Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Morphing Maverick?

Much has been made of Dirk Nowitzki's apparent transformation that led to his amazing play in leading the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA championship.  He seemingly learned how to win this year, to harness his talents and become a clutch performer in the playoffs.  A vocal leader with a "take the game by the balls" approach had emerged from past individual failures more hardened than ever, and it all came together in 2011.  Championship.  This must have been the final evolutionary stage of the Morphing Maverick, the one who could finally lead his team to a title, correct?

 Maybe, maybe not.  

Image Via Wikipedia
 Long before Dirk Nowitzki won NBA Finals MVP and chugged some Ace of Spades, he was a lanky 7-footer from Germany with a too-quick first step for a 7-footer who was going to revolutionize what a 7-footer acted as on an NBA team.   

When he first reached All-Star status, he was a power forward with elite 3-point shooting who could create a look over any defender- and I must say, a dream to play with in NBA Live 2004.  However, he was stuck on poorly constructed teams that focused too much on offense and too little on defense.  (Seriously, they stacked Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison around their jump-shooting superstar big man in the frontcourt!)

That all changed when Steve Nash left, Avery Johnson brought defense and Dirk started concentrating his game inside the arc.  Suddenly, the Mavericks were legitimate contenders, able to play multiple styles and win traditional playoff games by valuing every possession.  Yet, playoff failure repeated in 2006 and 2007.  Dallas didn't have a secondary scorer to help Nowitzki  against Miami, and their defense had no answer for Dwyane Wade while inexplicably triple-teaming a Shaquille O'Neal who hadn't yet proved he could dismantle their interior defense.  Against Golden State, Nowitzki's former coach Don Nelson sent so many defenders to fluster him that it looked like he was being defended by- warning, spoiler alert!- the Super 8 monster.  Nowitzki the 7-footer hadn't yet learned how to take advantage of his height when defended by small forwards in the midpost, Dirk V.2007's fatal flaw.  

What is the point of being that tall- of having that immense advantage- when it can be used against you?

However, Dirk did work, and since then, that defensive blueprint hasn't phased him one bit come playoff time.  A swarming defense became a failing strategy against Nowitzki.  He torched New Orleans for 26.8 ppg on almost 59 percent true shooting in 2008.  He averaged 4 assists and 2 turnover per game.  He added 12 rebounds per contest.

In 2009 against the Spurs and the Nuggets, he dropped 26.8 ppg on 63.5 percent true shooting.  In 2010, he put up 26.7 ppg on over 64 percent true shooting against the Spurs.  This past year, he averaged 27.7 ppg on 60.9 percent true shooting, with lesser rebounding and passing numbers than in past playoff years.

Where exactly did he improve this year?  Well, he marginally improved his sense of timing and court awareness (though he never lacked in court awareness anyway).  Other than that, he's the same player he's been for the past four years: a championship-caliber offensive Constant.   

Dirk Nowitzki, like most great players, morphed into a champion long before he won a championship.      

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