Editor's Note: Front-paged for discussion
The great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar occasionally contributes stories to ESPN.com and he wrote a piece yesterday discussing the overall decline in scoring this postseason, and he had something interesting to say about our guy Dirk Nowitzki. (Here's the link -- http://espn.go.com/nba/playoffs/2012/story/_/id/8007685/nba-playoff-scoring-2012-vs-scoring-1985.)
In the article, Kareem basically lends his opinion that the increasingly common trend of players jumping to the NBA early has caused diminished skill development and mental maturity, both of which have somehow contributed to this year's low point totals (a pretty bad causal conclusion given that the one-and-done rule has been in place several years now and we never freaked out about lower scoring).
And then, bam. To persuade the reader, he offers this perfect example of an underachieving player who could have used more college development: Dirk Nowitzki.
A young man can get into the NBA just because he has potential, but if that potential does not manifest itself, he will be traded or let go by a cost-conscious director of personnel. Even those players who are able to make it past the first hurdle don't always play up to their potential. A great example is Dirk Nowitzki. As a 7-footer, he had the opportunity to play college ball in America, but people close to the situation say Dirk avoided playing U.S. college ball because he would be called on to defend and rebound and play with the big guys. Dirk has been an exceptional offensive player, but his NBA career stats show that he has limited skills as a defender, shot-blocker and rebounder. We'll never know how good he could have been had he spent more time rounding out his skill set with a top college coach.
I have great respect for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was easily a top 3 center to ever play (along with Russell and Chamberlain) and had one of the five or so greatest basketball careers ever. He's also always struck me as an eloquent and intelligent commentator on the game in several of his writings.
But there's no doubt about it -- he's horrendously wrong with this example.
Number one, it's pretty ridiculous that anyone could make a point regarding underachieving players and then offer Dirk Nowitzki as their "great example" of one. The man has career averages of 22.9/8.3/2.6 with .475/.380/.878 shooting splits. He is one of only 4 players to ever average 25 points and 10 rebounds for his playoff career. He's also the only player in NBA history to have four straight games with 30 points and 15 rebounds apart from...Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Beyond the statistics, though, he's worked as hard as anyone to improve his skill set, make himself tougher, and maintain consistency as "the man" for the Mavs over his 14-year First-Ballot Hall-of-Fame career. More than anything, Nowitzki's game is as unique and recognizable as that of any player ever. He, along with Kevin Garnett, essentially redefined the power forward position by introducing the notion of a primarily perimeter-based, jump-shooting big man. In fact, Dirk's fallaway jump shot has become so iconic now that it's lauded as one of the most unstoppable shots ever -- along with...Kareem's sky hook.
To his credit, Kareem does praise Dirk for being an "exceptional offensive player," a title not even the most stubborn Spurs fan could refute. But just acknowledging that in an attempt to downplay Nowitzki's other skills undersells his overall value to his team. Just like a great team is more than the sum of its parts, I'd argue that an individual player is more than his assortment of skills. I'll give my own example: Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is, like Dirk, an otherworldly offensive talent -- many have said he's the best in the game. His raw career per-game averages are superior to Dirk's in most categories -- points, assists, steals -- and even in rebounding, he's averaged 6.3 a game, a pretty high figure for a small forward. He's also, like Dirk, a below-average defensive player. But Dirk's teams, year in and year out, have been pretty successful 50 and 60-win teams that have made the Conference Finals thrice and the NBA Finals twice. Anthony's teams, on the other hand, have won less in the regular season and have only made it out of the first round once despite being composed of similarly talented players.
So what's the difference between Anthony and Nowitzki? His overall value to his team. Their statistical totals are pretty comparable, but Nowitzki gets his points more efficiently (shoots less and better), initiates good offense for his teammates, and has, over the past few years, shown a real commitment to good team defense. This value is obvious to anyone who has watched the Mavs play and really bears out in their abysmal win-loss record when he sits. So, getting back to the main point, characterizing Nowitzki as some scoring maestro who can't contribute in other ways is just false.
Another thing Kareem misses on, in my opinion, is the idea that Dirk's rebounding and defensive deficiencies are due to a lack of coaching earlier in his career. Dirk, for a seven-footer, has never been a great rebounder -- he's never even averaged more than 10 a game in the regular season, a feat which his peers, Duncan and Garnett, have routinely accomplished. Any basketball coach will tell you rebounding is about three things -- effort, anticipation, and athleticism. I hate to tell you, but Dirk is 0 for 3 (for whatever reason, I've never gotten the sense, especially in recent years, that Dirk has a ravenous hunger to crash the boards). As far as defense, Dirk has pretty bad physical tools -- poor lateral quickness, not much vertical leap, and only decent length and bulk to bang down low. In spite of all that, he's improved noticeably in recent years by executing the proper rotations, using the length he has, and improving his hands -- I noticed several deflections and steals he made in last year's playoffs that he would never have managed earlier in his career. These are changes to his game that have slowly developed over several years under Rick Carlisle's coaching and team defensive principles -- basically, I have a hard time believing Dirk could have been a superior defender merely if he "rounded out his skill set with a top college coach" as Kareem suggests.
The last problem I have is Kareem's depiction of Dirk as a talented 19-year-old player who was scared of playing college basketball because "he would be called on to defend and rebound and play with the big guys." This is classic Euro-stereotyping bullshit and a double standard -- when high school players like Garnett and Kobe Bryant go pro, it's justified because they want to make money and prove their superior talents on the biggest stage. But when a European like Nowitzki goes pro, he's just scared. As annoying and tired a stereotype that is, though, I'm even more leery of Kareem's "people close to the situation." After all, Kareem, with his unimpeachable journalistic credibility and experience, has sources close to every situation, including ones that could tell him exactly what went through Dirk's mind as he pondered whether to play college ball or jump to the NBA...right.
Well, that was a long rant, but I just felt I had to dissect the pure lunacy of that paragraph.
I'll leave you with one simple sentiment: I will never spend sleepless nights wondering how good Dirk Nowitzki "could have been." The man has carved out a legendary career and done as much to maximize his potential as any player I've ever seen. He's one of the best five power forwards ever and one of the fifteen or twenty greatest players ever.
And that's good enough for me.