Today, Sports Illustrated published a profile of Dirk Nowitzki, written by the always-good (and Dallas-based) Rob Mahoney.
The piece focuses on Nowitzki’s tactical development as a player, chronicling his rise from a jump-shooting rookie to complete offensive player, with a special focus on the years between 2004-07, when Dirk rode from pick-and-pop wunderkind to the dominant go-to player capable of carrying a team.
Nowitzki’s outstanding career was on an exponential upward curve in his formative years, as he went from averaging 8.2 points per game in his first season to 21.8 in his third to winning MVP in his ninth. Each season he’d add a new element to his game, building from the ground up: First he fine-tuned his jumper, then he worked on the pick-and-pop, then he added an off-the-dribble game, and, finally, a low-post and face-up game that would completely redefine what is possible at the power forward position. It’s important to remember, when looking back at Nowitzki’s career, that before he came along, no 7-footer in the history of the sport was capable of shooting 3s and dominating on the block. And, really, there haven’t been many (or maybe any) since.
The juiciest moments in Mahoney’s feature come during the 2007 season, as Nowitzki reflects on what made the Golden State Warriors’ strategy against him so effective in the team’s 4-2 upset over the first-seeded Mavs.
“My move became to go one way, and when you cut me off with a smaller guy, I’d spin back and it’s too late,” Nowitzki told SI. “I’m gone — either at the rim or leaning back. Once I dribbled one way, [the Warriors] started coming from the back side and once I spun, I didn’t see them or what was coming and the ball was gone. That was a good technique to kind of stop me because once I put it down on the floor, I had to worry about my spin-back for the guy to be there. That was smart.”
As difficult as it might be for Mavs fans to revisit that period, it’s important to recognize what happened there. Don Nelson, Nowitzki’s former head coach, knew the strengths and weaknesses of his game better than almost anyone, and he constructed a defensive strategy that had never quite been seen before in a (successful) attempt to neutralize the superstar. The Warriors went on to complete the upset and the national public perception of Nowitzki was never quite the same until he finally won the title he deserved.
Ultimately, however, that series made Dirk better, just as all of his previous defeats prodded him to work even harder in taking his game to a higher level. Nowitzki’s career arc can best be characterized as abnormally human — that is, he makes mistakes, learns from them, and comes back stronger for it. His game has developed so much over the years, and so blatantly in the open, with his new additions and tweaks obvious to nuanced viewers, that it sets him apart from other players. And, finally, after so many years of hard work, tough losses, and individual triumphs, Nowitzki mastered his craft. At first he adapted to the NBA, and then the NBA adapted to him.