All-Access Thursday: Welcome To The Dirk Show
Meet The New Dirk. Same As The Old Dirk: By drawing the two-time-defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers in a series, and then sending them home in four games, the Dallas Mavericks have forced the eye of the national media to turn their way. In turn, those eyes have been drawn to the centerpiece of the franchise: Dirk Nowitzki.
Though the reviews have been positive, we are also seeing the ignorance inherent in those who simply haven't been paying attention. It's not a comment on their intelligence or basketball acumen, but on where their attentions have rested.
In Dallas, we follow the Mavs and witness their ups and downs on a game-to-game basis. When the playoffs arrive, our focal point isn't necessarily on the names decorating the national marquee, but on the team and players we've stood beside and become invested in … and the same can be said for any market. Local fans pay closer attention to the local team than outsiders. Nothing wrong with that, it's just how things work.
Just as there's nothing inherently wrong with where people naturally focus their gaze, there's nothing wrong with the praise Dirk, or others (such as Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and JJ Barea … to name a few), is receiving, though many who've not had their attentions directed elsewhere may label it more than a tad late. This recognition can be a good thing, depending on your point of view … those who'd rather retain an under-the-radar or underdog status may disagree … despite the manner in which it may rub some local onlookers in the wrong way.
For those who haven't been paying attention, it's easy to understand that this may appear to be a "new" Dirk Nowitzki. For those who define a player by the success of team he's on, more of the same. But, is LeBron James a better player now that he's on the Heat, or is he simply the same player on a better team? Did David Robinson suddenly improve exponentially as a player once Tim Duncan was drafted, or did he simply gain access to the merits of contributing within the constructs of a higher quality roster?
We'll contend that this Dirk, this "new and improved" Dirk, is the same player we've come to love in the Dallas area … only the team he is playing on may be better than those surrounding him in the past.
To do this we're going to look at what this "new" Dirk is doing in comparison to the man playing the leading role in the Mavs' recent playoff losses; this includes a loss to Phoenix, to Miami in the Finals, the Golden State debacle, a loss to a Hornets, the Nuggets, and finally to the Spurs last year.
These make up the list of what most would label Dirk's largest failures, or the largest strikes being tallied to keep the Uberman from appearing so "uber" in the perceptions of many. First, we must note that this team doesn't represent the deepest a Dirk-led team has progressed in the playoffs, nor is it the first time they've gone through a defending champion to advance. It's only the most recent example of playoff success after a four year period that saw Dallas sent home in the first round three times.
To gauge the numbers that will come, here is what Dirk is averaging in the 2011 playoffs: 26.5 points, 49.7 field-goal percentage, 60 percent from 3-point distance, 8.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.7 turnovers.
A few things quickly jump out in those numbers. First may be the amazingly efficient conversion rate behind the 3-point line. This is impressive, but must be paired with the fact that he is taking only two attempts from deep per game … less than he's taken in any of these previous six series outside of the 1.2 per game he launched last year against the Spurs ... meaning, he isn't forcing the issue, but finding his attempts within the flow of the game or when the defense grants him ample space. The 60-percent is also a lower percentage than he hit last season, where he converted 62.5-percent of his chances behind the arc.
Next may be rebounding. At 8.4 per game, he is well beneath his career-playoff average of 10.6, and this represents his lowest pace in the series taken into account here, excluding the 8.2 he pulled down last season, and his lowest playoff average since the 8.1 he posted in his first trip to the postseason back in 2001. Perhaps more subtle, but equally significant, is the 2.7 turnovers, which ties his highest mark since the 2005 Phoenix series. Over this same period, his 0.5 blocks also represents a low … just a reminder for context, we are looking at playoff series lost from 2005 thru 2010 and then 2011 in its entirety.
Considering that this is the new-and-improved Nowitzki, you wouldn't expect to find lows or near lows (or highs in the case of turnovers) in rebounding, blocks and turnovers.
Moving solely to scoring, the numbers are falling right in line with what we've come to expect from Dirk. There's been no significant burst, nor has his shooting percentage seen a drastic increase, both seeming to contradict the idea that he has suddenly "arrived" at Superstar status. Rather, he's been there for some time. The struggles of the Golden State series are well chronicled, as are periodic miscues in the Heat series, but these are the outliers, not the mean.
