Dirk Nowitzki changed the NBA, then changed again to keep up with it

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In an era of rest for older players and heightened importance placed on player longevity borne out of all the science we now have on the topic, a 39-year-old veteran is playing every night.

Now into what is his 20th NBA season and his 22nd professional season overall, Dallas Mavericks veteran big man Dirk Nowitzki has played every game. Despite having 1,430 NBA games (seventh all time) and 49,589 NBA minutes (sixth) on the clock, along with 145 playoff games and 5,895 playoff minutes (enough for essentially two complete seasons of playoff time alone), Dirk is still out every night, playing, starting, and producing.

By the time this season ends, Nowitzki will more than likely have passed Elvin Hayes, Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett to move up to third on the minutes played list, as well as passing Garnett and Moses Malone for fifth on the games played list. He would need only one more season like this to surpass John Stockton and Karl Malone for third on the latter list.

By the time this season ends, Dirk will be 40 years old.

Dirk Nowitzki (L) of the Dallas Mavericks works to

With the science behind it, all the enhanced understanding of how to increase careers does not come from nothing. It is not a coincidence that there are 22 currently active players that are older than 35, when there have only been 207 such players ever.

It is also not a coincidence that a little-known and little-used rule in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement previously known as the Over-36 rule (a rule that prevents teams from signing older players to long term contracts when they intend to retire partway through, thus essentially circumventing the cap) was changed during last summer’s CBA renegotiations. It is now the Over-38 rule, a change made to reflect the new reality. Players are playing longer now, and, with the exception of fellow 1998 draftee Vince Carter, none are currently playing longer than Dirk.

Nowitzki, however, is foregoing any rest this season, and has never been one for missing games. He has played at least 73 games in fifteen of his nineteen completed seasons, and two of the other four were the strike-shortened seasons of 1998-99 (in which he played 47 of 50 games) and 2011-12 (62 of 66). With the exception of the 28 games he missed last season with an Achilles injury, and a knee injury that cost him the first two months of the 2012-13 season, he has suffered no injuries of note, and has rarely had rest games prior to this season either.

And he is still good, too.

Coming into this season, Nowitzki said his health would determine whether this was his final or penultimate season. To look at him on the court this year, playing every game and being a meaningful part of them all, it looks for all the world as though there is still one more left in the chamber. Nowitzki has slowed down, certainly, but he is still a quality and impactful NBA player.

To have done so has meant a change in playing style. Gone are many of the focused half-court touches in the high post and from the elbows, and he ranks only fifth on the team in usage percentage (20.3%). Nowadays, Dirk is more of an opportunity scorer rather than a designed one, setting a lot of screens, floating around the top, always a passing target if needs be, and picking his spots rather than being given them.

Gone with the face-up touches are the transition game and post-ups. So have the vast majority of the dribble-drives that the isolation threat opened up. It is all jumpers now. Of Dirk’s 333 field goal attempts on the year, reports that 315 of them have been jumpers, leaving only 18 layups. He isn’t getting to the rim any more and he isn’t trying to.

Instead, he is out here riffing off of the higher usage half-court scorers, employing far more frequent usage of the spot-up three-pointer off of half-court ball movement (assisted on 84.8% of his made shots, compared to 50.1% the year he won the Most Valuable Player award). And in the full-court game, the trailer three is a key Nowitzki tool now.

Despite always being one of the best shooters in the league – and, by this point, one of the very best of all time – Nowitzki eschewed the three-point shot in his prime years.

The three-point shot has bookended his career, rather than define it. It is only in these, the latter years of his career, that he has gone back to it. Nowitzki’s three-point rate (that is to say, the percentage of his total field goal attempts that are three-point attempts) is 40.4% this season, far ahead of his second highest rate of 31.3%, achieved way back in 2000/01. The only two other marks of above 30% he has achieved in his entire career were the 30.8% marks he shot in each of the last two seasons – conversely, he has eleven seasons of 22.1% or less, with a career-low 8.1% mark back in 2009/10.

To put that into perspective, players such as Julius Randle (9.4%), Tyler Zeller (9.8%), Amir Johnson (12.2%) and Tarik Black (13.5%) are all shooting three-pointers more regularly than that this season.

In their stead, Dirk was catching the ball at the elbow, the free throw line extended, or the area between the foul line and the three-point line. He would do his work from there, sometimes by driving the ball, and sometimes by taking the fall-away jump shot, a shot that has become indelibly linked to Nowitzki himself. Only a few players have been so good for so long as to have a specific shot type become attached to their name, and Dirk was one of them.

As iconic and unstoppable as they were, though, the one-foot fall-aways are now too tiring, especially on a weakened Achilles. The only reason Dirk was so willing and empowered to take these shots were because of how good he was at them. They are inefficient to anyone else, and they are inefficient if he is not making a large amount of them. 

An offence built around a large number of shots taken from an inefficient area, inefficiently, cannot by definition be especially efficient barring an outlier factor. Those shots helped neither overall court spacing nor offensive rebounding (something at which even now the Mavericks, not helped by Dirk’s own limitations in this area, are by far the worst team in the NBA). But for a generation, Dirk has been that outlier.

If Dirk is not to take them any longer, then, he is to instead take three-pointers, or face-up twos borne more out of movement and circumstance than design. Setting a lot of screens, Nowitzki is a pick-and-pop threat on every possessions (especially with J.J. Barea, with whom he has many years of chemistry), The bulk of his jump shots come from the wings or from straight on; rarely is he in the corners or short corners. Above all, you cannot really pick-and-pop below the break.

Dallas Mavericks v Atlanta Hawks

Defensively, Nowitzki does just kind of stand there at this point. The speed has gone, and, much as we have tried to laud his phenomenal stamina above, it is tremendous relative to peers of his age, not the league as a whole. Unless he happens to be in exactly the right position, Dirk will box out rather than rotate, as he hasn’t the foot speed any longer to make meaningful rotations anyway, thus he may as well not give up his rebounding position. Such is the necessary sacrifice of his offensive longevity.

It is worth it, however, and it is maskable. Helping Dirk out is the pairing with his rookie countryman Maxi Kleber, who has started the last 21 games at power forward.

Kleber is doing that which Nowitzki cannot do – he is defending both the basket and the perimeter, switching onto guards and perimeter bigs with relative ease, hitting some spot-ups of his own and rolling to the rim. If he can increase his rebounding rate over time with added strength and experience, even better. Either way, the younger German is off to a fine start, and in tandem, he and lively reserve Dwight Powell pushed Nerlens Noel out of the rotation even before Noel got hurt.

Kleber’s strong and versatile play at power forward has made the Dirk At Centre experiment a success. And in being able to bump down one further position to the slowest spot of all, Nowitzki is still able to be not just a Mavericks player, but a good Mavericks player.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks

Dallas do not need the Dirk of his prime to still want and need Dirk. The rare one-club man, Nowitzki will never leave the team until the day he can no longer take the court due to injury, or the inevitability of one.

That day gets ever-closer no matter what anybody does. Father Time is still undefeated, annoyingly. Yet to keep that day at bay for as long as possible, Dallas has needed to lighten the load on Nowitzki, both offensively and defensively. He still makes jump shots about as well as anyone ever has or ever could. He just needed to play more efficiently, and in a less legs-heavy way.

The Mavericks have done that this season. And thus they still have him.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dallas Mavericks
Southwest Division
Western Conference
Dwyane Wade
Miami Heat
Southeast Division
Eastern Conference
LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers
Central Division

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