A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Case for Dirk Nowitzki

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Dirk Nowitzki

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Dirk Nowitzki has been my choice for MVP for more than a month now. However, we’ve only got about a month to go in the regular season, and Dirk’s not on most people’s short list. He isn’t in the top 3 at either ESPN’s or nba.com’s Award Watches for example. The closest I’ve seen anyone argue for Dirk, was a good SB Nation article saying he deserves more attention than he’s getting, and a Mavs’ blogger saying he’s as deserving as the other candidates. Not all that bold. So I guess I’ll take the leap:

As of now, Dirk Nowitzki is the player most deserving of winning the 2010-11 NBA MVP.

Let’s start out with the basics: The Dirk Nowitzki is the clear superstar on a team with no other all-stars, and he has led the team to the 3rd best record in the league in a year where there are no serious candidates on on the top 2 teams. Right there, Dirk should be on everybody’s mind as a top candidate.

Now consider that when Dirk plays, the team is 44-10 which gives a better winning percentage (81.2%) than any team in the league, and that the reason the Mavs are 3rd is because they completely fell apart when Dirk missed time (2-7, 22.2% winning percentage, 2nd worst in the league). That’s hammering in Dirk’s impact right there.

Oh and while we’re at it, let’s note that after Dirk came back from injury, the Mavs lost 3 of their next 4 games while he re-acquired his court legs. Take that stretch out, which is unlike any other stretch in the season, and the Mavs are 43-7 with Dirk being in the groove.

Obviously though, people are thinking beyond this, else Dirk would be #1 on a large number of people’s list. Who else in the league can say they’re accomplishing so much without a super talented supporting cast? “Derrick Rose” you say, and I hear you. I’ve defended Rose against the attacks made on him, and I’ve got no problem with him as an MVP candidate, but let’s not pretend the man isn’t benefiting from a mastermind of a coach.

Of course, there are a few issues here with Dirk which make it understandable how he’s slipped under the radar. I’ll get to them, but I think I can group the big one’s to be simply: the (relative) weakness of Dirk’s volume stats:

This matters on two levels. First, putting up 23 & 6 isn’t terribly impressive to people evaluating MVP candidates generally. Second, his numbers are down this year, and he wasn’t a terribly strong candidate last year. In both cases, what this makes people think is that the Mavs’ success this year has come with an improved supporting cast, and thus they should essentially hold their concept of Dirk’s spot in the hierarchy roughly constant.

He’s a scorer who only scores 23 PPG how impressive is that?

Durant scores 28, LeBron scores 26, Rose scores 24, aren’t they more impressive scorers than Dirk? Well, you’ve got to remember that basketball is a possession game. Both teams get the same number of possessions, and for the most part, a similar number of shots. We talk about volume scorers as guys who “create shots”. They don’t. The most you can say, if they are doing their job well, is that they create better shots because of their unique abilities.

Most quantitatively, this means you’ve got to look at a player’s shooting efficiency. Durant’s TS% is 58.6, LeBron’s is 58.5, Rose’s is way down there 53.5. Nowitzki’s is at 62.7. What that means superficially is that we should expect that Dirk’s shots are giving his team more than the other guys are. Is that a reasonable claim? Well, it’s more complicated than just a number, but think about it this way in contrast with Durant & LeBron (do I really need to explain why Dirk’s a more impressive scorer than Rose?):

Durant has Westbrook and LeBron has Wade & Bosh. On these teams, if one guy doesn’t take the high volume of shots, someone else could. The gap between Nowitzki and the second best scorer on his team (Jason Terry) is far greater. So even if you don’t go by the efficiency (which are an independent aspect also giving Dirk a big thumb’s up), it certainly makes sense to say that a basket from Dirk is doing more over replacement than some other guys.

Why not have Dirk shoot as much as these other guys then, you ask? Well, consider: Why not have have your star player shoot every possession? Because you want balance, and not just so the star’s shooting efficiency doesn’t fall off a cliff. As I wrote in my Chamberlain Theory piece, just because a player can score at high efficiency while at volume doesn’t mean he’s contributing great value, and so you should never rate a scorer simply based on that ability.

