Is Dirk Nowitzki Somehow Getting Better?

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Is Dirk Nowitzki Somehow Getting Better?
Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

Most assumed Dirk Nowitzki's German-engineered jumper would age well, but nobody expected this.

Playing in his 16th season, the nearly 36-year-old first-ballot Hall of Famer is having one of his best years ever. And no, the qualifier "considering his age" isn't necessary. Nowitzki has been phenomenal in 2013-14 by any standard.

At a time when most players are thinking about packing it in, Nowitzki is cranking it up. Incredibly, he seems to be getting better.

 

High Volume, High Efficiency

We'll begin with what is perhaps the most startling visual representation of Dirk's greatness this year—his red-hot shot chart:

From literally every spot on the floor, Nowitzki converts shots at an accuracy rate well above the league's average—hence all the red. You might think those numbers are propped up by Dirk's selective approach to offense, but the opposite is actually true.

He's shooting threes more frequently than ever, and that's not a shot that typically lends itself to higher efficiency rates as volume increases. At present, Nowitzki is averaging 4.5 triple attempts per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

That ties a career high.

As he's aged, Nowitzki has retreated farther from the basket. But that backpedal hasn't negatively affected his accuracy. At 39.2 percent from long range, Nowitzki's three-point mark is well above his career average, and we've never seen him shoot this many threes with this high of a conversion rate.

In that sense, he's providing more per-minute value from long distance than ever before.

And consider this: Nowitzki isn't even taking advantage of the NBA's most popular high-percentage spot on the perimeter. On the season, only nine of his 296 three-point attempts have come from the corners. Thanks to Dallas' desire to station other wings in those spots, Nowitzki doesn't even get to bolster his field-goal percentage with those relatively short triple attempts.

Considering all those factors, it's fair to call this Dirk's most impressive three-point shooting season ever.

 

More Than Long Bombs

Glenn James/Getty Images

There's another area in which Nowitzki is, incredibly, exceeding his previous career bests: two-point range.

More specifically, the 7-foot forward leads the NBA in made field goals from 10-14 feet by a huge margin, per NBA.com. He's converting those attempts at a 47.6 percent clip, meaning opposing defenses that typically beg offensive players to shoot mid-range jumpers have to completely readjust their principles for Nowitzki's game.

He's also third in the league in buckets from 15-19 feet, trailing only LaMarcus Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony, per NBA.com. However, he's far more accurate than either of those high-volume gunners, outpacing Aldridge (42.6 percent) and Anthony (46.2 percent) handily with a conversion rate of 51.7 percent.

Long twos aren't bad shots for Nowitzki—they're great ones. That forces opposing players to defend spots they don't normally have to while causing coaches to frustratedly tear up their typical defensive game plans.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

With those numbers in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn Nowitzki is hitting 52.4 percent of his two-point shots this season, which is the second-highest rate of his career.

Overall, Nowitzki's effective field-goal percentage of 54 percent is also the second-best figure he's ever posted, and his true shooting percentage is his fifth-highest ever at 59.8 percent.

There's little mystery to how he's done it; Nowitzki is a notoriously diligent worker, and nothing improves shooting accuracy like countless reps in an empty gym. But there's also the matter of his patented one-legged fallaway. That shot, unblockable from any angle and one he's able of getting off with or without a live dribble, is as responsible for Nowitzki's growth as anything else.

Essentially, Dirk went into the tool shed of NBA greats a couple of years ago, constructed a hybrid fadeaway shot nobody had ever seen before and used it keep himself dangerous as his limited mobility disappeared.

Nowitzki built himself the kind of hard-to-contest, timeless weapon only the all-time greats feature. No wonder he's occupying rarefied air alongside them, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:

The only players in NBA history who averaged more points while playing the majority of games in a season at age 35 or older are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Alex English, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone.

At 35, Dirk averages 21.6.

 

Good Enough?

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Remember, Nowitzki has an MVP award, a championship ring and six seasons with a player efficiency rating above 24.0 (he's at 23.5 this year, per Basketball-Reference.com), so it's not realistic to expect him, at 35, to be a more impactful player than he's ever been.

But Nowitzki is doing a few things more effectively this year than he ever has before. So in a very real sense, he truly is getting better.

Tragically, Nowitzki's late-career heroics, though undeniably impressive, might not be enough to get the Mavs where they need to go this year. A heartbreaking April 1 loss to the Golden State Warriors dropped Dallas out of the West's top eight, and there's no guarantee it'll make it back into the postseason mix.

Don't blame that defeat on Nowitzki, though; he dropped 33 points (including 16 in the second quarter) and hit six of eight from downtown. He was good enough.

Looking further ahead, Nowitzki should remain "good enough" to attract the kinds of star free agents the Mavericks will need to keep their run going. And that matters more than anything else.

According to Nowitzki's influential trainer, Holger Geschwindner, the big man can play another three or four years. Or, you know, maybe longer (via MacMahon of ESPN): "So play until you die and they drag you off the court. Then it's over. Then you really know it's over and you can live with it."

Bart Young/Getty Images

If we've learned anything in this, perhaps Nowitzki's most impressive season, it's that he's got plenty of life left in his still-growing game.

 

Stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Stats accurate through games played April 1, 2014.

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