Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Next Evolution?

If there is one thing that Dirk Nowitzki has never been given enough credit for, it's how he's changed his game throughout his entire career. Entering the league as a skinny, shy teen with a beautiful jumper, Dirk learned the hard way about the physical and athletic nature of the NBA and how it is unmatched in any other form of basketball around the world.

He adjusted. He learned the NBA style, the pacing and realized he needed to spend hours and hours in the gym to condition and tweak holes. Paired with Don Nelson, Dirk flourished and truly "arrived" in the 2002-2003, in which he averaged 25.1 points, 9.9 rebounds (can we just changed that to 10?), a then career high of three assists and led the Mavs to the brink of the NBA finals, falling to Steve Ke...err the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Finals after he injured his knee and sat out the last two games.

But the game once again caught up to Dirk. Realizing that Dirk is mainly a jump shooter who likes to launch threes and mid-range jumpers from the high post, coaches started throwing wicked double teams and smaller athletic defenders who could keep up with Dirk's subpar handling and stay in front of him and still contest his jumper. Now, Dirk never experienced a "lull" because of this, because he is so good. In fact he's never shot under 45% from the field except his rookie season. But people watching could sense that people might be starting to figure out ways to at least manage Dirk and not let him dominate a game.

When Avery Johnson took over for the last 16 games in 2005, he knew Dirk could be even better. It helps that Dirk knew too. It was a radical transformation that not only Dirk pursued, but thrived in. Dirk utilized his best assets more efficiently: Less threes, more back to the basket and more free throws. In 2003-2004, Dirk averaged 5.5 free throw attempts per game. In 2005, he sky-rocketed to 9.1. He averaged one less three per game (a trend that continued till now.) Dirk had turned into everything people thought he wasn't: A tough-minded scorer that doesn't just rely on a jump shot to beat you. The culmination of this change is displayed in this beautiful, epic play during the Mavericks most magical season: The and-one to tie Game 7 against the Spurs in the 2006 playoffs.

Since then, Dirk has been at his usual pace: about 25 points, 8-9 rebounds and ridiculous shooting percentages (including the ultra rare 50 FG%-40 3PT%-90 FT% in 2007). The rebounding is declining, but that's a topic for another post. What I'm talking about with what is happening to Dirk this season could be another evolution of his game.

Dirk is 32. In NBA years, that's getting up there. Add in all the playoff games and international basketball and Dirk's body has taken a beating. Maybe that's why Dirk is averaging only 5.8 free throws per game, his lowest since 2004. Oddly enough, Dirk is technically taking less mid-range shots (16-23 feet) than last season (83. to 7.7) but remember, he's taking one less shot per game so the percentages differ. What's most interesting is that Dirk's mid-range shots are being assisted on a whopping 83.5% of the time. Overall, 65.1% of his shots are being assisted, a career high. If you watch how Dallas is running its offense this year, Dirk is now coming off screens at a higher rate, almost looking like a 7-foot Ray Allen. Dirk is being run off the baseline (thanks to Tyson Chandler screens) and is catching and shooting almost immediately, taking away much of the iso-heavy driven offense that we've been accustomed to seeing over the last five years.

It's an interesting wrinkle and Dirk is responding with ridiculous numbers, shooting over 55% from the field and 40% from three. I can't help but wonder if Dirk is utilizing the catch-and-shoot more for a couple of reasons: 1.) Tyson Chandler gets more involved in the offense, able to slip picks and be open for dunks/alley oops when teams close hard on Dirk's catch and 2.) Maybe Dirk is saving his body for the playoffs. After all, in last night's win versus Portland, we saw the Dirk we were accustomed to seeing in the last minutes of the game: Give him the ball, and get the hell out of the way and he'll score, come hell or high water.

(Advanced stats courtesy of


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