Dirk Nowitzki – Perpetually Underrated
After last season, many questioned whether age was finally taking its toll on Dirk Nowitzki. In 2014, as a 35 year old in what are supposed to be his twilight years, Nowitzki has silenced the notion that he’s taken a step back, and is putting up elite numbers as the primary offensive option for the Mavericks. The title for “best power forward in the league” has been hotly contested thus far — with media attention strictly centered on LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Kevin Love – and there’s been little to no mention of Nowitzki in the discussion, which is beyond egregious given his current production.
Nowitzki is scoring roughly 22 points per game (PPG) as of right now, placing him twelfth in the league, and making him the only player in his thirties scoring at a top-twenty pace. If put into a historical perspective, this is simply absurd. Only five other players have scored 20 PPG or more after turning thirty-five, and the last players to do so were Michael Jordan and Karl Malone in ’01-‘02 – scoring 22.9 and 22.4 PPG, respectively. Delving deeper, Nowitzki is only a hair away from putting up 50-40-90, a rare feat, especially for someone turning thirty-five. The last person to do so at thirty-five or older was Steve Nash in ’09.
The blueprint to Nowitzki’s success lies, and always has, in his jumpshot – his ability to space the floor at unprecedented percentages allows him to singlehandedly topple even the stingiest of defenses, and this year is no different. This season, Nowitzki ranks first in mid-range field goal percentage at 48.5% among all qualified starters, and he’s first in three-point field goal percentage at 39% among qualified starting big men. The arrival of Jose Calderon has given Dallas a deadly duo, given his proficiency at running the pick ‘n roll/pop, and his ability to find wide open looks for Nowitzki at mid-range and behind the arc. Nowitzki can still create his own shot as he utilizes his nearly unguardable, iconic post fadeaway to great success. According to mySynergy, Nowitzki’s spending 33.4% of his possessions in the post, and is scoring at a rate of 1.09 points per possession (also known as “PPP” – used to measure how efficiently a player scores with the possessions he uses), which puts him at seventh in the league in post efficiency. His 59.2% True Shooting Percentage (also known as “TS%” – used to measure player shooting/offensive efficiency) is five percentage points higher than that of the average power-forward, and is ranked 17th among qualifying players with 1000 minutes or more. For comparison’s sake, Blake Griffin (58.2% TS%), Anthony Davis (58% TS%), and LaMarcus Aldridge (51.7% TS%), three players in consideration for best power-forward in the league, have lower True Shooting percentages than Nowitzki. His ability to draw fouls is one of the focal points of his game, as well – he’s one of the best free-throw shooters in the game. Nowitzki’s free throw attempts have decreased as he’s aged, but he’s still drawing contact at above-average levels. Even at the age of 35, Dirk Nowitzki is one of the most potent and efficient offensive threats in the game – utilizing fadeways, three-pointers, pick ‘n pops, drawing fouls, and finishing at the rim to carry Dallas’s offense like he’s done for years.
Nowitzki’s defense has always been criticized since he’s been in the league (unfairly, since he was an above-average defender in his prime, but I digress), but this season he’s been more than adequate. Even though Dallas has one of the worst defenses in the league, little of that has to do with Nowitzki – who isn’t a defensive anchor by any means, but was thrust into the role due to lack of depth. Dallas’s lack of a consistent center has Carlisle relying heavily on Nowitzki. Even though he lacks the athleticism and quickness that many steadfast defenders rely on, Nowitzki is still a long, big body, with crafty hands – all of which allows him to guard players one-on-one and in the post effectively by interrupting their shots with his length (ranked 4th in the league in defending the ISO, and 27th in defending the post). He’s also an incredibly cerebral defender, relying heavily on his instincts, scouting reports, and basketball IQ to succeed on the defensive end.
The only black mark on Nowitzki’s performance thus far is his paltry rebounding numbers. His Total Rebounding Percentage is currently at 10.9% – the lowest of his career, and simply bad for a big man of his size. His penchant for playing on the perimeter could be the cause, but regardless, his offensive output is more than enough to mitigate his rebounding woes.
Perhaps the reason why Dirk Nowitzki is receiving a criminally small amount of media attention is due to the lack of exposure on the national arena, or maybe being deadly consistent with an unorthodox go-to move isn’t as attention-grabbing like it was in 2011, when he put up one of the best playoff performances of all-time. Either way, at an age where players are usually relegated to the bench as role players (if not out of the league), Nowitzki is still finding ways to remain among the elite and at the top of his game. His production merits, at the very least, consideration for the title of “best power-forward in the league,” and that’s statistically incontrovertible.