LOS ANGELES — What makes Dirk Nowitzki tick? In his 16th season as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, with 11 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA selections, an MVP and a championship under his belt, what is it that not only keeps Nowitzki going but has him performing among the league's elite yet again, at the age of 35, no less?
The answer, according to Mavs owner Mark Cuban, is his attitude. "'Don’t worry, bro. I’m a warrior.' That’s what he’ll always say," Cuban said while holding court with the media in the visitors' locker room prior to Dallas' 129-127 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 15. "'I’m a warrior. I’m a warrior. I’m going to get this **** done. I’m a warrior.'
"And you know, he’ll say stuff to get it off his chest or he’ll say stuff just to vent, but he’ll come back to the same words all the time, 'I’m a warrior.'"
Those three words constitute a key component of Nowitzki's core as a basketball player. He's fought through adversity of all stripes—injuries, doubts, criticisms and circumstantial chaos—to become the best and most prolific European to ever set foot in the NBA.
Still, as central as the words "I'm a warrior" are to describing who Nowitzki is and how he's managed to remain relevant for so long, they alone don't paint a particularly detailed portrait. For that, you'll have to trace the giant German's pet phrase beyond the words themselves and to their logical conclusions on and off the court.
Back to Basics
You don't have to be a hoops guru to figure out what makes Nowitzki so good. Nor do you have to have spent a lifetime in the game to understand how it is that a guy at his age, who missed 28 games in 2012-13 (mostly due to preseason knee surgery), is currently averaging approximately 21 points, six rebounds and three assists per game, with shooting splits (47.9 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from three, 90.3 percent from the line) that put him within striking distance of his second 50-40-90 season.
Of course, Clippers coach Doc Rivers just so happens to be a basketball maven with decades of experience within the Association, so getting his take can't hurt.
"He's just more skilled than everyone," Rivers said in explaining Nowitzki's mid-30s superiority. "It almost comes down to that with him. He's seven feet tall. He's maybe the best shooter in the league, if not top five—still. At that size, it makes him very difficult to guard."
Cuban would concur: "It’s not like we were wowed with his athleticism or wowed with his speed."
Like I said, we're not talking rocket science here, folks. Nowitzki's ongoing success stems from his uncommon combination of size and skill, as a shooter and ball-handler.
But that's always been the case. Nowitzki's never been one to rely on quickness or athleticism to get by because, well, he's not particularly quick or athletic. "When you're seven feet tall, you don't have to have great wheels," Rivers added. "You don't have to go that fast. At the end of the day, he's still taller than the guy, most of the time, guarding him, and he's probably going to get his shot off."
Indeed, Nowitzki is as effective as ever on the court because those attributes that have long defined his game also happen to be those that age the best and, moreover, that the sport itself most values.
Size will always be the hallmark of basketball. So long as the rim remains 10 feet above the ground, the advantage will belong to those whose height and length most easily allows them to reach it on one end and deter opponents from doing so on the other.
Again, no advanced physics required.
In today's game, shooting is more important than it's ever been. Where once jumpers seemed more of a clever way to mitigate disparities in size, they've now become outright staples of the game, necessary to the invention of wide-open, floor-spreading offenses.
It certainly helps, then, that Nowitzki is such a marksman (38.2 percent from three for his career). A sizable share of the credit for the sharpness and consistency of his shot belongs to Holger Geschwindner—Nowitzki's long-time mentor, coach and friend—who drops into Dallas every year to visit and work with his star pupil.
With his ability to hit shots from behind the arc, at the elbows, fading away in the post and everywhere in between, Nowitzki doesn't have to subject his body to the same forces of physical degradation that have worn down 7-footers before and since his debut during the lockout-shortened season in 1999.
To explain Nowitzki's greatness as merely the byproduct of being big and having a feathery touch from the perimeter is to ignore the importance of the man himself, the one to whom those characteristics have been ascribed.
Connecting the body with which he was born and the shooting stroke that he's refined with thousands upon thousands of repetitions across countless hours of practice over decades of dedication is the "beautiful mind" that Nowitzki has for the game itself.
