The writing of Dirk’s third act
As you know, I get a kick out of analyzing player narratives, and narrative shifts. At any point in time, a star has at least one major narrative and several minor ones. When a young star like LeBron James makes a Decision he creates a storm that settles into new narratives, that people tend to think will last forever, but really they simply for the basis for later narratives to build upon.
With Dirk Nowitzki‘s career though, coming into this year it seemed like his story had already been written.
Failure to Launch
His back to back playoff failures in ’05-06 and ’06-07 ”earned” him a reputation as someone who couldn’t hack it in the playoffs that was perhaps more solid than any similar reputation I’ve ever witnessed. This then shaped the idea of how good a player he was generally, along with pre-conceived notions about how good you can possibly be as a soft European big man.
When I trumpeted Dirk’s case as an MVP candidate this year, there was quite a bit of resistance, people look at the above ideas plus the fact that Dirk was a scorer who only scored 23 PPG, and scoffed at the idea that he could truly be MVP worthy. Pointing to his sky high shooting efficiency, his truly MVP-worthy +/-, and the fact that his team fell apart without him helped, but only so much.
The bottom line was that people thought they knew who Dirk was, and didn’t think that anything within him had changed since they saw him flounder previously. Thus, any apparent improvements in his ability to help his team were written off as a product of his new supporting cast before any traction could get made in an argument, even when people saw that that supporting cast looked terrible without him, it often got chalked up to either luck or the team just happening to lack depth in the Dirk spot (as if a team could realistically expect to have a Dirk-esque backup handy).
Revenge of the Dirk
Of course, Dirk has been unreal in the current playoffs, and his team now has a chance to contend for a title again. Naturally this makes people revisit the Dirk story, and re-consider what they know about him. What they need to understand when they do this is that Dirk is on an insane playoff run. No, not just this year. Dirk’s been fantastic in the playoffs ever since his ’06-07 debacle, and in the least 3 years he’s shown a consistent improvement over his regular season form I don’t think we’ve ever seen from a player in NBA history.
Let’s start off noticing that Dirk’s averaging 25+ PPG on 60+% TS for the 3rd playoff in a row. No one has ever done that. In fact only two other players in history have managed it 3 times in their career (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Reggie Miller).
Even more amazing, is that as things stand now, this is the 3rd year in a row that Dirk’s PER has improved by 5 or more points in the playoffs. I don’t have the data handy to say whether this has ever been done before.
What I can tell you is that Dirk’s career playoff PER is now the 7th best in NBA history, and among the top 6 players, Hakeem Olajuwon is the only one who managed the feat more than once in his entire career (he did it twice).
Dirk has truly emerged as someone who routinely raises his play on the biggest stage in a manner up there with any of the greats in history.
How can he do this if he’s still the same old Dirk? Well, obviously he’s not the player he used to be. As with most NBA stars that have continue to have success as they age, Dirk has become more aware, more savvy, and more resilient. The methods used to shut him down before are now either quickly nullified by a smart move, or taken advantage of with a decisive pass. In the regular season, this improvement goes under the radar as he conserves minutes and doesn’t rack up buckets like the younger stars do, but come playoff time, the man now knows exactly what to do.
- The Case for Dirk Nowitzki (asubstituteforwar.com)
- Dirk vs Aldridge, Hakeem vs Malone in ’95 and where the rubber meets the road in the playoffs (asubstituteforwar.com)
- 2011 POY Watch – End Conference Semis (asubstituteforwar.com)