The prolongation of most NBA athletes' careers depends on their abilities to adjust to an ever-changing physical potential. Whether it's a skill-set recalibration or a body-type alteration, measures must be taken to survive as a late-30-something in a league dominated by young, springy legs.
For Dirk Nowitzki, the change has been as evident as the results produced. The Dallas Mavericks have surged back into the playoff picture after a year spent outside of the bubble, and the big German made it back to the NBA All-Star Game after a conspicuous absence. But now, the numbers are back.
In recent years we've seen Tim Duncan lose significant weight to take pressure off his balky knee and add a consistent elbow jumper to decrease his dependence on a back-to-the-basket game. We've seen pre-Achilles-injury Kobe Bryant commit to a relatively new type of surgery in an effort to maintain his ability to provide volume scoring from all over the court. And, we've watched as Kevin Garnett squeezes every last bit of life out of his legs by committing himself as a role player. Dirk has now made his way onto that short list of future Hall-of-Famers.
This isn't the same kind of Dallas Mavericks team that won 50-plus games a year and finally chased down a title in 2010-11, mind you. Gone are the defensive anchors holding down the middle, and no longer are those weird reverse pick-and-rolls between Nowitzki and Jason Terry. The Mavs have a different look and a different roster composition, not to mention a scheme not typically associated with Rick Carlisle.
What I mean by that is, they don't really play defense. Dallas allows 105.5 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark of the Carlisle era. But as the Mavericks' defensive turnstiles turn, the offense is clicking along at a better rate than it has since the days of "Nellie Ball" (Don Nelson).
Dallas is tossing up 108.6 points per 100 possessions (another Carlisle era best), and it's doing so with a completely different style than that of the title-winning team. Nowitzki's numbers are brilliant (21.6 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting, including 40.3 percent from three), but the Mavericks have revamped their attack to adjust accordingly to the aging superstar.
This isn't the Dirk of old, though. After the knee issues he suffered through last season, he lacks the modicum of foot speed he once possessed that allowed him to beat overzealous defenders that regularly bit on his pump fakes. For a guy who once thrived in isolation and high post-up situations, the athletic decline is a problem; but the Mavericks have figured out how to compensate for that, and it starts with Monta Ellis.
The explosive Ellis has been a savior for Nowitzki and his knees, and he's brought his own career back from the wasteland of NBA inefficiency. Dallas has transformed from a Dirk-centric offense to a quick, Spurs-like pick-and-roll attack with the speedy guard at the helm. And just as San Antonio has been able to save Duncan's legs, the Mavericks are doing the same with Nowitzki.
Just read what the Mavs' cornerstone said in an interview with Grantland during All-Star Weekend.
We've got a great pick-and-roll player with Monta again — he's so explosive. He's been a great playmaker for us. All I really try to do is set a screen for him and he uses his speed. He's been great. And sometimes I still get my (isolations), I get my post-ups, mainly on the left or right block there from like 14, 15 feet. That's where I still do some of the damage, if I do get the iso.
We got away from some of the high-post iso I used to run a couple of years ago because I don't have the drive off my legs to go to the basket anymore. We used to go to it all the time; once in a while I pick my spots.
But Monta off the pick-and-roll has been lethal for us. He gets in the paint, finds our shooters and he's been great — for me, too, because he's somebody (who) constantly drives and collapses the defense and gives me tons of open looks.
And the numbers reflect exactly what Nowitzki clarified. But first, a look back.
Prime Dirk was as unique a player that has ever existed in this league. He was a master of forcing and exploiting mismatches out of pick-and-pops and in mid-range isolations. He could shoot over almost anyone, and he could drive by any big man willing to commit their hand to the cookie jar.
Nearly 41 percent of all his usage plays during the 2010-11 season (individual possessions that end in a field-goal attempt, free throw or turnover) came out of isolations or post-ups, allowing him to take defenders one-on-one, where he was a nightmare. More specifically, 13.4 percent of all his plays came in isolation situations, during which he scored .98 points per possession at a 51.2 percent clip.
Considering most of these possessions began 18 feet from the basket, those numbers are incredible. LaMarcus Aldridge is the closest thing this league has seen to Nowitzki, and even his numbers are subpar in comparison. But with a now healthy Dirk, the Mavs are rolling once again, just in a different way.
The number of individual "iso" plays has dropped to a minuscule 4.6 percent of his possessions, as Nowitzki has become much more selective in the opportunities he takes. Instead, he lets the team's younger legs do all the heavy lifting.
