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What's Wrong With Dirk?

Jesus, couldn't it be Ian's knee? Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE
Jesus, couldn't it be Ian's knee? Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

To my mind, there have been three Dirks, this season. There was the Dirk who started the season, before his knee forced him out. That wasn’t just poor play, it was also an overall lack of assertiveness. From January 5th to January 19th, a stretch of 9 games before he took his time off, Dirk shot 12 or less shots 6 times.

Then came Dirk two, after his little siesta, which saw him shoot 70% against the Pacers (and score 30), 60% against the Cavs (and score 24), 55% against the Nuggets (25), and 58% against the Wolves (33).

That was, unfortunately, a different Mavericks team in a lot of ways, one that was getting consistent contributions from the likes of Delonte West, Vince Carter, Jason Terry and Ian Mahimni. The Mavs won 6 of those games and played probably their best basketball of the season.

Since then Delonte and his finger has parted ways, Vince, as is to be expected of a 35 year-old athlete, has been a lot more man than amazing, Jason Terry has put out an official APB for his offensive game and Ian Mahimni has earned some quality time with the farther side of the bench.

Then something happened, and now we get Dirk three. Though, in general, his scoring has stayed high (24+ in 5 out of 8 games), Dirk, who’s never shot below 46% in a season in his career, has shot better than 46% just once in those eight games.

It started against Portland where, a day after besting Kevin Love with 33 points, 58% shooting, 4-7 from three, he needed 20 points to score 20 against Portland, a double OT game in which he missed two game-winners before hitting the third. It hasn’t stopped.

What’s going on?

Little known fact. According to, last year, Dirk Nowitzki averaged more points per play than Kevin Durant. He averaged more in Isolation, more as a pick and roll ball-handler (granted on WAY less plays), considerably more in the post. He scored more off screens, more of O-boards, just slightly less in transition.

He scored more per play than Kobe Bryant, considerably more (1.08 to .97). More in the post. Dirk was the better spot-up shooter, better off screens, better in transition.

Dirk score more (sensing a theme here), than LeBron James per possession (1.08 to 1.01). From lots of places on the floor.

He scored .98 PPP in isolation. 1.23 as a pick and roll ball handler. 1.1 in the post. 1.07 and the P and R roll guy. 1.07 as a spot-up shooter.1.15 off-screens. 1.2 on hand-offs, 1.15 on cuts, 1.33 in transition.

That is elite, elite stuff.

Cut to this year.

Dirk is averaging less than a point from nearly everywhere on the floor. He’s scoring .93 in isolation, .89 spotting up, .94 in the post. He’s still strong in transition, scoring 1.29 ppp, and 1.25 while cutting. Everything else is down across the board.

In general, the breakdown of Dirk’s shot selection hasn’t changed. He’s down to 11.9% in iso, from 13.4%, down to 23.3% in the post from 27.5%, up to 13.7% on the pick and roll from 10.1%. Fundamentally the same amount of his shots come spotting-up. He’s up to taking 9.8% of his shots in transition from 7.9%.

It is unlikely that any of these are statistically significant numbers. What they indicate is that Dirk is not having too much trouble getting to the spots that he wants to which, given that a lot of his game is relatively physical, would seem to indicate that he hasn’t lost much in speed or strength though, obviously, he started with that knee issue.

Really, there are only two things to note here. The first is that the biggest drop-off he’s suffered is as a spot-up shooter, a drop of .18 points per play. His second biggest drop is as a post-player, having lost .16 points per play down there. Given that Dirk is a thoroughly unique player, whose post-ups and spot-ups are both essentially unguardable, there seems to be a simple explanation for his struggles:

He’s not shooting very well. To me, that’s good news. The question with Dirk this season is whether or not he’s struggling from the after-effects of the championship, playing in Germany, and having no offsesaon,or whether he’s too old. To me, old would be getting pushed out of the post. Not missing the shot. