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.

Backpicks GOAT: #19 Steve Nash

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most efficient offenses in NBA history
  • All-time combination of passing, creating and scoring efficiency
  • Performs extremely well in non-box value metrics

Scouting Report

At his apex, Steve Nash was arguably the most aggressive attacker in NBA history. With the ball, he forced defenses to respond to his passing and scoring threats simultaneously; sleep on his scoring and he burned you with a bucket, respect his scoring and he burned you with a pass. And he was the most prolific passer in NBA history.

When Nash entered the league in 1997, he was merely a small-college kid with some NCAA Tournament allure. He backed up two legendary Phoenix point guards Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson, and by his second year was deployed in dual and sometimes triple-point lineups. After the ’98 season, he was sent to Dallas to serve as the full time starter, but he struggled with his health for his first two years as a Maverick.1

Nash played with all the same stylistic elements in those first few years — quick-triggered deadly shooting and aggressive passing — only as a shell of his future self. Here’s a play from 2000 where he frees up Michael Finley with a crafty hand-off:

Nash’s movement back then was disjointed and jerkier, but in 2001, his body held up, his quickness and agility improved and he erupted, zinging the prettiest fastballs since Magic Johnson:

Of course, Nash’s offense started with his threat to score. He would launch 3-pointers when given a modicum of space or attack defenders in vulnerable positions:

His shooting turned him into a deadly isolation threat. In tracking Nash, he attempted to score “on-ball” on about 20 plays per 100, using isolation or pick-and-roll.2 For perspective, that was more than Tim Duncan in my tracking (18 per 100), despite Duncan scoring far more overall than Nash. Nash was so rarely the finisher of an opportunity — especially in Phoenix — that his raw numbers undersold how strong he was at self-generating offense. But he was an MVP-level player because he combined a Jedi-like manipulation of defenses with pinpoint, Greg Maddux tosses:

Nash remained relatively healthy until 2004, when his back flared up again.3 He underwent another physical upgrade upon arriving in Phoenix, improving his conditioning and gait mechanics. By then, he possessed his full arsenal of Wayne Gretzky spins, lefty backhands and step-backs:

His passing exploded in Phoenix. With the freedom to play on the ball even more than he did in Dallas — and he was the most involved Maverick in Dallas — Nash’s passing graduated to a new level.4 He was always the master of the pocket pass, bounced from his hip to an eager roll-man:

But his interior and transition passing took on a life of its own. He would look for the smallest windows of opportunity and throw strikes nearly every time:

Nash delivered more quality passes, per possession, than anyone I’ve ever studied on film. In Dallas, he was already competing with the greatest passers in history, slinging a “good” or “great” pass on over 5 plays per 100. But in Phoenix, surrounded by better athletes and shooters that spaced the floor, Nash uncorked good passes on almost 9 percent of possessions! While Magic played in a time where there were fewer great passing opportunities, Nash’s wild forays into the paint created many of those small windows. If Magic exploited, Nash explored; he’d tug on defenses like a puppet master, waiting to see if big men would overplay his scoring while hoping help defenders would rotate to the wrong man.

Like a great quarterback, Nash didn’t complete every pass. Sometimes they came in too hot, and other times, the window was just too small:

Nash threw more problematic incompletions (or interceptions) like this than any player I’ve tracked, a natural tradeoff when gunning for so many high-leverage plays. Although the tradeoff was worth it; it’s unlikely any player in history created as many open shot opportunities for their teammates.

