a fine season, he still accomplished a fair amount individually. Within the context of the team, the big man once again had a positive impact on his teammates, virtually across the board. Nearly every player was better at everything when Dirk was on the floor, in what was a continuation of one of the most unique traits in NBA history: Nowitzki’s floor-bending effect on the opposing defense. That’s a quality that will never disappear, even if he plays until he’s 50.

Next season will be Dirk’s 20th as a pro, and he’ll tie Kobe Bryant (Lakers) for most seasons played for one franchise, and the Mavericks obviously want to reach the playoffs in what could be the German’s last season. That’s part of what made Nowitzki’s late-season surge so refreshing to see: It reinforced the belief that he can still play big minutes on a good team, so long as the talent around him continues to blossom. The team’s young players will have to take a step forward to push the Mavs over the hump. Regardless, Dallas could enter 2017-18 with a real shot at the playoffs despite only a few known quantities, and Nowitzki is still probably the surest thing of them all, which at his age is truly incredible.

The burning questions

OK, so if he’s still a pretty sure thing, what is there to wonder about?

The Mavericks have acknowledged they’ve entered into a transition period. Harrison Barnes is taking over the late-game duties, and Rick Carlisle is running the free throw isolation plays for Barnes now that he once called for the German en route to a championship. By the end of the season, the Mavs were starting multiple rookies on a regular basis. The club’s biggest move of the season came at the trade deadline in a move for Nerlens Noel, who became the Mavs’ youngest player. Heading into next season, it’s likely Noel will be the second-youngest, behind only the team’s No. 9 draft pick, who will likely still be a teenager on opening night.

It’s difficult both to get young and still compete for another playoff run for Nowitzki. The 19-year vet said during his exit interview that he’s willing to help mentor young players as they come, but clearly the Mavs aren’t interested in going full rebuild with a legend still in the locker room. The club is walking a delicate tightrope, which leads to some questions that must be answered by next season.

1. Is Dirk still Dirk?

Evidence cited earlier suggests that, yes, Nowitzki is still Nowitzki. He might never average 20 a game again, but the fact remains that he was still a productive scorer. That question honestly does not need to be asked.

His highlight run of the 2016-17 campaign excluded some of his finest late-game performances, including back-to-back games against Portland and Utah in which he hit last-second shots to bring the Mavs back into the game (Blazers) and tie with a couple seconds left (Jazz). As you can imagine he had quite a few highlights this season, but those two fourth quarters stand out.

Dirk Sends It To OT

Harrison Barnes misses the shot but Dirk Nowitzki is there to retrieve it and lets the jumper fly to send the game into OT.

More importantly as it relates to the youth movement, however, Nowitzki fit well within the team. As the season wore on, Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry emerged as the club’s two strongest clutch performers, as both can create their shot and see the whole floor to make the right passes. Dirk still found himself with the ball in his hands late plenty of times, but one unintended consequence of Nowitzki’s prolonged absence to begin the season was the development of Barnes as Curry as late-game studs; together, they shot 50 of 98 from the field in the clutch this season, per NBA Stats.

Dirk’s willingness to not have to be the guy late in games could be a big factor next season, when he’ll almost certainly be healthier than he was this year and, therefore, play more games. He had a lower usage rate in the clutch this season than Barnes, Deron Williams (while he was with the Mavericks), J.J. Barea, and Yogi Ferrell. At this stage in his career, he’s just as dangerous when he’s off the ball as when he has it in his hands. Defenders are always going to stick with him, no matter what else is happening, even if it means the opposing center steps 25 feet out from the rim to defend him. Nowitzki’s gravity helped lead to Wesley Matthews’ game-winning 3 in Chicago, for example. (There will be more examples of this later.)

One of my favorite Nowitzki plays this season wasn’t even a shot. It was a pass. On March 15, with the Mavs clinging on to a narrow lead in Washington and Nico Brussino playing out of his mind, Nowitzki gave up a fairly good look at a 3-pointer to swing it to the rookie in the corner for a better one and then was the first to dap him after the bucket.

We celebrate Nowitzki more for his baskets than his passes or floor presence, but those qualities might be more valuable on a young team than they’ve ever been. If a player is capable of helping his team win simply by standing still, it’s crucial to keep that guy on the floor when you need a bucket while the young guys figure out how to take over games. That he can still score at a high level is a bonus: Nowitzki scored 1.088 points per possession in the post against his own defender (not even a switched little guy) this season, per Synergy Sports. To put it in context, he scored more efficiently against bigs in the post than the league-leading Golden State Warriors offense did overall, regardless of play type (1.043).