To put it another way: It’s not reasonable to look at usage as the equivalent of carried burden. One player taking the shots isn’t necessarily giving his teammates productive freedom, he might just be stepping on their toes. Thus, we should not look at scoring volume simply as a more-is-better thing.

Only 6 rebounds per game for a power forward, isn’t that terrible?

One of the great sources of frustration and fascination in basketball is that the positions don’t actually mean much at all, which is why the idea of a positional revolution is taking hold among the geeks. If you were to define the classic power forward, what he did, and what his strengths were, obviously that wouldn’t be Dirk, but Dirk isn’t trying to play that role and failing, he’s playing a different role.

By being a player who plays offense on the perimeter, this means he’s not going to give you that benefit as an offensive rebounder. There’s a huge advantage though for perimeter scorers over interior scorers: They are not nearly so dependent on teammates to give them the ball in a place whether they can do something with it.

Is it worth the trade off to have someone play like Dirk? Well, I’d suggest the only way to judge this is to look at how the team does on the scoreboard, and the Mavs do stellar with Dirk out there.

Oh, incidentally, on defense Dirk’s rebounding percentage is 20%, despite sharing the court with Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion who grab a lot of boards themselves. By contrast, prime Karl Malone hovered at around 24% despite not having strong rebounding teammates cannibalizing Malone’s numbers. Not saying Dirk’s a fantastic rebounder, but the idea that he’s hurting his team desperately in that area is just not justified.

But Dirk’s numbers are down, doesn’t that mean he’s less valuable than he used to be?

Let’s start out by recognizing that Dirk’s minutes per game are down this season, and that his per minute scoring is about the same as it has always been. It’s not that when Dirk’s on the court, the team is succeeding by moving away from his previous primacy.

Well, you say, if the Mavs can succeed with Dirk playing less, doesn’t that say something about his value to them? It absolutely does, but in a good way. The Mavs have been so damn good with Dirk on the floor (+13.06 per 100 possessions) that they’ve been able to get away with him playing less despite the fact that they fall apart when he rests.

Okay you say, but still don’t we need to give some credit to Dirk’s supporting cast? We do, but we need to be careful about looking at credit for team success as a zero sum game, and I’ll point to Exhibit A: LeBron James.

Right now the James’ Heat are worse than James’ Cavaliers were, despite the fact that James is still basically the same human being in his physical prime. A simplistic zero sum calculation would thus say that the Cavaliers supporting cast was better than Heat supporting cast. Is that reasonable when we know that Miami has way, way, WAY more talent?

Well, yes in one sense, it does. The Cavaliers cast was a better fit for James and his skill set than the Heat are (at least up to this point, not saying they can’t ever figure out how to play together). And now we get to the crux of the matter: Should LeBron James be given equal credit for what he accomplished in Miami as what he did in Cleveland?

‘salright, take a minute, I’ll be looking at a funny picture of a cat.

Image by SanGatiche via Flickr

Ready?

Say it with me now: It is unreasonable to use team fit against an MVP candidate

Hope you reached that same conclusion. No team decides to draft a player based on what he’d do with a bunch of teammates that don’t work well with him. You try to judge what it would take to make a supporting cast fit well with him, and how easy it will be to accomplish that. So why would try to judge him what a player accomplishes in a given year without thinking about that as well?

Hence, what LeBron did the previous two years in Cleveland is a testament to him being an all-time great level player because there wasn’t anything all that hard to come by about the cast that was around him. Meanwhile what he’s doing in Miami isn’t: If this was the best LeBron could do, we’d be saying he needs to be paired with a Top 3 player and arguably a 2nd Top 10 player, just to make a team that probably isn’t in the top 4 in the league. Not terribly hard to find someone who could pull that off.

By the way, I absolutely would not say that you should not think about how blessed with a good fit of a cast a player was throughout his career when judging him. The true ability of a star player is how easily you can build around him, not whether his GM had enough sense to do so. I’m just saying it’s pretty silly to argue for a player for MVP based partially on how bad of a fit his team is. By that thinking, ’04-05 Kobe Bryant might have won your MVP, which makes zero sense.