Dallas has run variations of the pick-and-roll for years, but they mostly ended up in those aforementioned isolation and spot-up chances. During the team's championship season, pick-and-roll ball-handlers and "roll" men finished the play just 18.2 percent of the time; this season, that number has ballooned to a combined 31.4 percent, and the Ellis-Nowitzki duo has been instrumental in that change.
Ellis is a handful off the dribble drive, and defenses have no choice but to account for him once he's on the move. Where Dirk has been the focal point in years past, Monta's penetration has forced the opposition to collapse in the paint to allow for easier perimeter opportunities.
Nowitzki has finished as a "roll" man on 17.3 percent of his usage plays this season — up from 10.1 percent last season — and he's averaging 1.2 points per possession on 54.4 percent shooting in these situations. Instead of having to deal with defenders latching onto his every off-ball move, he's receiving the ball in space and reacting as you'd expect one of the best shooters in league history.
But as good a shooter as Dirk is, he's always been careful about the volume of three-point attempts he launches per game despite the overall value of the shot. After all, it's difficult to jack up threes with a defender in your lap at all times. This season has been different.
The big man has already taken more three-point attempts this season (231) than he has in any single campaign in the last eight years, and he's knocking down better than 40 percent of them. And once again, much of this has to do with the fact that he's finding himself wide open as defenses suck in to deal with Ellis, the team's assist leader, and Jose Calderon.
And credit Carlisle for understanding where this team's bread is buttered: The Mavericks are playing at the fastest pace of the coach's tenure (96.34 possessions per 48 minutes), and it's paying off in a big way. The value of a run-and-gun guard in the open court is obvious, but the added element of a trailing big man who can shoot out of the secondary break can make a transition attack lethal. In this capacity, Nowitzki is terrifying.
So far this season, 68 of Dirk's 92 shots out of transition opportunities have come from deep, and he's hit 29 of them (42.6 percent). For the sake of comparison, he went 20-of-43 from the arc in transition for the entire 2010-11 season. This year, Nowitzki is scoring 1.39 points per possession in transition at a 50 percent clip.
The Mavericks are still a work in progress, but they continue to improve as the season grinds on. They've boasted the league's second-best offense in February (113.6 offensive rating) and their defensive efficiency rating has improved to 103.9 during that stretch. Furthermore, they've won games by 9.7 points per 100 possessions in that time, the best mark in the league over the last month.
Dallas has nine new faces on the roster this season, so it's taken some time to gel. But net rating—that 9.7 figure—is a great indicator of potential future success. They're improving, and there's still time to get even better. Ellis is arguably the most dynamic pick-and-roll player Nowitzki has been paired with since the departure of Steve Nash ages ago, and defenses absolutely must respect his ability to finish in the paint.
Ellis is shooting better than 60 percent from inside the restricted area, and as long as he continues to attack the opposition's interior, Dallas shooters will have great looks at the basket the rest of the way.
Carlisle has made his mark as one of the most intelligent, innovative frontmen in the NBA, but his defensive mind is what puts him in the upper echelon of coaching circles. If the Mavericks can make even the slightest improvements on that side of the ball — as we've seen from this team in February, when they've put up a 9-2 record — they'll have something to say come playoff time.
It's unlikely they become much more than a really tough out for one of the league's elite in postseason play, but that's a step in the right direction. The bottom of the Western Conference is going to be a battle down the stretch, with only one game separating the current sixth (Dallas) and ninth (Memphis) seeds in the loss column at the moment, and the Mavs figure to be right in the thick of all of that over the next 23 games.
Dallas has recreated itself in a mold that offers the opportunity for success in the twilight of Nowitzki's career. While they're not considered a title contender this season, they have every chance to make some noise against those with higher hopes. But with Ellis in tow and a solid mix of veteran and youthful talent on the periphery, a few right moves over the offseason could put this team back in position to challenge.
But it's still going to revolve around Dirk. The Mavericks are 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents this season when he's on the floor, and they're one point worse than the opposition at the same rate when he's on the bench. Still, teams in this league have had success relying on aging superstars as major contributors, and given Nowitzki's situation and talent level, there's no reason to believe this team can't experience similar results.
It's going to take some work and a little bit of luck, but by preserving Nowitzki's health, putting him in a position to continue to succeed and giving him the offensive help he deserves, the Mavericks might be a little closer than you think.