Mavs DB.com Essay: Dirk And That Death Knell
In the three before-Friday games after returning from a brief four-game hiatus taken to cure the ailments of age, to shake lose whatever hindered his knee, to recapture a level of conditioning that had eluded him thus far in this young season; Dirk Nowitzki averaged 9.3 points, 28.2 field-goal percentage, including 0-of-11 behind the arc and 8.3 rebounds. Hardly the production Dallas Mavericks fans have become so accustomed to.
It was like watching the sun sneak up the western horizon, seeing the moon shed the pale skin of night to roll off into space, or hearing a song from "Glee'' and thinking, "Hey, I could get into this." It scrapes as a direct contradiction to a known reality.
If you stretch his numbers out to a full season, on a per-minute basis The UberMan is averaging the least points since his second year in the league (1999-2000), his lowest field-goal percentage since his rookie season, the lowest 3-point percentage of his career, the lowest rebounding rate since his second season, and the least free-throw attempts since his second season.
Remove the context, and what you see isn't pretty. The raw dearth has left many in search of an answer, of a need to define "what's wrong with Dirk."
However, the world does not exist devoid of context.
This season carries with it a disruption to the force, a hiccup in the seasonal progression. The championship drive, followed by playing for Germany's national team, greatly extended last season. The lockout destroyed any sense of normalcy in the approach to this one, particularly as it came to a sudden conclusion immediately followed by the crammed schedule of a truncated preseason, minimal practice time and games stacked together. The standard methodology of preparation was sacrificed … and we're likely seeing the symptoms of that in a player both set in his ways with age and approach.
One tilt to the table could easily have led to the first domino falling. A conditioning regiment was missed, perhaps leading to legs being weaker than usual, leading to weight being carried differently, leading to a sore knee, causing a shift in focus during the limited time for refinement available, leading to a lack of rhythm attained, and so on.
It doesn't feel so unreasonable. The circumstances, the restrictions, of this season cannot be passed over. Beyond this season, one turns to where Dirk is in his career.
Jeff "Skin" Wade (a friend of DB.com and a basketball brain I truly respect) presented a well-reasoned, logical argument noting the decline of certain players, particularly Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, after hitting the 40,000-minute plateau (combining regular- and postseason totals). Again, on the surface, as much as it may defy our desires to see our hero's never slain by the thieving hands of time, it makes sense.
At this point, you're wondering when the cascade of doubt will come to a head. Yet, while that path must linger in the dark corners of the mind, in that place we accept as a way to lessen the hurt when it inevitably arrives, it's not one I'm ready to traverse just yet.
As fast as we may run, as tall as the walls we build around ourselves may be, time cares not for our interests … but even time must wait … must wait on itself. There's no preordained magic line in the sand, no defined coming moment when erosion overwhelms what stands.
Garnett and Duncan found the floor beneath them turn to an increasingly soft quicksand as they reached and then exceeded 40k minutes. It doesn't mean Dirk is destined to follow the precisely same timeline. The fact is only nine players listed as 7-foot or taller have exceeded 35,000 regular-season minutes (neither Duncan or Garnett are included, being listed at 6-11) and you can feel your heart sink when realizing that almost all outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began to show signs, often significant, of slippage around the 40k mark, which inherently comes as a player treads well into their 30s.
Stretching a bit further, if you include Garnett and Duncan at 6-11 in your comparison, why shy away from Karl Malone at 6-10? Malone played the same position as Dirk, though his body type has much less in common than a Garnett, he also kept his offensive relevance thanks in part to one of the greatest point guards of all time and the ability to drain a jump shot … and he had six elite seasons after reaching the 40k minute mark, as well as having competed in international basketball, though to a much lesser degree than Dirk.
Malone isn't a great comparison, but he is an example of a larger-framed player that endured the strain placed upon his body, including being 10-15 pounds heavier than Dirk, to continue playing at a high level long beyond the 40k minutes mark.
Garnett may be one of the best direct comparisons … if you look solely to body type. True, he has more range than most old-school centers or power forwards, a similarity to Dirk's game, but to deny the vastly different impact his style of play must have seems unfair. Thanks to the blessings of his vast athleticism, perhaps as well as the curse, each three-foot leap into the air had to land, each high-flying dunk closed with a drop to the hard court below, each soaring attempt to turn away an opponents' shot ended the same way … with his entire body weight slamming down on his feet, ankles and knees as gravity played the only game it knows how to.
Garnett has taken almost 2,000 more shots than Dirk, but 2,593 fewer 3-point attempts. He has almost 900 more blocks, 4,543 additional rebounds, with so many having been earned through interior wrestling, and the planting, pushing off and twisting of the legs (again, feet, ankles, knees) included therein … you can't possibly say no toll has been paid for these totals, without even addressing the fact that he's had major knee surgery.
