Backpicks GOAT: #18 Dirk Nowitzki

Key Stats and Trends

  • Elite scoring and spacing led excellent offenses
  • Lacked passing/creation, more of a finisher and isolationist in early years
  • Good longevity, but defensive shortcomings prevented him from all-time peak

Scouting Report

In his heyday, Dirk Nowitzki was a scoring machine, an oversized kobold that haunted defenses with spinning fadeaways and one-legged parabolas. Dirk was never an explosive athlete, but he moved well for a 7-footer and was quick enough to burn big men when he entered the league:

He up-faked religiously, pumping defenders out of his path for an easier look or a rumbling drive:

He excelled at drawing fouls and accentuating contact, earning plenty of free throws from jumpers:

But of course, Dirk’s bailiwick was his potpourri of high-post moves, twisting, fading and shooting over traumatized defenders for years:

These moves were basically impervious to defense, particularly after Nowitzki improved his lower body strength and grew comfortable with counters. No account of his scoring would be complete without acknowledging his world-class spot-up shooting and patented one-legged fade that he began torturing defenders with in 2009:

From 2001 to 2004, when Dirk played alongside BFF Steve Nash, he was more of a finisher, benefitting from long 2s or 3s created by his teammates. In 2004, he launched over 6 triples per 100 and 67 percent of his 2-pointers were assisted. In sampling Dirk’s games from that period, about 20 percent of his field goals were created by a teammate, usually Nash.1

Without Nash, Dirk’s role changed. In 2005, he was on-ball more, initiating pick-and-rolls and receiving more isolation touches. His rate of 3-pointers dropped, his 2-point field goals were assisted only 40-something percent of the time and his field goals from creation were cut in half. His game was similar, but his responsibilities expanded.

Nowitzki’s passing, on the other hand, was problematic. He lacked vision and often missed easy opportunities for teammates:

Occasionally, he saw some of these obvious passes, but the extra beat it took him to find them turned a good pass into a questionable one:

He also struggled with passing out of double-teams, opting for first-level kickouts to the closest teammate. His attempts at skip passes or diagonals were often slow floaters or missed the mark:

Although he became a more comfortable passer in 2006, Nowitzki’s rate of “good” passes is the lowest of any modern offensive hub I’ve scored, completing just one every 122 possessions while throwing twice as many problematic passes. He was a willing distributor, quickly tossing the extra pass to an open shooter, but he was an extremely limited one. This is the best pass he made in over 700 possessions of tracking for this series:

Dirk offset some of his tunnel vision by spacing the floor (opening the lane for teammates to attack by stretching interior defenders) and by creating shots with his off-ball movement. This kind of action happened a handful of times in my sampling — notice the two Heat defenders who cling to Dirk, leaving the corner 3 open:

Alongside Nash, Nowitzki almost never created shots for teammates, tallying an anemic 1.2 creations per 100 between 2001 and 2004 in my sampling. When he was given primacy, his rates were more inline with his Box Creation estimates, and perhaps even slightly underrated during his best offensive years (2008-2011). Dirk’s low-risk passing and limited vision also suppressed his turnover rates, which were historically low.2

His poor awareness impacted his defense too. While the great paint defenders seem to have eyes in the back of their head, Nowitzki had to work to relocate his man or identify a threat:3

Despite standing 7-feet tall, he generally lacked shot-blocking and was not a strong rim protector. Here’s a transition play that lacks awareness — he should be closer to the ball and isn’t aware of the threat flying toward the hoop:

Compared to a number of impact defenders, Nowitzki’s lack of speed stands out. Great big men eat up space with long strides and quick reactions, but Dirk couldn’t cover lots of ground easily. There’s a relationship between shot accuracy and closeout distance, and notice how much room Dirk’s man has to release a simple foul line jumper in the first clip below. In the second, he baby-steps back toward the action but arrives late:

He was quite upright on defense, keeping a high center of gravity that made change of direction difficult. This, combined with mediocre awareness, meant that it was hard for him to string together multiple reactions. In the next clip, he uses his length to deter a shot nicely after sticking with a perimeter driver, but he (again) stops after the first action, taking his typical beat to reassess the situation:

He was never a good rim protector either, particular against bigs. In the play below, he makes a nice reaction to the pass, but is barely a prop against David Robinson.

