On the Sublime Efficiency of Dirk Nowitzki

Some time this season, presumably, Dirk will break into the top 20 in all-time scoring and that day will probably be soon. He has 102 points to go, so it could be as soon as 5 games from now—or sooner than that.

Dirk scored nearly 1700 points last season, and though he won’t get there this year, thanks to the season length and hist start, with a little luck and 38 games to go, he could get 800 more or so in 2012, which would put him at around 18, just ahead of Charles Barkley.

If Dirk scores 5000 more points in his career—that is, just under three more seasons at last year’s proficiency, which is not exactly unreasonable (not that he’ll do it in three seasons, but, say, four), he’d end up somewhere around 7th all time. 7th, in all-time scoring. Did you know that?

That’s counting a lot of chickens before they hatch. There’s age and injury and hell, maybe he’ll spend his twilight years in Germany, or what have you. Still, in the years before last year, when Dirk had fallen off everybody’s radar, that’s the stat I used that most impressed non-Mavs fans. This many points and this many years, and Dirk will be firmly in the top ten, all-time. With a little luck.

I do think, though we all know how great a scorer Dirk is, game in and game out, we sometimes don’t realize how good he is in a historical context.

Of the currently 20 names in front of him on the all-time scoring list, only Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are still active and only Allen Iverson and Shaq retired within the last 8 years. Since KG’s lead on Dirk, a 400-point lead gained in 3 additional seasons of play, is based on longevity and not aptitude, fine scorer though he was and to some degree still is, it wouldn’t be too difficult to make the argument that Dirk is the second finest scorer of his generation, after Kobe.

What’s so fascinating about that, though, is how he’s done it. Dirk Nowitzki is, by some measurements, the least-shooting elite scorer (non-center) in NBA history.



The top 15 scorers in NBA history, by the numbers, are Kareem, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem, Oscar Robertson, Dominique Wilkins, John Havlicek, Alex English, Reggie Miller and Jerry West.

Obviously, there were better scorers whose careers were curtailed by injury (Larry Bird, for example), and some ABA players with better numbers and different eras and paces of basketball and all that kind of thing. Some guys stayed in college for four years, some got four extra seasons.

In terms of field goal attempts per game, Michael Jordan leads them all at 22.9, more even than Wilt at 22.5, Jerry West at 20.4, Dominique Wilkins at 20.1, Kobe at 19.5 (I know, thanks to his first three light-shooting years), Oscar Robertson at 18.9, John Havlicek at 18.8, Elvin hayes at 18.6, Kareem at 18.1, Alex English at 17.6, Shaq, 16.1, Moses Malone, 14.3, and Reggie Miller, a jaw-dropping 12.6 (5 of which were three-pointers).

Dirk Nowitzki is at 16.8. He averaged 16.2 last year, and is currently averaging only 14.8 this year (though that will presumably go up). So that puts him behind only Shaq, Moses Malone and, again, Reggie Miller.

Obviously, Reggie makes this list because of his long career and his ability to hit a shot worth slightly more than other shots—he’s probably the only here who’s a better three-point shooter than Dirk, though some will say Kobe (who, at least, certainly shoots harder ones). Reggie’s 18 points a game don’t exactly break the bank here, but still, give the man credit, 18 points on 12.6 shots for an entire career is pretty insane.

Besides that? Keep in mind that all of these guys but Kobe have retired, and almost all of them had a few years of decline that dragged their shot totals down a bit lower. Kareem averaged 14 or so his last three years, for example. Or think Malone on the Lakers.

And it’s not just that. Dirk, as presumably the second best three-point shooter of the bunch, with a fine (if unorthodox) post-game and the ability to drive, takes more shots from more places than nearly all of those guys, and his efficiency remains ridiculous.

Since Dirk’s second year in the league, his FG% has never dipped below 46%. His 3P% dropped below 36% exactly once, a 34% mark in 2003. To put that in perspective, four of the top ten in PPG this season are shooting lower than 46%, and only two of them are shooting better than 36%.

Although his free-throw shooting career percentange of 88% seems high, it is in fact misleading. His first four years in the league he shot 77%, 83%, 84% and 85%. He never shot below 87% again.

Since 2001-2002 he’s been in the top ten in scoring 9 times, missingly on last year, the top five 6 times, and 7th two more. But he’s been in the top ten in the league in field goal attempts only five times—and only once in the top 5, when he shot 20 for the only time in his career. And only one of thoes times was in the last five years.

That’s right. Dirk Nowitzki has been in the top five in scoring more times than he has been in the top ten in shot attempts. Michael Finley, by comparison, finished 3rd in 1997, 8th in 1998, 5th in 1999-00, 9th in 2000. That’s right, too. Fin was up there four times in his career, and Dirk five.

It doesn’t matter, but sometimes I wonder. How many points could Dirk have scored, if he ever just really hunted shots, before the 4th. Certainly his efficiency would go down, and other numbers would be less impressive, but how many more points would he have scored a season? One hundred? Five hundred?

On some distant primordial level, in which I need my superstar to beat up your superstar, it’s not hard to think that maybe, just maybe, Dirk would have gotten the respect he deserved all along, if he had been a gunner. If he had scored those 3 or 4 extra points a game. If he wasn’t just now breaking into the top 20 but instead breaking into the top 10. If he, like Kobe, were on track for somewhere high in the top 5.

But then, Dirk wouldn’t be Dirk.

Last year, he shot 16.2 shots a game and scored only 23 points , the loewst number he’d scored since 2003. It was his finest year. His three-point attempts have been dropping from a high in 2002 to just 1.5 in 2009 and 2.3 in 2010. His percentage has been climbing.

Last year, as I’ve said before, was a virtuoso performance. He shot when he needed to, and when it was a good shot. The crazy thing is, of course, Dirk is almost always going to get a good shot. As my friend Paul pointed out during the Wolves-Mavs game, the shot the defense wants Dirk to take is pretty often the shot Dirk wants to take anyway. What’s hard for every other player in the league—the long twos, the lean-back fall-aways and so on—is a layup for Dirk.

But still, he won’t push it. He won’t get greedy. When they need it, he wants the ball in his hands. When the shot’s there, he always takes it. Dirk always knows when he’s single-covered, and the opponents almost always regret it. But he won’t force it.

He never has.

The older I get, the more basketball I watch, the more I think the gifts that we’re able to describe our players as having---hops, jumpshots, speed, etc.—are a deficient vocabulary. What makes a basketball player special is in the head, and there are all kinds of genius up there. That’s why the Mavs have had so much success with aging stars in the last couple years, your Shawn Marion’s, your Peja’s, your Vince Carter’s, because you can’t be a star, whatever your talents, without some kind of basketball genius and the Mavs know it and know how to make use of it.

There just are different kinds. Some guys attack the rim with ferocity, some gun away with an inch of space, some drive fans crazy, in good and bad ways, with contested shots that find the net surprisingly often.Some have tremendous physical gifts and some out-think the game.

Dirk’s peculiar genius is choosing shots. He almost never gets it wrong. And as he climbs the NBA leaderboard, the rest of the league will get another chance to see where that can get you.

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