So, yep, he’s still Dirk.

How’d he do as a 5?

The key date to remember about the 2016-17 Mavs season is Jan. 12. That’s when the club made a commitment to 5-out small-ball, and Dallas rode that philosophy to the 20-13 stretch mentioned earlier. Even after the Noel trade, Nowitzki still started at center for quite some time.

You can imagine many things would be true about a team with Nowitzki at center. First, you’d expect the offense to be pretty spectacular because of all the shooting. With the offense running predominantly through Harrison Barnes, that left the German to spot up on the perimeter and pull the center from the rim. As a result, Dallas could get pretty creative on the perimeter. Though Barnes ultimately passes to Dorian Finney-Smith, watch the screen Yogi Ferrell sets to free up Dirk from the corner.

There aren’t many offenses in the league in which point guards are basically setting pin-down screens to spring the center loose for a 3-pointer. That type of action is very difficult to defend and, if timed perfectly, can give Nowitzki an easy look almost every time.

Defensively, though, you might think a Nowitzki-at-center group would struggle to defend the lane without the presence of a traditional rim protector. Also, given Barnes’ relatively low rebounding numbers for a power forward, you might think the Mavs would struggle to clean the defensive glass. That wasn’t necessarily the case, though.

Below are some of Nowitzki’s on-off splits on both sides of the ball from Jan. 12 through the end of the season, when more than half of his minutes were played at the center position. (All starred “on” numbers represent the highest mark on the team, while all double-starred “off” numbers represent the lowest.)

Nowitzki On Nowitzki Off
Mavs Assist% 62.3% 54.8%**
Mavs D Rebound% 79.4%* 74.5%**
Mavs Turnover % 10.8%* 13.3%**
Opp. Free Throw Rate 0.237* 0.313**

What do those numbers mean? Assist rate measures the percentage of buckets a team makes that came off an assist. With Nowitzki on the floor, Dallas assisted more than three-fifths of its baskets. With him off, that number dropped to below 55 percent, which was the lowest mark without any player on the roster. More surprisingly, the Mavs assisted on just 45.0 percent of its made 2-pointers without Nowitzki on the floor following Jan. 12, which shows just how much the club relied on Barnes to create from the mid-range without the Big German.

The Mavericks rebounded at an elite rate with Nowitzki and struggled in that regard without him — a 79.4 percent defensive rebound rate would have finished third in the NBA this season, while their 74.5 percent clip without him would have ranked 29th in the NBA. Dallas allowed 2.4 fewer second-chance points per 100 possessions with Nowitzki on the floor than without him. The Mavs also rarely fouled shooters with Nowitzki on the floor (free throw rate) — the 0.237 rate would have ranked sixth, while the 0.313 rate would have ranked 28th.

Finally, the Mavericks rarely ever turned it over while Nowitzki played, even when he was at center and primarily just setting ball screens. Dallas gave it away just 10.8 percent of the time with Nowitzki on the floor for the last four months of the season, which would be the lowest team turnover rate in the history of NBA basketball. (The Hornets’ 11.7 percent turnover rate this season is the lowest on record, per NBA Stats.) The Mavs have almost always been a low-turnover team with Nowitzki; the Dirk-Era Mavs have three of the nine lowest turnover rate seasons in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference. They were historically low again this season — tied for 16th-best in league history — and that’s with no less than eight true point guards logging minutes, plus Nico Brussino manning point for long stretches in several games.

There are certainly trade-offs with Dirk at 5. For example, Dallas shoots less often at the rim and earns trips to the free throw line at a much lower rate with him on than when he’s off. There’s not as much of a rim-protecting presence as there would be if a player like Noel or Salah Mejri is in the game. But those are sacrifices you’ve got to be willing to make when you need a quick scoring burst within the course of a contest.

Is he a good fit between Barnes and Noel?

Nerlens Noel is a restricted free agent this summer, but the Mavericks have publicly stated their desire to retain him, and Noel has gone on record to say he likes playing for and living in Dallas. If the Mavs can strike a deal with the young big man to bring him back, and if nothing else crazy happens, a Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel frontcourt could be starting on opening night 2017.

Barnes and Noel are just 25 and 23 years old, respectively, so the Mavericks have plenty to be excited about in terms of their long-term development. (Read about Barnes’ season here and Noel’s here.) But in the short term, their fit with Nowitzki — and, more vitally, Nowitzki’s fit with them — is essential.