While Dirk sometimes struggled with rotations, he put himself in better defensive positions as his prime unfolded, deterring some action or occasionally drawing offensive fouls.4 He even borrowed Karl Malone’s slap down technique:

While his man defense was often marginal, Nowitzki racked up a good deal of strong help plays during my tracking. However, this was offset by slow rotations and a high error rate (2.0 per 100) that would land him in the bottom 20 percent of players.5 His saving grace was above-average defensive rebounding, posting five relative rebounding rates above the 75th percentile, peaking at the 87th percentile in 2003 (+10.8 percent).

By the late 2000s, Dirk’s added lower body strength helped him bang for position when defending the post. Here’s a sturdier and slightly wiser Nowitzki stitching together a strong defensive trip against the skilled Pau Gasol in 2011 — notice how far out he pushes Gasol off the block:

In summary, Dirk’s prime years began in 2001 and he upgraded by 2003. He steadily polished his game during his prime, cresting at the turn of the decade. Even his defensive rotations and reactions improved by the end of the 2000s, despite his mobility slowly declining. He was still an offensive weapon in 2014, his 16th season, before age chipped away at his efficacy in the last few years.

Impact Evaluation

Dallas rose to contention as Nowitzki developed, then fell back to earth as he left his prime. His early numbers were boosted by Nash, but his expanding repertoire helped them contend through the heart of his prime. From 2005-12, Dirk was the driving force behind a number of excellent offenses while his non-box metrics were outstanding. But some of his value-measurements were likely enhanced by smart roster construction that shored up his defensive and passing blemishes.

Nowitzki became a starter in his second season before breaking out in Year Three with Nash (2001). Those Mavs were offensive powerhouses, particularly in the seasons where Dirk played center (’02 and ’04). In 2005, Nash departed to the desert, replaced by Jason Terry as part of a major lineup overhaul; Erick Dampier, a much needed interior defender, joined the fray and a more defensively-inclined wing, Josh Howard, increased his minutes in his sophomore season.

With Dirk as the lone centerpiece, Dallas produced a stellar relative efficiency of +4.2 on offense (rORtg), in the top decile historically. Then in 2006, the Mavs posted a top-50 offense of all-time (+5.6 rORtg). Terry played well, adding an outside threat who could also create shots for teammates. More importantly, Dallas’s defense improved by 6.5 points with its new personnel in 2005, the 13th-largest defensive jump since the shot clock (in 1955). The Mavs defense peaked in 2007, with two shot-blocking centers (Dampier and DeSagana Diop), a rotation of long athletic wings (Howard and Marquise Daniels) and a defensive specialist (Adrian Griffin).

Meanwhile, Dirk’s scoring provided a hub that was difficult to defend. He was a pseudo-wing on offense during that period, functionally (and statistically) similar to Paul Pierce, operating from the high post where both could face or drive.6 Nowitzki separated himself with great ball security, and as a bonus, opened the lane by dragging an interior defender away from the hoop. (The tradeoff was a guard-like offensive rebounding rate of 4 percent from 2004-10, which falls in the 40th percentile since 1978.)

Dirk is one of 22 players since the merger to average 27 points per 75 possessions over a three-year period (2006-08), and of those players, he was a beacon of efficiency, posting a relative true shooting mark (rTS) that was eighth-best, and an adjusted turnover percentage of just 7.2 percent (second only to Tracy McGrady of that group). Whatever he gave up in passing or creation he often made-up for with spacing and efficiency.

However, his success didn’t always translate into the postseason; in the years immediately following Nash’s departure, Nowitzki’s playoff numbers dropped severely, likely caused by his newly expanded role. Below, I’ve plotted his three-year rolling averages in the postseason and regular season — notice the 2007 nadir from his first 42 playoff games post-Nash:7

It took a few seasons, but those upgrades to his game mentioned in the scouting report — improved lower-body strength, expanded scoring moves and smarter passing reads — made him a more difficult cover against stingier playoff defenses after 2008. Since he played more like a wing, here’s how Nowitzki compares to other great modern perimeter talents in the Big 4 box dimensions at his postseason peak (2009-11):

From ’08 to ’12, Dirk’s postseason excellence helped Dallas engineer a playoff offense that was 6.1 points better than opponents, the 13th-best unique five-year run in history.8 Dirk’s scoring sidekick, Jason Terry, increased his playoff efficiency slightly in those years while maintaining a steady scoring rate, including a huge 2011 postseason when he averaged 22.3 points per 75 on +6.3 percent rTS.

