We haven’t reached December. We’re not even a quarter of the way through the season. But the Mavs’ ability to compete with top-caliber teams is not only a pleasant surprise; there are signs of it being sustainable. That has everything to do with the fact that Dirk Nowitzki is still skilled and unique in ways no other basketball player on the planet can claim.
In assessing the Mavericks’ preseason potential, everyone seemed to pencil in some form of inevitable offensive decline from last year to this season for Nowitzki. That hasn’t happened. If the Mavericks can find a way to keep him as fresh in February through April as he looks in November, then Dallas will compete all season long.
Nowitzki is still a relative liability defending and rebounding (those other 4's are a challenge!), but Zaza Pachulia has held his own thus far this season in attempts to mitigate that disadvantage. Will that be the case every night? No, but Zaza, all of a sudden placed in an offense with regular fluidity has looked refreshed and helped elevate his defense another level.
“Zaza is the ultimate teammate,” Dirk said of Pachulia, who if you'll recall is the product of what DB.com, after "Plan A'' failed, derisively labeled "Plan ZZ'' last summer.
That offense has shown consistent bursts of efficiency because Nowitzki is still the most effective jump shooter in the NBA not named Steph Curry. Thirteen games onto the season Nowitzki has been the best jump-shooter in the league. He has made more than half of his jump shots. You factor that in with his height, ability to get shots off at virtually any time, and his patient shot selection and you’ll start to see that he’s having an enormous impact on every other Maverick on the floor with him.
How is this any different than the Dirk we’ve come to know for nearly two decades, you might ask?
Well, I can tell you how it’s different than last year. Monta Ellis was a ball-dominant guard who could create offense out of nothing. He was aware that his game could benefit from Nowitzki’s (and it did), but that still left three other players unsure of what Ellis would actually end up doing. Not only that, but Ellis was the Mavs’ go-to at the end of a possession. That role has reverted back to Nowitzki, and he’s handled that task without exuding a tremendous amount of energy. He’s the perfect bail-out late in the shot clock.
If Ellis valiantly but inefficiently tried to dictate the offensive tempo, Rondo altogether rendered Dirk a role player.
Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Devin Harris, Ray Felton, and Charlie Villanueva are all deadly three-point shooters if left open. Rick Carlisle has implemented a very simple offense that makes it tough to double-team Nowitzki.
The roster construction of this Mavs team should probably get more credit than it has. It’s built to minimize two things: mistakes and hesitation.
Stick with me for a hypothetical offensive set to understand the layers of options Dallas has available to get a good shot as long as Nowitzki is on the floor:
J.J. Barea (or Williams or Felton) has the ball and navigates past a high screen from Nowitzki. If the defenders switch, the Mavericks already have what they want: a smaller defender for Nowitzki to shoot over.
If one of the defenders hesitates fighting through the screen or getting back on Nowitzki, Barea can use that moment to drive to the basket. Perhaps, he scores at the basket or gets fouled (*With eight minutes left in the second quarter against Utah this played out exactly and Barea scored on an open floater). Perhaps he kicks out to Wes Matthews for an open three-pointer. Perhaps he kicks it out to Parsons, who either shoots or pump-fakes and drives. Now, if there isn’t a perfect lane to the basket, the defense will be slightly out of position at this point, and Nowitzki will have been moving the court looking for spots he can catch and shoot. Parsons can find Nowitzki anywhere near him and Nowitzki will assuredly have the little space he requires to get a high percentage shot.
If the defense handles the pick-and-roll perfectly from the start then Barea can simply pass it to Parsons (or whoever is at the wing), who can call for a screen from Zaza (or Dwight Powell). While this pick and roll is being operated Nowitzki once again can look for his spots in the mid-range area. It’s almost impossible to double-team Nowitzki when the pick-and-roll action towards the rim is happening away from him. He simply has to find space near the play where he can get the ball if ball handler into runs into a wall.
This is simple stuff. I’m not describing anything you haven’t seen many times before. It’s not exactly revolutionary. But the thing to factor in is that the end result of all those scenarios is a high percentage shot. That is only the case because of Dirk’s ability to take and make jump shots at a really high percentage.
Getting high percentage shots off is always a good thing, obviously. Guys like James Harden, and Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (who the Mavs see tonight in a 6 p.m. tip at OKC as Dallas shoots for a seventh straight win) can all do it on their own. But their ability to get shots off one-on-one doesn’t necessarily always keep their teammates in rhythm. Nowitzki’s mere presence on the court suggests that a good shot is coming from someone.
The 25-to-30 minutes of good shot selection means the opponent is taking the ball out under the basket, which means the less-than-athletic Mavs won’t have to defend the fast break. (Ah, that "efficiency over athleticism'' that we've written about before.)
In Dallas’ 102-93 victory over Utah Friday night, (see Mavs Donuts here) Nowitzki scored 19 points and he did it off of 8-12 shooting. That shot selection and that shot making was absolutely crucial and helped open things up for everyone else on the floor with him. Jump shooters aren’t supposed to be able to shoot that well that consistently, and they’re definitely not supposed to do it at 37 years old.
Nowitzki takes care of his body. Being tall and shooting doesn’t require too much wear-and-tear, but defense and rebounding will have an effect on his body, which could increase his chance of injury or even have the slightest effect on his shot. The Mavericks can’t sustain a significant injury to anyone in their rotation. That being said, there’s cautious optimism that, as Matthews and Parsons become healthier, this team will be even more capable than it is now.
"I felt good the first couple of games,'' Dirk said recently, "but I don't want to get too excited. ... I had a great month of November last year and then everything went down the drain for a couple of weeks, so I just want to take it game-by-game and work hard in between and see what I’ve got.’'
Nowitzki’s minutes have to be monitored, and rest has to come even at the expense of victories. Carlisle and the Mavs understand this. Nowitzki will likely sit random games throughout the season and this should be welcomed. Any rest that Nowitzki can get is crucial. If there’s a way for him to be this effective near the end of the season, the Mavericks have to do everything in their power to preserve it.