Mav-Building, Part II:The Uniqueness Of Dirk
Novelty. Uniqueness. Creativity. These words are frequently cited as ideals worth pursuing but new research suggests that most people may not be inclined to readily accept the challenges that novelty presents. In an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, recent studies find that many people may have a subtle but powerful bias against creativity and novelty.
The studies' findings include:
• "creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable
• people dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical – tried and true
• objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it
• anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea"
I'd like to modify these findings a tad to fit the NBA. Unique players (such as Dirk) are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make some observers more likely to dismiss their potential impact.
Furthermore, people dismiss the potential of unique players in favor of those that are more traditional – tried and true (like a back-to-the-basket bruising power forward). Also, no matter how much evidence some people are provided with showing the validity of Dirk Nowitzki as an all-time great, before this season some people just refused to believe it.
Long before he became the Finals MVP, Dirk had amassed more than enough statistical evidence to justify his inclusion amongst the greatest players of all time. Still, he was unintelligibly dismissed as Dirk NoRingski and still carried the reputation as a ‘soft' player who couldn't get his team over the top in the playoffs.
We here at DallasBasketball.com have long championed the merits of The UberMan, but still the national attitude on Nowitizki seemed to be one of skepticism. Granted, the failures attributed to him were highly visible and fairly damning, but I'd argue that a significant portion of the overall resistance to Dirk was due to the novelty of his game and his persona in general.
In my previous article in this How They're Made series I attempted to show how the Creative Opportunism of the Mavs' front office allowed to the team to construct a championship roster despite being perennially in the Luxury Tax and picking in the latter third of the first round. We looked at the nuts and bolts of roster construction from a macrocosmic view, but now I'd like to turn our attention to one area of that graphic that doesn't seem to fit with the rest.
Indeed, I included the Dirk-for-Tractor Traylor (with apologies for omitting Pat Garrity) deal to illustrate how Dirk was the fulcrum about which all the other components of the roster moved. Furthermore, his skill set presented a unique challenge for the front office because of its novelty. How do you build a team around something that hasn't been seen before? There is no blueprint for that success.
Traditionally, NBA teams are constructed either inside-out or outside-in. A team acquires either a low-post scoring threat augmented with shooters on the outside or vice versa, giving a high-profile perimeter scorer some interior defenders/rebounders with scoring punch. But what to do with this?
When Dirk came along, he completely turned this model on its head and presented the Dallas Mavericks front office with the challenge of finding how best to construct a roster around his unique, but undeniable, talents. Indeed he was a strange amalgam of little-man skills housed in a big-man's body.
As we have long known, his game fits no traditional category. It is fitting that the fade away (the One-Legged Euro Lean-Back, as coined by our own Mike Fisher) is Dirk's signature move. It's a completely unorthodox shot that makes Dirk's upper body look like its going in a completely opposite direction of the lower extremities.
However, as un-guardable as it is, it's still a fade-away and effectively negates any potential Dirk would have to compete for an offensive rebound. This created a need for an active offensive center like Tyson Chandler to compensate for Dirk's absence.
For so long, it seemed the Mavs were constantly focused on finding a Robin for Dirk in the form of a perimeter player who could create his own shot. Because of Dirk's signature fade away, I would argue that finding active, athletic interior pieces like Chandler and Marion was just as crucial to finding a scorer on the wing. The Mavs' championship run this past June supports this assertion.
Aside from the challenge of finding complementary pieces to fit around Dirk, his game was completely unique in its own right. His first few seasons in the NBA were greeted with the equivalent of that confused head-tilted glance your dog gives you when you do something stupid.
He was a seven-footer without a great deal of traditional power forward skills and since he didn't quite fit the mold, he was immediately discredited as another soft European novelty. However, his game, like a financial investment, took some time to appreciate to its full value.
Dirk has a reputation for adding elements to his game each offseason, like a Swiss Army knife that keeps adding a new tool, and the peak of his unique skills was on display during Game 1 of last season's WCF against OKC -- the most efficient game in NBA history. Perhaps no single game more encapsulates the range of skills that Dirk posses after all these years.
In that tilt, Dirk scored 48 points on a ridiculously efficient 15 shots, most of which were mid-range post-ups, turn-arounds, and fade-aways while going a perfect 24-for-24 from the line.
Off the court Dirk remains a novelty as well. Kevin Durant has a reputation as a ‘humble superstar' but perhaps no one has been more humbled over his career than Nowitzki. If ever there was a time to gloat or call out ‘haters,'' after the Finals with the Larry O'Brien in one hand and the Finals MVP trophy in the other would have been that time. Instead, Dirk talked about how early failures caused him to work harder and praised the contributions of his teammates.
Contrast Dirk's gracious humility in victory to LeBron reminding "all those who was rootin' on me to fail" that his life is better than theirs.
Furthermore, the way Dirk handles his personal ‘brand' is unique among the other current superstars in today's NBA. Fish has argued convincingly, and correctly, that Dirk is not necessarily anti-endorsement, as some of us have proclaimed. Fine, but he's not so pro-endorsing his own brand that marketing ever makes it way into the narrative with him the way it does with other superstars. That in and of itself is refreshing and cause for some degree of celebration.
Someone once told me that winners aren't individuals who succeed all the time. Winners are individuals who know how to persevere in the face of past failure. Dirk has certainly endured his share of past failures and been discredited time and again by the traditional basketball establishment. The events that transpired this spring were a two-month-long validation of all the originality and quirkiness that is Nowitzki. In sports, nothing washes away the grime of the past like a champagne shower, and even if Dirk wouldn't say it then, I'll happily proclaim it now: this one was all about The Uberman.