Nowitzki fared well with defensive lineups around him. Pairing his floor-spacing and respectable defensive rebounding with rim protectors and capable perimeter defenders allowed Dallas to create some separation on defense while maintaining strong offenses. They never struck lightning in a bottle during his decade-plus prime, but the ’03 and ’11 teams nearly crossed the 8-SRS mark when healthy, and four other full-strength squads weren’t too far behind:

From 2002 to 2010, he missed 26 games in which the Mavs win-pace was nearly identical without him. Otherwise, his impact metrics were phenomenal: In 2011, he missed eight games and the team fell apart without him. He’s 14th all time in WOWYR and one of the best players of the Databall era in adjusted plus-minus (APM).9 His five-year peak from that scaled offensive APM set is 11th, and he even has some strong positive years on defense using the same data.

I do think Nowitzki benefitted from playing for such a progressive franchise. His first coach, Don Nelson, was an all-time schemer, partial to quirky offensive lineups, and his second, Rick Carlisle, has been one of the NBA’s best for years. The organization was a pioneer in analytics and it’s no surprise then that they filled their roster with talented role-players over the years like the Spurs, building around Nowitzki at each pivot point.

All of that gives Dirk a slightly sexier statistical profile than his film study suggests. He’s an all-time level scorer and shooter, but his passing and defense — he occupies one of the positions reserved for valuable interior defenders — limit his ceiling.10 I struggle with quantifying his defense; it’s clearly near neutral, and I credit him as slightly positive at his best. If anything, I’m more open to downgrading his defense, as I have hard time seeing how he would be a plus-defender in most situations.

With that said, Nowitzki boasted an MVP-worthy peak and is a longevity giant, clocking in with a dozen All-NBA years and eight seasons of weak-MVP quality in my estimation. He’s comfortably ahead of Nash (19th) and neck-and-neck with West (17th), but this group of players is so close together that an argument can be made for moving Dirk up as high as 14th with merely a small adjustment in his prime valuations. When push comes to shove, I have a hard time giving him that bump, so he falls at the back of the pack at No. 18.

  1. In my 2010-11 tracking study, this would rank in the 73rd percentile among most helped players (minimum of 500 possessions). In that study, a more self-generating Dirk had only 5 percent of his field goals created by teammates (in 2,296 possessions), down in the 20th percentile.
  2. From 2002-13, all of Nowitzki’s adjusted turnover rates were between the 92nd and 98th percentile for players in the top half of offensive load historically (27.1 or higher).
  3. The second video below demonstrates the variability in something like defensive adjusted plus-minus. Dirk’s backline hesitation isn’t a problem if Michael Finley (No. 4) reads the play and slides over, and Dirk isn’t put in that position if Marquise Daniels (No. 6) doesn’t call for a switch. Yet a great big can cover those same mistakes. The samples are small enough to muddy the data — a few occurrences every 100 possessions.
  4. His rate of offensive fouls draw was still fairly low, landing between the 26th and 51st percentile in every season from 2006-12, except for 2011, when he drew almost none. Data from nbadataminer.com
  5. This is consistent with his 2010-11 tracking results, in which he finished in the bottom 10 percent of the league at 2.3 errors per 100.
  6. Their Big 3 box components — points per 75, rTS and Box Creation, respectively — were incredibly similar; over three-year regular season peaks, Dirk (’06-08) averaged 27.4, +5.4 percent and 6.7 creations per 100 while Pierce (’05-’07) averaged 25.4, +4.4 percent and 7.7 creations per 100.
  7. Interestingly, the Dallas playoff offenses were still fantastic in these years, about 7 points better than opposing defenses. Since Dirk’s load dropped, I view this as evidence that he was surrounded by strong offensive talent while crediting his spacing and gravity for making this possible.
  8. “Unique” seasons are the best five-year stretches without any overlapping seasons. For instance, the best stretch for Dallas was from 2008-12, thus the 2007-11 stretch is excluded because it shares seasons with the ’08-12 period.
  9. Other game-level regressions think he had star-like impact too, with an average value of +6.1 in these three studies, behind only 13 players on this top-40 list.
  10. Among the top-20 players on this list, Dirk is one of five to never play on an 8-SRS team during his prime.