The sample size with a Nowitzki-Noel partnership was pretty small considering he was such a late acquisition and Nowitzki sat out some games down the stretch, but nevertheless there were some good results. The Mavs were +6.0 points per 100 possessions when the two shared the floor, including sporting an impressive 100.1 defensive rating and 2.04 assist-to-turnover ratio. That 6.0 net rating would have ranked third in the NBA this season, and the 100.1 D rating would have led the NBA. Though this isn’t to suggest the Mavs will win 60 games if Nowitzki and Noel play 48 minutes a game — in fact, the Mavs were only 9-11 when they played, but several losses came when the two would be shut down mid-game — it does tell you something about the pair’s potential. (It’s no surprise that Nowitzki’s best individual stretch — March 5-21 — coincided with Noel’s arrival. Together they torched opposing second units.)

Noel’s rolling ability combined with Nowitzki’s spot-up shooting can create some devastating offense for the Mavs.

Noel isn’t the only Maverick who benefited from playing next to Nowitzki, and vice versa. The 7-footer has a unique symbiotic effect on nearly all of his teammates. When the Mavericks have surrounded Dirk with players who complement his strengths and can fully take advantage of the extra space he provides, it’s almost always led to offensive fireworks.

The graphic below shows some of the top Mavs guards and wings’ individual shooting numbers when Nowitzki was on the floor this season vs. when he was off.

Player 2P% Dirk On 2P% Dirk Off Difference 3P% Dirk On 3P% Dirk Off Difference
Harrison Barnes 52.4% 48.1% +4.22% 35.5% 35.0% +0.48%
Seth Curry 60.3% 47.8% +12.44% 42.7% 42.4% +0.30%
Wesley Matthews 42.9% 43.4% -0.52% 37.5% 35.9% +1.57%
Yogi Ferrell 42.3% 39.7% +2.55% 41.1% 39.0% +2.13%
Dorian Finney-Smith 51.4% 46.7% +4.70% 32.7% 27.9% +4.79%
J.J. Barea 51.3% 41.9% +9.40% 36.8% 34.7% +2.12%

That chart does more to show the positive impact Nowitzki has on his teammates more than any words I or anyone else could write. Every single player shot the 3-ball better — some significantly — with him on the floor than when he was off, and every player also saw massive 2-point improvement (with the exception of Wesley Matthews, whose numbers only decreased marginally).

Now, Nowitzki’s presence wasn’t always the only thing that had an influence on production — numerous point guard injuries to begin the season coinciding with Nowitzki’s absence presented the offense with unique challenges for some of those players, as well — and there are many reasons why those numbers could look the way they do. But there’s only one constant, and that’s Dirk.

The mark of any great athlete in a team sport is his ability to make those around him better. That holds especially true in the NBA, when just five teammates are on the floor at the same time and the league’s hierarchy is typically determined by only a handful of players.

Nowitzki might not be in the popular discussion for top-five, or even top-20, active players anymore, but I would bet you’d be hard-pressed to find another player in the league right now whose presence would provide a similar universal boost to his most common teammates. An easy guess would be LeBron James, who’s now considered possibly one of the three or four best players ever and is still at the height of his powers.

That Nowitzki still made an impact of that magnitude — in an injury-plagued season on a lottery team, no less! — is truly stunning. He is a walking offensive cheat code. In an era when we have more tools than ever to determine what makes a good basketball player, Dirk is still underappreciated, or at least he’s not been properly quantified. I suspect that 15 years from now new stats will have been created that can more accurately determine his one-of-a-kind effectiveness. The above chart could be a good place to start.

At this point in his career, Nowitzki might not be able to go out and get you 25 points every night, or even 20. He might not be able to play 35 minutes a night, and he probably shouldn’t even play 28 anymore. The days of “give it to Dirk at the elbow and get out of the way” might be behind us forever. But even now, in an NBA in which otherworldly athleticism is required and ball-handling big men are the most sought-after asset in the game, there’s still a place for Nowitzki, the soon-to-be 39-year-old who’d rather jog than sprint and has dunked just 11 times in his last three seasons combined.

He can play with the young guys on his own team and continues to make them better. He can play power forward or start at center. He can spot up in the corner or keep running the pick-and-pop. He can post up, he can get you some rebounds, and he can still draw a double-team. He is today what the Mavericks can only hope Harrison Barnes will one day become, and who at least 20 other teams hope their best player can one day evolve to be.

Yes, even now, after 19 long seasons and coming off perhaps the longest one yet, Dirk is still Dirk.