Last: Factoring in missed time

Alright, there was one issue I skipped over before in a couple places: What about the time Dirk doesn’t play? First and foremost, his injury, and secondly the fact that he’s playing less minutes per game than in previous seasons.

Here we get into philosophy. If you try to measure the MVP in the most literal sense, then missing 9 games like Dirk did is a huge problem, and his minutes per game is non trivial. If Player X contributes Y value per minute, then his total value is Y times the number of minutes he played right? Well, I disagree. I factor missed time by how much it actually seems to matter to the player’s team.

Because of Dirk’s 9 missed games, Dallas probably won’t end up with the best record in the league, but he’s not really competing against the players on those teams with better records for this award. Let’s consider Dirk against Rose. Am I supposed to give Rose the nod over Dirk because with Dirk’s missed time, the Bulls record is almost as good as the Mavs? Seriously? Who cares if they’re almost as good? That isn’t helping Rose’s Bulls one bit or hurting Dirk’s Mavs one bit.

If you insist on being so pedantic with what “MVP” means, I’m not going to tell you’re wrong. You’re entitled to your opinion. I will bring to your attention though, that the MVP voters not really been bothered by such missed time in the past. Steve Nash playing only 75 games, Allen Iverson won playing only 71, and heck Bill Walton won playing only 58. So do not use this issue to side against Dirk thinking you have history on your side – you don’t.

The minutes per game? This is a legitimate issue if the player in question is incapable of playing more minutes, and the team is seriously suffering because of his limitations. Neither is true in this case. The Mavs are having a stellar season coasting into a #2 seed, and unless Dirk just started having fitness issues this season he’d be playing more if the Mavs needed him to, but they play so well with him in the line up, he gets to rest.

Let’s go people

Alright guys, so I’ve said it, as we stand now: Dirk is not only one worthy candidate for the MVP, he is the most worthy and very few people seem to even have him in the conversation. We’ve got a month or so left, let’s not go gentle into that good night: Spread the word!

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7 Responses

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  1. Dirk is far ahead of everyone for my MVP list too. He clearly has less help than Lebron and Rose and is carrying the Mavericks to as good a record (hell, better while he’s playing)

    I think his Mavs supporting cast is very similar to Lebron’s Cavaliers one last year. In the end both may be underrated for not having a star. But I have no doubt they’d be a league worst team without him. But Lebron put up 30 9 and Dirk did 23 and 7, so the hype isn’t going to be there

    I expect Rose to win, but it really should be Dirk’s

    julienrodger

    March 9, 2011 at 7:44 pm

  2. Majestic post.

    You look at the team around Dirk and their record (with him there) is remarkable. Having said that, a variety of the factors you allude to (including missed games and unattractive per-game numbers) will conspire against him. MVP voting is not an exact science, however (and you could argue that it’s got more to do with literature in terms of working attractive narratives into a publicly palatable dish).

    Try floating that one on the PC board, however, and you would be drowned out by the howls of the unreflective.

    Ravenred

    March 9, 2011 at 10:50 pm

  3. Sounds like the three of us are pretty much in agreement (and appreciate the ‘majestic’ compliment Raven).

    There are definitely a lot of people that disagree, and I’ve been arguing like the devil with people elsewhere. I don’t expect Dirk to win the thing, but I am frustrated when people talk like Dirk is somehow a clearly inferior player to Rose.

    Matt Johnson

    March 11, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    • Of course he is. Haven’t you seen the PPG numbers? And let’s not forget that Rose is the only player on that team who wouldn’t shoot all-airballs if he wasn’t there to set them up. Dirk’s got all-stars like Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd on the team. Hell, he’s even got a 6MOY in Jason Terry.

      Having said that, Terry’s having a surprisingly good year for a 33 year-old “short” guard.

      Ravenred

      March 12, 2011 at 5:53 am

  4. […] As written, The Case for Dirk. […]

  5. […] The Case for Dirk Nowitzki (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

  6. […] 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 […]


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