"Dirk is all about German precision," Cuban went on. "He’s like a surgeon out on the court. He sees the game in slow motion, he knows what’s going to happen and he knows what he needs to do.
"And it’s that ability to understand not only what he needs to do but also context is what continues to make him special."
The numbers bear that out. According to Basketball Reference, Nowitzki has ranked among the top 20 in the NBA in usage rate (i.e. an estimate of the percentage of a team's possessions that end in a shot, a foul drawn or a turnover by a particular player when said player is on the floor) nine times in the last decade.
The lone exception? Last season, which was disrupted at the outset by knee surgery.
Over that same span, Nowitzki has failed to register among the 20 least turnover-prone players in the league just three times: 2006-07, when he won the MVP; 2007-08, when Jason Kidd arrived in Big D; and 2010-11, which ended with Nowitzki and the Mavs hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time.
Surely, those exceptions can be excused.
To be sure, players like Nowitzki shouldn't be coughing up the ball very often, even if they're finishing possessions as frequently as he does. So many of Nowitzki's plays are of the catch-and-shoot variety, the vast majority of which don't require him to do anything (i.e. dribble, pass) that might put the ball in jeopardy.
Even so, the gulf between how often Nowitzki uses the ball and how often he loses it speaks to the intelligence, the efficiency and the consistency that help to define who he is as a basketball player. "As a point guard, it makes your job easier when you’re playing with guys like him," Mavs guard Jose Calderon told Bleacher Report. "He’s doing a great job. He’s making plays for everybody, he’s making plays for himself. He’s a great player."
Love and Basketball
Pinpointing the precise source of Nowitzki's greatness requires an even deeper dive, beyond the plainly obvious (his size), the easily deducible (his skill) and the statistically verifiable (his efficiency).
In the estimation of Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, Nowitzki's longevity is the byproduct of the very same factors that led him to greatness and that have done the same for the superstar's pantheonic peers. "Success in the later years depends on your commitment and your love of the game and your willingness to work even harder as you move along in age," Carlisle said. "Dirk...doesn't know any other way than to go full bore at it all the time."
No need for any Sherlock-style sleuthing here. Nowitzki's success story follows a familiar arc: Hard work, dedication and a love of basketball, combined with physical and mental acuity for the game and the opportunity to play it, create the conditions for greatness.
"He works so hard just to be ready to play in the game," Calderon continued. "It’s something that a lot of young guys, they should take a look at what he does all the time. It’s not easy to do what he does."
The excellence that results from the sweat equity that Nowitzki puts into his craft isn't anything to be taken for granted either, especially at this stage of his Hall of Fame career. "Never underestimate greatness at any age," Carlisle proclaimed after a brief, contemplative pause. "And 35 ain't that old."
Dirk may not be old in absolute terms, but as far as pro basketball is concerned, he's darn well near ancient.
Which is what makes his productivity through the first half of the 2013-14 season so remarkable to begin with. According to Basketball Reference, Nowitzki is on track to become just the 10th player to average at least 20 points per game in a season after turning 35.
Fighting For the Future
As long as Nowitzki wants to play, he'll be welcome to do so for the only franchise he's ever known. "It’s up to him," Cuban added when asked about the effect of Nowitzki's renaissance-of-a-season on the Mavs' long-term outlook. "As long as he wants to, he’ll be here."
"He makes it into a science," Cuban continued. "He’s a student of the game and, in a lot of respects, it helps him because, you know, you’ll see him all the time. He knows how to protect his body, which makes him look really awkward sometimes, but he understands context. When you’re younger, you don’t really understand the context of the short term and the long term and what’s going on. He’s smart. He understands it."
A warrior Dirk may be, but a brutish grunt he is not. Rather, he's the one leading his fellow warriors into whatever basketball-related battle they may encounter.
That's worked out well enough for the Mavs this season. They're currently 26-20, good enough for eighth place in the crowded Western Conference. At this rate, they'll be back in the playoffs after falling short last season for the first time since Nowitzki's second season in the Association.
Through it all—successes and failures, surprises and disappointments, peaks and valleys—what's made Dirk Nowitzki tick for years is the same thing that sustains him now and will until he decides to call it quits: that familiar, three-word refrain.
"I'm a warrior."
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