Top 50: Dirk Nowitzki, no. 21

by October 08, 2013

by Jay Wallis / @Jay Wallis

It was the summer of new for the Mavs starting power forward.

Dirk gained another new pair of guards and a new center in his starting lineup. Dirk appeared in a new embarrassing singing performance. Dirk made a new commercial spoof. Dirk became a new father of a baby girl.

As the Mavs move forward with “Plan B,” though, there won’t be a new “No. 1 Option.” Mark Cuban has made it clear: his 11-time All-Star won’t be going anywhere unless he decides to do so. And Dirk has made it clear: The town that took him in as a young 20-year-old foreigner will be the town that sees him out of the League.

So, no matter whether or not you think the Mavs should trade Dirk or attempt to tank, this team is here to compete for the ’13-14 NBA season. And Dirk will be expected to play at a level that takes them into May basketball.

Last season, Dirk averaged 17.3 points—his lowest number since his rookie year—on 47.1 percent shooting to go along with 6.8 rebounds. This reduced production was in large part due to the first 27 games he missed as he recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery. It took him some time to get back into his groove, which he did find later in the season.

During a 23-game stretch in February and March in which the Mavs went 14-9, Dirk averaged 20.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg while shooting 53.5 percent from the field, 51 percent from deep and 93.7 percent from the free throw line. He also added yet another enduring moment to his career during the stretch.

Looking at the season on a larger scale, his play at the end of the season clearly showed improvement.

Pre-All-Star break: 23 games, 15.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 42.3 FG%, 38.8 3PT%, 79.8 FT%

Post-All-Star break: 30 games, 18.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 50 FG%, 43.3 3PT%, 91.3 FT%

And even with this poor play to start, Dirk made at least 50 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet for the third straight season, a range players usually struggle with or avoid all together. When he gets the ball from midrange and his back is to the basket, his offensive repertoire becomes incomparable. He can spin baseline, back down the defender, pump fake to draw a foul or simply rise up without even squaring his shoulders to the basket.

Whether or not the beard played a role in this higher level of play is debatable; however, what we do know is Dirk can still be Dirk. From his humble demeanor to his relentless work habit, Dirk is a rare commodity—there are very few players in professional sports comparable to the 7-footer. The guy actually wants to take a pay cut this upcoming summer. Yeah, weird.

During his 15 offseasons, Dirk has always kept himself physically and mentally prepared for the grind of an 82-game season—with two exceptions. After he finally reached the top of the mountain and claimed his ring, he did something out of the ordinary—he took a breather from basketball. This led to a season in which he struggled to keep up and was forced to sit out a stretch of games to get back in shape. Following that season, he underwent surgery on his right knee after it had already been drained twice, keeping him out of a third of the season. Upon return, he never seemed to find the right chemistry with Darren Collison, OJ Mayo and the rest of his new roster.

These two exceptions happened the past two seasons.

So based on this recent history, it seems that Dirk should continue to decline, right?

Apparently, Dirk is doing everything he can to reverse that trend. How he’s preparing for the upcoming season is somewhat of a new experience compared to these past two offseasons. Along with playing five-on-five before training camp for the first time since the Mavs won the Championship, Dirk was one of the first Mavs to start training at the American Airlines Center. Nowitzki began his usual cardio and weight training in early July, but he also started getting extra time on the court to get as ready as possible for the season.

“He’s had a phenomenally conscientious summer with his workouts,” coach Carlisle said. “There are never any guarantees with health, but he’s done everything that you can do to put yourself in position to have a good year that way.”

To add to this physical training, Dirk continues to improve upon his game without letting his exceptional efficiency waver. Once solely a three-point flinger, he has constantly worked to understand angles, footwork and spacing to develop his game, never becoming content with his abilities. Because of his competitiveness and resolve to become a better and more complete player, Dirk will eventually go down as one of the most difficult players to guard.

Nowitzki has clearly shown a willingness to continue working on his shape and his game, feasibly turning back the clock just a little bit. He has the legitimate opportunity to remind everyone of the player who became the second player since 1991 to score over 40 points with 15 or fewer field-goal attempts in a playoff game when he racked up 48 points on 15 attempts against the Thunder. He can remind people of the player who led the last team to beat the Miami Heat in the Playoffs. (All of this happened just two calendar years ago.)

His new point guard will play a large part in deciding just how close he can get to this past form. From Steve Nash to Jason Kidd, Dirk has worked well when paired up with a pass-first point guard who knows how to run an offense and where to get him the ball. There’s no reason to think Jose Calderon can’t be exactly that for the Mavs and for Dirk. After being traded from the Raptors to the Pistons, Calderon continued to rely on his strengths, leading the League in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.1) and three-point shooting (.461). Calderon might be on the downhill side of his career, but being in a similar place didn’t stop Jason Kidd from helping take Dirk’s game to another level.

(The glaring defensive concern for this team is a discussion for another time…but if anything derails the Mavs this upcoming season, it will be their defense or lack there of.)

After positions are filled by the West’s elite six teams (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors, Rockets), the last two playoff spots are up for grabs. The Mavs, Blazers, Lakers and Timberwolves all have a solid chance to make the cut, pending any long-term injury bugs. How do the Mavs grab one of these spots?

Dirk. As much as Cuban wants to talk about Monta Ellis taking some of the pressure off Dirk’s shoulders or Samuel Dalembert becoming an interior force, this season is all about Dirk and his team. They will go as he goes.

If he becomes the enforcer once again that consistently takes and makes shots most opposing coaches would be happy to see their defensive players force, this season will be a new story. That deceptive pump fake followed by an awkwardly smooth one-legged fadeaway can give Dirk a new chapter to his playoff career.

Last season didn’t go quite as planned for the Mavs leader. But once late October rolls around, it’s a brand new season for Daddy Dirk.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10
27 Josh Smith Hawks SF 5
26 Joakim Noah Bulls C 5
25 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 4
24 John Wall Wizards PG 9
23 Chris Bosh Heat C 3
22 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 5
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 4

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.