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The Forgotten Dominance of Dirk Nowitzki

In the Dirk Nowitzki edition of Aaron McGuire's 370-part Player Capsule series, McGuire turns an eye towards Dirk's electric 2011 Finals run and discusses the sadness of forgotten brilliance.

Dirk Nowitzki -- arguably the most famous fish ever.
Dirk Nowitzki -- arguably the most famous fish ever.

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here. I’m currently writing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA at my own blog, Gothic Ginobili. As part of a cross-posting effort, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version elsewhere. Today at SBNation Dallas, I'm posting a bit of an appreciation of my favorite Maverick ever, and how it's become strangely trendy to forget what he accomplished. I don't think that's reasonable, so let's allay that.

There's a lot to say about Dirk Nowitzki. You can talk about his game, and how he's the model for more than a few Jordanesque big-man scorers in the league today. You can talk about his effusive smile, and the joy that his fans can watch on a nightly basis when he takes the court -- very few players play the game with the kind of unfettered joy that Dirk does, and even if you aren't a huge fan, it's something that any NBA fan can appreciate. Some dislike him because they imagine him to be "soft", but that seems absurd to me -- Dirk plays through minor injuries as though they're nothing, and while people tend to forget about that because of his demeanor, that's more a testament to how he doesn't let pain and suffering impact his attitude. The only real difference between what Kobe does and what Dirk does (regarding injury) is that Kobe's injuries tend to be a bit worse, and he tends to ham it up a tiny bit for the naturally overreactive LA media -- Dirk rarely does that, so the national media rarely picks up on it.

If I had to pick a single aspect of his game to sum up why Dirk is a fantastic player, it'd be his shooting. Dirk is a great shooter. Not a good shooter, a GREAT shooter. People talk about Kevin Durant as though he's a better Dirk -- to me, if Durant is ever as good a shooter as Dirk is, it'll be a tremendous upset. Durant is a better scorer, in some ways, and he picks his spots remarkably well. There's no denying that. But he's in no way a better shooter. The key to me with Dirk is his field of vision. Good shooters can make an open shot, or shoot over people. Dirk can do that too. But at Dirk's best, he doesn't really need to do that -- some of Dirk's best moves are the ones where he rises from almost a turtle-crouch and releases the shot with nary a look at the basket, releasing in a jump as he springs towards the defender. That's Dirk's shot. There's a certain amount of trickery to it, a certain level of fooling the defender into thinking he's got Dirk covered. "He can't shoot without being able to see the basket -- that's crazy." Except that he can. And the defender doesn't really have Dirk covered at all -- the defender is powerless to stop the actual move when it happens. But defenders almost always buy it, and Dirk is happy to shoot it. He knows the dimensions of the court so well, understands how far the basket is from every point on the court as closely as an everyday Joe knows their own father. He can make those shots.

There's this fish -- it's a cichlid of the "Haplochromis Livingstoni" sort, and many people actually have it in their homes as a pet. There's something special about it, though. Many animals in the world are adept at "playing dead" -- essentially acting as though they're dead or paralyzed in self defense. Sharks, lizards, and possums alike do it. There are thousands of animals that take the tactic on, using temporary paralysis as a strategy to end the hunt. But there's a single fish (the aforementioned cichlid) that actually uses it as an offensive tactic. The fish will play dead at the bottom of the ocean, lying in wait as smaller fish come to eat it. Then, as the others prepare to feast, the fish springs into action and devours any scavenger that doesn't flee immediately. That's how Dirk treats defenders -- he'll cup his dribble, let a defender push him slightly off his position, and allow the defense to set a strong contest. Then he'll simply spring from his position of supposed weakness and make the shot anyway. And he does this in a way that wears defenders down. By the end of the game, most defenders are frustrated enough that they change their defensive strategy on Dirk, in ways that rarely work. It's part of what contributes to Dirk's brilliant fourth quarter numbers -- in a war of attrition between a defense and Dirk's shot, more often than not, the defense loses miserably.

• • •

Here's the thing, and the main point I'm trying to make about Dirk Nowitzki. As LeBron James chewed up the league in the 2012 playoffs, there was a lot of talk about how LeBron's playoff run was one of the best in the history of the league. I don't entirely disagree, because LeBron's run was incredible. But where I start to find fault is in the multiple exclusionary statements people threw around as the run concluded -- talking about how the Heat should've won it in 2011 too, or about how LeBron's run was the best since Jordan, or about how LeBron's effortless dominance hadn't been seen in decades. That's where I draw the line and say "stop." Because that's simply wrong. There have been two somewhat singularly dominant postseason runs in the last 10 years -- Tim Duncan in 2003 and Dirk in 2011. In other postseason runs, you've seen teams dominate on the back of multiple stars, or strong tertiary play, or incredible depth -- but Dirk and Duncan stand tall above the rest in terms of demonstrating singular dominance on teams devoid of other consistent scoring options. And that's really the key, with Dirk.

