An All-Time Great, Dirk Nowitzki Is Still Playing Like One

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2014

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Dirk Nowitzki, one of the all-time greatest players, has not faded into obscurity. He’s still going strong and still leading the Dallas Mavericks toward playoff contention.

He had a down year in 2012-13, averaging his lowest scoring output since his rookie season.

He missed the start of the season due to arthroscopic knee surgery, and that may have been partially to blame for his regression. Or, it might have been that he didn’t appear to have the same passion for winning since claiming the NBA Finals MVP in 2011.

Perhaps that’s the reason the media seems to turn a blind eye to what he’s doing now. Maybe it’s because the Mavericks aren’t perceived as a serious title threat so much as a team that will just assuredly get knocked out of the first round of the playoffs. And in today’s era, we can only look at teams and players in terms of championship potential.

Whatever the reason is, Nowitzki has been thrown into the retirement home prematurely, even though he's very quietly enjoying a resurgence to his career.

He’s averaging 21.0 points per game this year, making him the 10th player in history to average 20 points after turning 35. Of the other players to do that, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a higher true shooting percentage than Nowitzki’s 59.1 percent.

The reason for that is that no matter how old he gets, Nowitzki has one of the most flawless shots in the history of the game. And with it, he’s a threat to score from almost anywhere on the court. Really, anywhere.

Look at this beautiful shot chart. I wish I could get my lawn to look this green:

Nowitzki’s shooting ability has always been the root of his success. I haven't had many “shot crushes,” but with Nowitzki’s step-back fadeaway, it was love at first sight.

There’s a perfection to it. No one else has ever truly mastered the move like Nowitzki, not even Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. Just ask the people who have tried to guard it.

In fact, one of my favorite episodes of ESPN Sports Science covered it:

Once that knee goes up, it’s almost inevitable that the shot is going in. Nowitzki might be getting older, but that fadeaway isn’t going to just fade away. It doesn’t depend on athleticism. That’s pure skill.

As you can see, this year, he’s still hitting that shot with aplomb:

All season long, he’s been climbing up the all-time scoring list, too, having passed greats like Jerry West, Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett and most recently, Alex English.

If he maintains his current pace, he’d finish the season with 26,752 career points, surpassing John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins and Oscar Robertson as well. That would place him as the 10th-highest scorer in NBA history.

With two more seasons of 20 points per game, or three with 15, he’d become just the sixth player in history to hit the 30,000-point mark.

In the playoffs, he’s averaged 26 points a game for his career, good for eighth all-time and better than Kobe Bryant’s 25.6. He’s 15th in history in terms of postseason win shares.

If the Mavericks make it to the second round, it’s feasible he’ll be top-10.

When you consider that he’s played the bulk of his career without another first-rate scoring option, it’s all the more remarkable. He’s only played with one player, Michael Finley, who has scored 20 points per game, and the 2001-02 campaign was the last time it happened.

He’s only had an All-Star teammate six times, and only twice since 2002-03.

That speaks volumes. It means he’s been carrying a franchise his whole career. And he’s done so without having a losing season since his second year. Since then, only the San Antonio Spurs have more wins.

This year, he has the reinvented Monta Ellis to help shoulder the burden, a benefit which cannot be understated.

Having someone else who can legitimately distract the defense and give that perfect shot even more space (or even just having to contend with one defender) is borderline unfair. As a result, Nowitzki’s 53.6 effective field-goal percentage is the second best of his career. Not bad at all for being 35.

That also will help extend his career and explain Nowitzki’s resurgence.

This isn’t a time to be writing off Nowitzki’s career. It’s a time to be celebrating it. There’s a timelessness to his game that’s not getting the attention it deserves. 

Last year, Bryant earned the nickname “Vino” because he “gets better with age.” There’s a type of German wine, Riesling, which does the same.

Might I suggest it as Nowitzki’s new nickname?