Using Garnett to predict how Dirk's body will maintain feels akin to using Dirk's 3-point percentage to predict whether or not Garnett will make his next attempt behind the arc. Their basketball past is simply too different to directly compare the wear and tear because they have similar frames.
The very thing that has made Nowitzki so unique (no, not as a dancer!) is the precise characteristic that may make predicting his inevitable decline nearly impossible. Outside of a free-throw attempt, what is the least taxing play on the body you can think of, particularly for a player who doesn't rely on gaining space, height, by leaping on his deep shot attempts? What play rarely requires any battling for position, any opposing defender leaning on your body, and minimal need to stress the legs with quick cuts, jumps or the exertion of full-body pushes?
In other words, isn't the 3-pointer one of the most body-friendly plays an offensive player can make in terms of the minimal exertion required? If you're asked to battle for 50 rebounds in a row, block 50 shots in a row, finish 50 consecutive dunks or shoot 50 attempts behind the arc; which one do you envision draining the most from your body? The answer may vary, but would surely never fall on the 3-point attempts.
Of the nine 7-footers that have played at least 35,000 minutes in the regular season in NBA history, none made more than 40 3-pointers in their career, or taken more than 190 (both of those totals belong to Kevin Willis, for those curious). Outside of his rookie campaign, Dirk never made less than 51 in a complete season, and never taken less than 121 (both in his 2009-10 season) … and he has at least 3,000 less rebounds than the other eight 7-footers to have played 35K regular-season minutes.
He may share the fact that he's a 7-footer, but it's hard to directly compare the price his body has been asked to pay over the course of his NBA career because his game is simply so different. Before him, there had never been one like him.
Undoubtedly, the dusk is far nearer than the dawn of Dirk's career. Only 24 players in the history of the NBA have amassed 40K regular season minutes, a mark Dirk will pass in about two seasons, assuming injuries don't steal significant portions. The writing is on the wall, for all of the glory gathered, there is no denying time.
If you find you need for a silver lining beyond the gifts Dirk has ushered into the memories of all Mavs fans, here are a few.
First, to reiterate a thought from above, Nowitzki's body has avoided serious injury and the scars of significant surgery. Predicting the decline of a player unlike any the league has ever known is impossible … how can we foresee that which has never been, what has never come before. If we lean purely on the shoulders of previous logic, we'd not conceive of a player like Dirk.
Further more, age will not begin shaving down The UberMan's shins in his sleep. He'll be seven feet tall for the remainder of his career. Though it has at times temporarily abandoned him in the present, there is no reason to believe his shot would remain astray for too long. (And Friday serves as proof, as he opened the game by hitting 9 of 10 shots and scored 20 by midway through the second quarter.) The prognosis for this season, a stretch with demands and constraints as unique as Nowitzki, may be harder to predict, harder to thrive within; but his shot will eventually return … and when it does, he'll still be seven feet tall.
Even if he does little more than pump fake and shoot, open looks will always be there for the taking. As long as his shot commands respect, the space to move will consistently be allowed; space he's never relied on athletic traits such as speed or leaping ability to capitalize upon. Imagine if Reggie Miller were granted five additional inches of height, if Steve Kerr (the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history by conversion percentage) didn't need to rely on manufactured space to get a clean shot up, but could simply rise above the defender, or if John Stockton could do the same. Doesn't the dynamic of their final career arcs at least carry the chance for significant alteration, for an extension?
We may only have a few more years of elite Dirk, age has deemed it so, but we needn't begin arranging the funeral procession just yet. Don't buy a coffin for every cough you hear. The end is not at hand.
For all history has to tell us, for all we can't turn away, no conclusion has been set in stone. It's nonsensical and unfair for Barkley to be bellowing "It's over!'' It's not unfair to say Dirk can't carry the Mavs alone for much longer, but recent history tells us he shouldn't have been able to do so in the first place, regardless of age … yet he did … and hasn't this season been about finding other ways to win.
Isn't that what the future cap space is being set aside for? Isn't that the point of the "3D Blueprint''? Not to just "give Dirk help'' but to acquire talent so that a someday-declining Dirk is the one giving the help?
He shouldn't have been able to do it before, and maybe, he won't be asked to do so again. That doesn't mean he won't be elite … only that the burden thrust upon him will be a little lighter. Even now, Dallas needs to merely reach the playoffs. They don't Dirk to be Dirk just yet … they only need him to use these 66 games to find himself.
Time is both an enemy and a friend. In this exact moment, it comes as an ally. Tomorrow, well, tomorrow its intent may change, but tomorrow may be years away.