Against Golden State and Miami respectively, Dirk averaged 19.7 and 22.8 points while shooting 38.3 and 39 percent from the floor. That labored shooting also impacted his attempts behind the arc, where he hit 21.1 and 25 percent of his tries. For two series, both that concluded in losses for his team, and both that came the last instance in which the NBA-world's eyes were trained in his direction, Dirk was a mere mortal.
However, both before and after those series, Dirk was unstoppable, lest we forget how he laid 50 on the Suns in the 2006 Western Conference Finals or how he forced Game 7 into overtime against the Spurs with a dramatic drive and finish as Manu Ginobili fouled him leading to a Mavs game and series victory. For those 2006 playoffs as a whole, Dirk averaged 27 points and 11.7 rebounds.
How did he do in the other series since 2005 that sent Dallas packing? Here are some basic numbers:
Phoenix Suns in 2005: 26.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 45.3 FG%, 37.5 3PT%.
New Orleans Hornets 2008: 26.8 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 47.3 FG%, 33.3 3PT%.
Denver Nuggets 2009: 34.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4 assists, 53.4 FG%, 38.5 3PT%.
San Antonio Spurs 2010: 26.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3 assists, 55.3 FG%, 62.5 3PT%.
What becomes quickly evident is that Dirk has been the "new" Dirk for some time. You may also notice the fact that this could be noted as a slightly off-year, statistically speaking.
Justifiably, our eyes won't let us believe that, as our eyes aren't confined to the restraints of basic numbers. Our eyes pull context into the equation, and in context, Dirk is playing on par with what is expected of, and what we've seen from, him in the past.
If Dirk is being Dirk, why is this team winning and returning to the Western Conference Finals as all of the others, outside of the 2006 run to the Finals, could push no further than the Conference Semi-Finals and fell in the first round three of the last four tries?
The reason is simple, and clear to those who've stayed long enough to both endure the heartbreaks and celebrate the victories: the supporting cast as a whole, including the team defense, had improved.
First, let's take a look at the defense and margin of victory in the playoffs.
Through 10 games, the numbers may be slightly slanted by having played the low-possession Portland Trailblazers, though one could argue this is countered by the vaunted attack of the Los Angeles Lakers faced in the second round, the 88.2 points allowed is by far the least Dallas has allowed in the postseason since 2005, and ranks them second of the 16 playoff teams, first among those still alive.
In contrast, the Mavs had allowed at least 102.5 points per game in four of the previous six postseasons, with the exceptions being last year's 93.3 against the Spurs, and the 95.7 they allowed on their way to the Finals in 2006. Perhaps not coincidently, the 12.8 turnovers ties with that 2006 squad for the second least averaged over this same period of time.
Impressively, Dallas is also carrying a positive-8.7 point differential through the first two rounds, easily their best in this span, with the only other positive number coming in 2006 when they won games by an average margin of four points, which is also the last time Dallas had the largest average margin of victory in the playoffs.
Including the defense, the supporting cast around Dirk is simply playing better than we've seen in the recent past … especially since the Finals run.
Again, turning back to only the playoff series that were lost since 2005, those that are most likely to be held up to support the notion that we are now seeing a "new" Dirk, to compare with what this 2011 team has done as a whole in the postseason (minus Nowitzki's numbers), we see: The rest of the Mavericks are shooting their highest efficiency as a unit (46.2 percent from the floor, 40.1 percent behind the arc), are easily handing out their most assists (19, previous high was 15.5), have the second lowest number of turnovers per game (9.6, lowest was 8.4 in 2008 Hornets series) and the bench production has leapt far beyond previous levels to 40.5 points per game (previous high was 35.6 in 2009 against the Nuggets … which was the only other instance over 30 in this sample).
To compliment these numbers, Dirk is currently contributing 27.3 percent of the teams scoring in the playoffs, his lowest percentage since the Golden State series.
When taking into account all of the numbers, the fact is that this "new-and-improved" Dirk is actually just the "same ol'" Dirk we've known for some time. He isn't breaking any new barriers or stepping up his game to previously untapped levels. He's just being The UberMan. The primary difference so far is that he has finally been granted his opportunity to be himself against a team in the spotlight, the Lakers, and is no longer essentially going it alone.