Defense, however, was another story; his physical tools left him shorthanded on that end and he was often hidden on the opponent’s weakest perimeter player. He had decently quick feet for much of his prime — a relic of his soccer-playing days — and was crafty enough to recognize sets and hedge in front of a screen, a common practice of his:

But even when he stayed in front of a good penetrator, his size still presented mismatch problems. Once Nash switches onto a big below, Dallas needs to send extra help and the Nets capitalize:

Nash’s biggest detriment, without question, was his size. He was simply too small to affect opposing shots, even when he played “good defense:”

His double-teams were less effective because of this, rarely able to bother post players or disrupt an offense:

Much like on offense, his defensive strength was his awareness. He was quite good at rotating to the right spot and positioning himself for charges, on or off the ball:

In my tracking, he forced 1.2 turnovers per 100 that weren’t counted by traditional scorekeeping methods. This is a small sample, but it’s reflective of his ability to make up for some of his defensive shortcomings with guile and basketball IQ. While his lack of verticality or physical strength curtailed the value of his team rotations,5 he could still check the boxes on a number of help plays, preventing teams from finding easy looks or minimizing their power plays. In the first clip below, he reads the weak side action and saves a layup, and in the second, he correctly funnels toward a good corner shooter and kills the possession:

Nash aged well, slowing down a touch in 2008, the first year of his prime that the offensive accelerator was not glued to the floor. Phoenix blew up its core that year, trading for Shaquille O’Neal, and Nash battled back soreness that bothered him during the ’05 and ’06 seasons. In 2010, he had his last high-quality year before turning in another two effective, but slower-moving seasons in Phoenix.

Impact Evaluation

Nash’s incredible passing and relentless creation spearheaded a plethora of historically great offenses. His diminutive stature limited his absolute value, but under the right conditions, he was one of history’s most valuable players; in Dallas, his impact numbers were positive but ordinary, yet in Phoenix, they were Herculean. This value is echoed by Nash’s box score metrics and deeper lineup-level analysis.

Nash arrived in Dallas for the lockout season of 1999 along with rookie Dirk Nowitzki (who played 20 minutes per game at age 20). While his presence coincided with an improved offense that jumped 4.7 points in relative efficiency, Nash’s role was ancillary, and he shouldered a pedestrian offensive load of 27.3 (50th percentile). However, when his health smoothed out in 2001 and he assumed command of the team, Dallas catapulted to a 54-win full-strength pace behind a +4.1 relative offensive rating (rORtg). Nash posted a 39.2 load (92nd percentile) that year, but Nowitzki’s burden hardly changed. Dirk’s efficacy took huge strides, as he improved his scoring rate by 19 percent on upper-echelon efficiency, but the machine ran through Nash.6

In Year Two of the prime Nash-Nowitzki show, Dallas ascended to a dynastic level on offense. The Mavs finished with the sixth-best rORtg in league history (+7.7), followed by the 16th-best in ’03 (+7.1) and then in ’04 became the only offense in NBA history 9 points better than league average for a full season (+9.2). Those numbers do require some mental curving; Dallas often played offensive-centric big men like Raef LaFrentz, and then in 2004 cheated their lineup entirely toward offense, playing Nowitzki at center full time and backing him up with the undersized Eduardo Najera or even (gasp!) Antoine Walker. As a result, the overall team performance declined behind a gossamery defense, slipping to 4.5 points worse than league average, in the 6th percentile historically.

That Mavericks four-year run of offense was the best in NBA history, averaging +7 efficiency during the stretch. The second best stretch? Nash’s Suns, from 2005 to 2008. His decade of offensive wizardry on two offense-first teams meant he played on the best offenses in NBA history through his career and a mind-boggling six of the 15 best “healthy” offenses ever. These attacks weren’t regular season frauds, either. The best four-year stretch for a playoff offense is held by Nash’s Suns, who were +10.7 in 51 playoff games between 2005 and 2008 (and his Dallas teams were in the top-10 too). Most importantly, all of this happened with  lineups shifting around him:

His coach during that stretch, Mike D’Antoni, is known for his point-guard friendly system, and a number of his lead guards manufactured career years under him, although the effect is quite small.7 D’Antoni’s Suns also skewed their lineups, sacrificing defense for offense by playing four wings alongside a power forward at center (Amare Stoudemire). But some of Nash’s most impressive team results were produced with traditional lineups.