The 2011 Mavericks won the title behind a high-octane offense and a just-good-enough defense. And that offense was -- for all intents and purposes -- completely and utterly built around the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki. Really. Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion had incredible performances on defense, and bolstered that team on that end. But among 2011's 16 playoff teams, the Mavericks were ranked 8th in playoff defense -- they didn't really shut down teams during their run, and their defense was more "good enough" than overwhelming. What was overwhelming -- and what won them their title in the end -- was their incredible offense. And in terms of the offensive stars on that team, there was virtually nobody of note other than Dirk. He was the leading scorer during their playoff run, scoring 27.7 highly efficient points a night in the playoffs on a ridiculous 32% usage rate -- the second-leading scorer on that Mavericks team, Jason Terry, scored 17.5 a night on 24% usage.

In terms of the raw gap between the first and the second leading scorers on a title team, that ranks very highly. Since the turn of the century, only two teams sported a higher gap than the 10.2 points separating Dirk and Terry -- the 2003 Spurs (10.3 points between Duncan and Parker) and the 2009 Lakers (11.9 points between Kobe and Pau). In the case of Duncan, as I said before, that's one of the most impressive performances in and of itself. In the case of Kobe, Pau was the star big man -- he rebounded, played defense, and kept Dwight Howard in check. Neither 2011 Terry or 2003 Parker were responsible for any of that. So I submit to you again -- spend some time thinking about and appreciating what Dirk did. Because when you start to think about it, you start to realize how ridiculous it really was. Here we have a team that blistered the playoffs on offense, despite Dirk being their only generational talent on offense. He used 32% of the possessions for one of the greatest playoff offenses in league history, battling constant double teams and ridiculous defensive pressure. And he thrived in the role.

Again, people don't often remember this due to the (deserved) love we have for Tyson Chandler, but the 2011 Mavericks were first with a bullet with their playoff offense. They scored 112.9 points per 100 possessions in the 2011 postseason. They didn't do this -- like the Thunder, or the Lakers, or the 2012 Spurs -- with a surfeit of contributions and an overwhelming strategic masterwork. They did this through Dirk, Terry, a few decent three point shooters, and a big man who could finish if he had to. And somehow, on almost 30 unguardable points a night from Dirk and some chip-in performances from everyone else, this team completely and thoroughly dominated a postseason on the offensive end. We've got somewhat short memories, in sports -- we tend to find ourselves praising the most recent performance at the expense of the last few. It's trendy to call the most recent accomplishment the best, without any real consideration of the things that came before it. Well, step back a bit. Think about Dirk, and remember how ridiculous everything felt in 2011. When Shawn Marion complained in the 2011 offseason that the Mavericks were being disrespected, I partly agreed, but partly felt it was too soon to say. Now? I completely agree. We're barely one year out from Dirk's beautiful performance and seemingly everyone has forgotten how he made the league his own. It took a single year's performance from LeBron for everyone to declare James the greatest playoff performer since Jordan, completely overlooking the all-time great performances from Dirk, Duncan, and Kobe that separate the two.

• • •

So I have a simple ask of you, as a reader. Spend three minutes watching a highlight reel from 2011 -- this one is particularly good. Take a long look at Dirk -- that unguardable German machine -- and sup from the well of appreciation, if only for a few minutes. And realize, next time you watch the Mavericks, that Dirk is now 35 years old. He's slowly tumbling off his throne, and the cruelty of time will eventually sap from his game the very aspects that make it whole. But that's partly the beauty of 2011. We'll always have that -- Dirk will never again be the title-thirsty, ill-regarded Euro. He's a champion, and he won it with one of the greatest performances of all time. And though all reputation is ephemeral, while we've still the ability to appreciate players like Dirk and Duncan and Kobe, it'd probably do us well to step back a bit and refrain from burying them in favor of LeBron and Durant. Not until we absolutely have to. We can't remember everything, but we can remember a few things. I'd entreat you to make Dirk's 2011 run one of those things you simply don't forget.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.