Dirk Nowitzki took a step out of his suit and dipped his feet into an ice-bath following a recent game in Houston to rest his healing left ankle — a game the Dallas Mavericks won handily by a final score of 128-108. His team sits right in the middle of an incredibly crowded Western Conference playoff chase and has been better than most expected without its franchise cornerstone, but it hopes it won’t be long before the big man is wearing his team’s colors on the court rather than a tan suit and tie on the bench.
It shouldn’t be too much of a shock the Mavs are playing competitive basketball. They have one of the best coaches in the NBA in Rick Carlisle, a solid core, and what seems to be their best draft pick since Nowitzki in Luka Dončić. They shoot and rebound at a top-10 level (true-shooting and percentage-wise, respectively), and their offensive- and defensive-efficiency numbers are squarely in the middle of the pack across the entire NBA.
And they’re doing this without one of the best shooters and players in the history of the league. Even at the ripe old age of 40, his mere presence on the court matters tremendously.
“He’s always going to be a floor-spacer. Guys always pay attention to him,” Devin Harris said. “He’s just a guy who knows how to play and get to his open spot. You can’t just let him stand there and shoot. He’s always going to be talked about, always going to be worried about on the court.
“So that spacing that we have — it’s another guy to knock down a shot.”
The Mavericks have always been innovative when it comes to Nowitzki. In a league where perimeter play is valued more than ever, Nowitzki is a dinosaur in today’s NBA who saw the evolution of his species coming before anyone else did, and yet, is still right in the middle of it.
Dirk IS today’s NBA.
The funky screen actions the Mavs have run for years; the point guard setting the pick for Nowitzki out of high pick-and-pops that made it nearly impossible to defend them; the pull-up 3s in semi-transition that crushed opponents’ souls — all because of a 7-footer who could shoot better than any 7-footer in the history of dinosaur or mankind.
And now he’s going to be coming off the bench. He’s going to be utilizing his pump-fakes and his patented one-footed fall-aways against journeymen and guys half his age. He’s going to go up against bigs who’ve never had to deal with fighting over or under screens from a point guard above the 3-point break because when the HELL does a center ever orchestrate a pick-and-roll?
The most interesting dynamic throughout all of this will be the relationship between Nowitzki and Dončić, though. Defenses will be perplexed in the midst of a Luka-Dirk pick-and-roll, because the options out of that action are endless. But the more interesting storyline is Dirk has clearly ceded his place in the pecking order by jumping to the back seat (the bench) so eloquently, something you rarely see from guys of his ilk. Nowitzki has started all but eight games he’s played his entire career outside his rookie season, when he started roughly half of them.
Eight games in nearly two decades. Think about that.
But instead of Nowitzki running these pick-and-rolls with Jason Terry or the like, think of this action with someone of the skill level Dončić possesses. There is one specific area in which you should see immediate improvement with Dallas upon Nowitzki’s return: the corner 3-pointer.
It, along with any shot in the restricted area, is the most valuable shot in the game. Here’s where Nowitzki comes in. His presence in the mid-range area, where he tends to operate most frequently, opens up everything around him. Help from big men who would rather protect the basket means the rim is open with the exception of perimeter players sliding down to protect; help from strong-side defenders in the corners means the corner 3 is there. Leave him alone and it’s all but over. The Mavs are shooting 37.8 percent from the corners, down from 42.1 percent from last season. It’s tough to compare seasons around the rim from last year to this year because of the acquisition of DeAndre Jordan, one of the most lethal finishers in the league for a decade. If any big man leaves the rim open defensively when he’s around, two points are nearly automatic.
But he’ll be playing against bench players — in some cases, children not even legally old enough to drink.
“First of all, it’s going to be fun having him off the bench with us, and we’ll be alright,” J.J. Barea, who hasn’t had the chance to play with the big man off the bench in a regular role, said. “The floor’s going to be even more spaced out, and we’re just going to try to get him involved in the game with us and go from there.
“But it will definitely be fun.”
As far as Nowitzki’s health, things are coming along.
“He’s doing a lot better. I know early in the season it was tough on him, but watching him ramp up the workouts, practice with us a little bit, he’s definitely doing a lot better,” Barea said.
But once he’s right, it’s still the same old Dirk — defenses terrified when he’s on the elbow, in the pick-and-roll or in semi-transition.
“No matter where he is on the floor, he’s going to create problems. Even at his old age,” Harris said with a big grin.
Respect your elders, as they say. Once Dirk is back, you know the rest of the NBA will.