In the two seasons following the Dallas Mavericks' title run in 2011, Dirk Nowitzki didn't look like his old self. With 15 years in the league and multiple deep playoff runs wore on his body, his overall energy and game seemed to slow down.
Not that he was ever particularly quick; Dirk has always been more cagey and crafty than athletic and strong. But the joints just looked creaky. He couldn't create space for his favorite one-legged jumper off the elbow, couldn't get back on defense and settled for jump shots far too often.
This year, however, things have changed. Dirk has pretty much returned to form, and the Mavericks are in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
Whether this two-year aberration was a function of injuries, a lack of offensive help from his teammates or some combination of the two, the Dirk that willed his team to the 2011 title disappeared.
His offensive rating numbers characterize this steep decline rather succinctly. According to Basketball-Reference, Dirk posted an offensive rating of 118 in 2010-11. In the following two seasons—during which time he only played 62 and 53 games, respectively—his offensive rating dipped to 110 followed by 111.
His usage rates were even more telling. After using 29.2 percent of his team's possessions on average from 2005-12—he never deviated by more than 1.1 percent—his involvement offensively dropped to 24.2.
It wasn't a surprise that Dirk finally declined after 13 years of consistently high-level play; it was more that the drop-off was significant and sudden as opposed to steady.
But this year, Dirk's offensive rating is up to 109.6, according to NBA.com; his usage rate is back to 27.5, and his 53.5 effective field-goal percentage is his best mark since his third year in the NBA. He's back.
It's easy to chalk up this revival to more offensive pieces surrounding him. After losing Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and a number of other key role players from that championship team, Dirk now has Monta Ellis to shoulder the offensive burden. Still, that doesn't totally cover what's going on.
This newfound Dirk has simply adapted to his physical limitations. He's no longer able to muscle through double-teams and carry an entire offense on his back. Quite simply, he's sharing the basketball.
The obvious bonus is that the Mavericks as a whole are taking higher-quality shots. As defenses go to double Dirk, he's now a more willing passer. This has two effects. The first is open shots for teammates. Double-teams usually leave a man open on the weak side, and the Mavericks are doing a solid job of finding them. And at No. 7 in the league in spot-up shooting (according to Synergy Sports, subscription required), Dallas is finishing off these plays with made shots.
Digging even deeper, the numbers with Dirk in the post are even more deadly. On all of his post possessions that end in shot attempts for himself or teammates, the Mavericks average 1.078 points per possession, according to Synergy—16th in the league for all players with more than 25 possessions in these situations.
The ultimate key to all of this is Dirk's early recognition of double-teams coupled with well-timed passes to take advantage of holes in the defense. The result has been a 15.0 percent assist rate, according to NBA.com, which is his highest since 2007-08.
Take a look here as Dirk catches the ball in the post against the Brooklyn Nets. Shaun Livingston chooses to double, leaving two weak-side defenders to guard three players.
Three years ago, Dirk would've spun baseline for a drive or fadeaway. Given his immense talent, it wouldn't have been a terrible shot. But the Dirk of 2014 lacks that quickness and athleticism, and he can no longer hit that shot at a serviceable rate. Instead, he kicks the ball out to Ellis, who isn't even open.
Still, it's the right pass. Dirk's kick-out sets off a chain reaction as the Mavs swing the ball around the perimeter. Eventually, it lands in the hands of Jose Calderon, with Livingston scrambling back to recover. Because he's late and arrives standing up, it only takes a quick Calderon head fake to get Livingston in the air.
Calderon takes one step to the side and buries the open jump shot.
Dirk doesn't even get the hockey assist on this play. He makes the simple and easy play, which leads to another simple and easy play, and then another. It's this type of ball movement that is keying Dirk's play this season.
Here's another play from that same game, with Jason Terry as the double-teaming defender. As Devin Harris cuts through, Terry turns his head for a split second—pictured below.
Because Dirk has his head up, he's able to slide a pass right through this window for a layup. When you watch the video below, notice the timing of the pass; Dirk senses Terry's double-team and hits Harris just as Terry shifts his weight the wrong way. Therefore, Terry has no chance to recover and is caught in-between, neither guarding his man nor sufficiently doubling the ball.
Dirk will always get his points; he's too good a scorer and too crafty a player not to. He's always been an adequate passer, but his previous teams have mostly relied on his scoring touch to catalyze the offense. But as the years go by, most basketball players must adjust. Kobe Bryant no longer relies on athleticism to blow by defenders; he leans on muscles, fakes and jabs—anything to get his defender off-balance.
This has always been a part of Dirk's game. His evolution, then, has been sharing the basketball—that is learning to use the threat of Dirk Nowitzki to help his teammates even more.