The Four Horsemen: Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Drops 34

Watch as Dirk Nowitzki has a huge Game 3, scoring 34 points in Friday's game against the Rockets.

His list of accomplishments is as impressive as his patented one-legged fade. He’s a perennial All-Star, a surefire Hall of Famer, and perhaps the best European basketball player of all-time. Normally after 17 seasons, you’d run out of things to say about someone. But, even after all this time, Dirk Nowitzki is still reinventing his game and playing at a high level.

What’s made Nowitzki’s rise as a superstar so unique is his willingness to tweak or add things to his game in order to improve on both an individual level and within the context of the team. In the mid-2000s, for example, then-Mavs coach Avery Johnson urged Nowitzki to add a post-up element to his game and eventually built the entire offense around the German’s new back-to-the-basket ability. In just one season, Nowitzki went from a spot-up shooter to the most unstoppable low-post presence in the league.

Rick Carlisle would replace Johnson after the 2007-08 season, and in the immediate future Nowitzki would take far fewer three-point attempts in favor of staying in the mid-range, playing off of Jason Kidd and in the famous two-man game with Jason Terry. And still, his post-up game remained. His evolution was complete during the 2010-11 season, when he blended interior dominance with perimeter sharpshooting. He shot a career-high 51.7 percent from the field in the regular season and scored an impressive 27.7 points per game in the postseason as Dallas won the championship.

In the past few seasons, as Carlisle has begun managing Nowitzki’s minutes to keep him fresh for the playoffs, his role in the offense has changed once again. Since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Dirk’s usage rate has dropped to 25.5 percent from the 27.2 percent mark to that point in his career, according to Basketball-Reference. Usage rate is no indication of production or efficiency, but it estimates the percentage of team plays a player uses while he’s on the floor.

But no matter how he’s been used throughout his career, Nowitzki hasn’t failed to produce. Aside from his 13 All-Star appearances, Dirk has maintained a remarkable level of efficiency that not many players will ever touch, if any. Below is a list of the players with the most seasons with a true shooting percentage of at least 56.0 and 1,300 points. It excludes seasons when a player didn’t qualify among league leaders in three-point percentage. (This was done to eliminate centers, but even if we ran that, Nowitzki would have led with 15 such seasons.) As shooters go, Nowitzki is one of the best ever.

Rank Player Count
1 Dirk Nowitzki 14
2 Reggie Miller 12
T-3 Ray Allen 9
T-3 LeBron James 9
5 Paul Pierce 7

Knowing Nowitzki’s past as a player, including some of the tweaks he’s made to his game and the different ways coaches have deployed him, is very important for understanding what the Mavs might look to do on offense this season. Dirk will have plenty of new options to play off of this season, and while it’s unclear how many minutes he’ll play or just what kind of role he’ll have in the offense, it’s unlikely that his usage rate will climb from last season to this one.

In other words, the Mavs have found players who can help carry the offensive burden. That’s what makes Chandler Parsons such an appealing player at the small forward spot next to Nowitzki, as Parsons is capable of playing off of ball-handlers but also making plays himself. Deron Williams is perhaps the most scoring-minded point guard Nowitzki has played with in his career, and the German has had plenty of success teaming up with offensive combo guards like Jason Terry, Nick Van Exel, and Monta Ellis at various stages of his career. Wes Matthews will provide another post-up option for the Mavs at the shooting guard position, as well as excellent three-point shooting and terrific defense. Those three players alone are capable of scoring in the double-digits on a regular basis, and along with a bench full of shooters and some strong pick-and-roll centers, the Mavericks have more sources of offense on this roster than has been the case in some time.

But what might Nowitzki’s role look like this season? Where will he shoot from, and how will his skills be utilized? Those are questions for Carlisle to answer, but in general terms we can forecast that Nowitzki will be shooting plenty of jumpers this season. Basketball-Reference tracks shot distance for every player in the NBA, and according to their data Nowitzki’s average distance on field goal attempts last season was 16.9 feet, and it’s increased each season going back to 2009-10, when it was 13.7 feet.

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As Nowitzki’s volume of post-up attempts has decreased, his spot-up duties have increased. Last season, for example, he was Ellis’ and J.J. Barea’s favorite kick-out option on drives to the rim. The 7-footer ranked third in the NBA last season in total points on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per SportVU, and he finished second in the same category the year before. He led the NBA last season in catch-and-shoot attempts per game at 7.6, accounting for more than half of his field goal attempts.

Player Team Catch-and-Shoot Pts/gm Catch-and-Shoot FG% Catch-and-Shoot 3PT%
Kyle Korver ATL 8.51 50.1 50.4
J.J. Redick LAC 7.97 46.6 45.4
Dirk Nowitzki DAL 7.96 44.0 38.2
Klay Thompson GSW 7.95 44.9 46.5
Trevor Ariza HOU 6.25 36.3 36.4

His shooting ability helps Dallas in so many ways. Dirk’s gravity effect is capable of completely dictating opposing defenses, and that’s why surrounding him with potent scoring threats is so intriguing. In addition to Nowitzki, Dallas has three starters who can beat their man one-on-one, and that’s not taking into consideration the centers, each of whom brings his own offensive talents to the table.

One thing is likely to remain true, no matter how the rotation shakes out: Dallas will run the pick-and-roll as much (or more) than any team in the league. That was the case last season, and the season before, per Synergy Sports. With Williams and Barea at the helm and a host of spot-up shooters to space the floor, it’d make sense for Dallas to continue that trend. However, Matthews’ post-up ability, as well as some possible contributions from JaVale McGee in the post, gives the Mavs that dimension for defenses to worry about.

The good thing for the latest iteration of Nowitzki — Dirk 4.0, if you will — is that he fits in no matter what Dallas does. His spot-up shooting is a dangerous weapon in any offensive system, and as he’s shown numerous times in recent seasons, he’s still capable of producing in the post himself if the Mavs need a bucket in the fourth quarter. That one-legged fade isn’t going anywhere. Any question regarding the Mavericks offense this season will have nothing to do with Nowitzki, because he’s been maybe the surest thing the league has ever seen.