A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The writing of Dirk’s third act

with 5 comments

Image by alancleaver_2000 via Flickr

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.

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Written by Matt Johnson

May 20, 2011 at 6:19 pm

5 Responses

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  1. And the thing is, he’s been doing it with less and less (scoring) support as he goes. It’s a stretch to say his team’s gotten worse and worse, but it’s probably fair to say his importance as a hyper-efficient volume scorer has never been greater.

    I think history is going to be a lot kinder to Dirk than contemporary accounts, in contrast to someone like Karl Malone who’s borderline reviled today.

    Ravenred

    May 20, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    • The rating of Dirk’s support is really tough. In my ‘case for Dirk’ post I tried to starting getting explicit about the need to deal directly with talent vs fit. Dallas right now has fantastic fit.

      You absolutely give a guy less credit if he requires great supporting talent to get over the hump. Fit is tricky though. Saying it shouldn’t be factored in seems to fundamentalist. Saying it should be factored in begs the question: How the heck would you even do that?

      Matt Johnson

      May 25, 2011 at 12:18 am

      • Russell was a member of a group with an incredible team ethos. Jordan had talented teammates who fit perfectly. Penbeast had a great post on the PC board where he went through Hakeem’s much maligned cast and pointed out that they had fantastic fit, even if they weren’t individually impressive players. Basketball is a game where team is king, especially on the defensive end.

        I looking at individual players, I’m far more concerned about individual performance in a team context rather than whether the team won. Wade’s performance today (for example)… I give him zero credit for winning. I give him credit for his crunch block and a couple of nice passes in OT, but they wouldnt’ have been in OT if he’d played well in regulation (this is also the root of my hatred of “last shot” heroics… if you’re going to shoot well, shoot well early and put your team in a winning position).

        Ravenred

        May 25, 2011 at 1:55 am

  2. I don’t know about that Ravenred. I think it depends on the rest of this run. If Dirk doesn’t get a title I think Dallas’ collapses in 06 and 07 will stand out just as much. Right now I’m predicting the Finals is Heat Mavericks and the Heat just prove too much for Dallas and the narrative will be Dirk/Dallas got its act together just a few years too late…

    For me a Dallas loss to Miami these Finals would be reminiscent of Seattle in 96 or Utah in 97 and 98… runs that forgive earlier playoff failures, but at the same time you can’t forgive something like Sea losig to Denver in Rd 1 in a non MJ year… or Uta blowing their Game 7 lead to Hou in 95… etc. I think Dirk will estbalish himself as a Barkley/Malone if he makes the Finals again… but he needs a title to wipe away what they have

    julienrodger

    May 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    • It’s a good point. There’s a grayscale here. Dirk will not reach the top of the hierarchy without bling, but he’s certainly helping his rep with what he’s doing now even if he doesn’t win a title.

      (And like you, I don’t expect the Mavs to beat the Heat)

      Matt Johnson

      May 25, 2011 at 12:14 am


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