Rather than being the Mavs, he is simply a leader on the Mavs. This is still his team, even if the leadership roles are split between his production, maestro Jason Kidd's BBIQ, Tyson Chandler's emotional orchestration, and Jason Terry's unbound optimism and energy.
It's not beyond the boundaries of reason to assert that Dirk has grown as a player; he certainly has. Experience has taught him how to react to a plethora of situations, just as time teaches us all its lessons. Yet, the idea that Dirk is suddenly a vastly superior version of himself is supremely misguided. Those suddenly chiming in with his superstar status aren't wrong, they're only late.
We're not seeing a Nowitzki revolution, rather only the arc of his evolution. There is no denying he is better, but it's within the boundaries of what he had already become. The majority of the NBA world needed Charles Barkley to ring the bell and point the spotlight. They needed the Lakers to define a focal point of adversity, and they've responded to what they've seen … but, it's not new. Nowitzki isn't "suddenly'' tough. He's been tough. He hasn't gone from being a "very good player" to a "superstar." He took that step years ago, a full decade ago.
No, the difference is that people are now paying attention. They are now willing to accept what they see on the court. Dirk is Dirk and will be Dirk. He's stood before us for some time; some only needed to pry their lids open, or have someone or something else do it for them. He's won them over the same way he punishes defenders; with persistence and consistency.
For those just tuning in, welcome and enjoy the show. For those who've already taken their seats, greet the newcomers with a smile and a knowing nod. Nothing's been taken away, let's just hope we're all given an extended opportunity to continue taking and sharing in the joy from here on out.
Watching and Waiting: There's not much for the Mavs to do right now besides practice while they wait to find out who their opponent in the Western Conference Finals will be. Still, with all that time to kill, it's never too early to start thinking about how Dallas may matchup with potential adversaries, the Grizzlies and the Thunder.
No matter who is the victor of those two teams, the Mavericks will have age and experience on their side. Conversely, Memphis or Oklahoma City will have youth and energy in their favor. As big an advantage as it may sound, coach Rick Carlisle isn't banking on veteran leadership to decide the series.
"In many ways, all that stuff is out the window when you get to this point," Carlisle said. "Whichever team gets to the third round will have won two rounds. They will be in a groove and they will have a lot of confidence."
There certainly is some merit to that diplomatic response from Carlisle. However, mark us down for wanting the ball in Jason Kidd's hands the last five minutes of a game as opposed to, say, Mike Conley, Jr.
Just Waiting, Not So Much Watching: When a team closes out a series early and finds some extra time to rest of their hands, the debate of Rest vs. Rust always arises. Well, when you're a team as long in the tooth as the Mavs, that debate fades away because you take the rest when you can get it.
This just in: Jason Kidd is a veteran NBA player. He knows what to expect around every possible basketball related turn. With all this time on his hands though, J-Kidd must be studying every move of his possible opponents and watching each second of the playoffs, right?
"I didn't (watch last night)," Kidd said. "I've watched enough basketball, so it's time to relax and watch a couple movies." He'll watch his movie, you watch ours.
Mavsellaneous: Big Wood with the Quote of the Day as he exited the court: "If anybody needs me, i'm gonna be working a big, big case for the FBI." Whoever guesses the movie gets a cookie ... Nowitzki was named All-NBA Second Team. This is the 11th consecutive season Nowitzki has been named All-NBA. "It is always an honor to make the All-NBA Team," Nowitzki said. "It is a great individual honor, but it means more to me that it allows me to represent the Mavericks organization." Nowitzki was the NBA's 10th leading scorer (23.0 ppg) and shot a career-high 51.7 percent from the field during the regular season. The first-teamers: LeBron James, Miami; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Dwight Howard, Orlando; Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers; and Derrick Rose, Chicago. The second-teamers, in order of votes received: Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas; Amar'e Stoudemire, New York; Dwyane Wade, Miami; Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City.
The Final Word: JJ Barea may have to watch his step in the point guard pecking order. After finishing the coaching duty of helping Shawn Marion with free throws, Rick tosses his forward a nice little alley-oop:
Okay, it's not the Harlem Globetrotters, but it's not too shabby, either.