In 2006, the Suns brought in Kurt Thomas to provide some muscle at center. In 50 games with Thomas, Phoenix was 3.6 points better than average on offense…and 3.4 points better on defense (6.6 SRS or 59-win pace). Nash guided Phoenix to a top-15 percent offense with a rotation of spot-up shooters (Raja Bell, James Jones and Eddie House) alongside Shawn Marion — who couldn’t create his own offense — a scorer who could also hit spot-up 3s (Leandro Barbosa) and a versatile post player (Boris Diaw).8 This echoed what happened in Dallas in 2001, when the Nash-Nowitzki-Finley trio paired with a traditional defensive center, Shawn Bradley, and crushed opponents by a league-best 17 points per 1009

Nash’s box stats compare favorably to the other modern offensive giants. Mathematically, his elite efficiency makes him one of the most valuable scorers ever. Using Jacob Goldstein’s method, Nash’s five-year run of volume and efficiency was the third most productive in NBA history, behind only Steph Curry and Michael Jordan. Per the scouting report, he could also ramp up his scoring when teams overplayed his passing: He tallied 25-point games nearly a quarter of the time during his Phoenix postseasons. And of course, Nash was the creation king:

Nash’s impact footprint extends beyond these team trends and Phoenix’s enormous single-season turnaround in 2005. His presence in the lineup correlated heavily with his team’s success, ranking in the top-10 in both WOWY and regressed game-level data. At the lineup level, he’s second in the Databall era in scaled offensive adjusted plus-minus (APM), behind only LeBron James. And his best scaled (overall) APM seasons are in the 99th percentile historically.

However, Nash’s situational value clearly changed from Dallas to Phoenix, as multiple APM methodologies demonstrate marginal impact in Dallas and seismic correlations in Phoenix. Improved health and the freedom-of-movement rule change were both factors, but I view these competing measurements as a classic case of fit. Similar to LeBron and Wade, Nash’s style of play created some diminishing returns. Unlike LeBron or Wade, Nash’s unheralded background and diminutive stature masked his poor fit in Dallas. Nash was more of a situational floor-raiser who could wash out in certain lineups next to ball-dominant scorers; he wasn’t as versatile as someone like LeBron, so pairing him with other centerpieces didn’t automatically supercharge such teams.10

He was also a victim of the “anchoring” effect discussed in Thinking Basketball. While his conditioning and game improved in Phoenix, many had a hard time believing he was so good because the Dallas years took place first. As a Mav, he was the fourth-best scorer on a three-headed team in an era when pundits underrated efficiency and creation, and severely underrated fit. Don Nelson hoarded offensive firepower in addition to owning a centerpiece in Dirk, so replacing Nash with a moderate creator (Jason Terry) left the offense in healthy condition. If time ran in reverse, talking-heads would have been trying to explain why Dallas’s MVPs could merely match what they did alone when they “finally” teamed up in 2004.

He’s also been widely panned for his defense, but, as discussed in the scouting report, he provided value with good rotations and by forcing more turnovers than his steals per game suggest. Point guard defense is rarely game-changing, and Nash’s D was further muted because he could hide on weaker offensive players in many situations; his defensive APM was right around (or even slightly above) average in five seasons between 2001-11. Based on all of this, I consider Nash a shade below average on defense in Phoenix and slightly worse in his Dallas days.

While he was able to log valuable seasons well into his mid-30s, Nash took a few years to hit his stride at the start of his career. By my valuations, he still racked up 11 All-NBA campaigns and five solid MVP-level seasons. Between his historically good shooting and passing, and the data suggesting nearly unrivaled value in Phoenix, I wonder if I’m underselling Nash’s peak. If I penalize him slightly less for poor fit, I’m still not sure he could crack the prestigious top-18, but I’m also not comfortable shaving too much more off his apex (which bounds him in the low 20s). With one of the five or six greatest offensive peaks ever, Nash lands at No. 19.