On February 5th, 1999, Dirk Nowitzki made his NBA debut.
A week before, John Elway had played his last game, winning Super Bowl XXXIII.
Mark Cuban was almost exactly 11 months from officially buying the Dallas Mavericks.
Bill Clinton was over 11 months from leaving office.
The #1 movie at the box office was the great American classic She's All That, starring acclaimed thespian and Academy Award watcher Frederick Prinze, Jr.
The #1 song in America was "Hit Me Baby One More Time", a scathing condemnation of child abuse in inner-city schools.
The Mavericks lost in overtime(and they'd lose 8 of their first 9) to the Seattle Supersonics, a team that no longer exists, and Dirk Nowitzki missed on all of his five field goal attempts.
Since then things have improved for Dirk. 11 All Star appearances, an MVP award, and a championship trophy sit atop his resume, though if you ask him, his greatest accomplishment may have come last July, when he became a father.
It is next to impossible to discuss the Mavericks without also discussing Dirk. He really is the team, in a way I'm not too sure any other franchises can claim. For the next few seasons, at least, Dallas will continue to go as Nowitzki goes, and so far that has proven to be no bad thing.
The 2012-13 season was not exactly a banner year for Nowitzki or the Mavericks. Dirk saw his raw production drop to levels not seen since his second professional season. The main culprit, as most know, was October knee surgery that was supposed to keep him out six weeks but ended up keeping him sidelined nearly until Christmas, and even then limited him to a fraction of his full strength.
He did eventually find his groove, and helped provide what may go down as one of the most enduring moments of his career, fully-bearded against the Chicago Bulls:
This was the third straight season Nowitzki missed a chunk of time due to injury, and going forward that will be a looming factor for the 35-year old. Nowitzki says he feels fine and has put in a lot of work this summer to get in shape and make sure his body is ready for the grind of an 82 game season, but admits this was also the case last year, prior to the trip to Barcelona when his knee flared up.
While age and health may not be on Nowitzki's side, anymore, those looking to write Dirk off as over the hill may be jumping the gun. Dirk's season numbers are dragged down by the slow start he experienced as he struggled to round into shape in January and early February. After the All-Star break, Nowitzki's play improved dramatically.
Pre-ASB: 23 games, 15.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 42.3% FG, 38.8% 3-PT, 79.8% FT
Post-ASB: 30 games, 18.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 50.% FG, 43.3% 3-PT, 91.3% FT
Column 2 looks a lot more like the Dirk we all know, and that's an encouraging sign, as the Maverick attack will continue to be based around Nowitzki's deadly efficient arsenal.
For years, basketball pundits have said that Nowitzki has an the type of game that should age well. Nowitzki's strongest assets are his long, 7'0 frame, and his legendary shooting touch, and those aren't things that decline with age. Though he doesn't get off the ground like he used to, Nowitzki has become a master at understanding angles, footwork, spacing, etc. His pump fakes are among the best in the NBA because opposing defenders absolutely must respect his shot.
Dirk continues to be one of the best in the universe at what is, for most, a bad shot: the long two. For Dirk, this shot is money. For the third straight season, Nowitzki converted at least 50% from 16-23 feet, a range players typically convert less than 40%.
This shot makes up more than a third of Dirk's attempts, an unusually large share for any player, let alone a 7'0 power forward. It also makes Dirk a matchup nightmare, as most defenders big enough to bother Dirk's shot are not accustomed to playing that far out, and most defenders that are used to playing that far out, are too small to bother Dirk's shot. As you can tell from his shot chart, Dirk is most dangerous from the right elbow, where he takes and makes most of his field goals.
For Dallas, the reason Dirk makes such a good option to build around is because of how many points he can score on so few possessions. Ultimately, this is the key to the NBA game, and it explains why analytics have typically appreciated Dirk more than the casual NBA fan. Nowitzki ranked 2nd among power forwards averaging at least 16 minutes a game in turnover ratio, and 9th among any position. He also is a career 38% three-point shooter, and a career 87% free throw shooter, so he rarely leaves extra points on the floor.
Add it all up and you have a player who can get his, while leaving plenty of shots on the table for others. And those extra shots are going to come in handy when you add Monta Ellis to the mix. Dirk's selfless nature and unobtrusive playing style make him an ideal partner for Monta, who if paired with someone like Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant would likely see his usage rates plummet and his effectiveness sapped.
Defensively, Dirk isn't known as a standout, but I believe him to be underrated here. His length, smarts, and quick hands make him a capable team defender. Dallas was only slightly better with Nowitzki on the floor defensively this past season, but in past years the difference has been much more pronounced. In 2011-12, Dallas defended over four points per game better with Nowitzki in the lineup, and in the title-season, it was six and a half points better. That is terrific, and while it can partly be attributed to Dallas' long-standing tendency to pair Dirk with a strong defensive center, it shouldn't take away from the fact that Dirk can clearly contribute to a solid defensive unit.
What this may tell us is not so much that Dirk's defense was lacking last year, but that Chris Kaman was a disaster as Dirk's frontcourt partner. Something to watch closely this year will be the defensive play of Samuel Dalembert, historically a solid defender but someone the numbers suggest may be in decline at that end.
Put a gun to my head, and I'll say I expect Dirk to enjoy a strong, bounce-back year, assuming he can stay relatively healthy. On second thought, you don't need the gun. The truth is, like most Mavs fan: I love this man. He's been the best thing about DFW sports in over a decade and I don't expect that to stop just yet. I try to stay away from hero-worship, especially when it comes to athletes(who are, as a group, perpetually disappointing), but I cannot deny I find Dirk spectacularly fun and fulfilling to root for, both for his play on the court, and his down-to-earth, unassuming, humble nature off it. I can't wait for another season of Dirk.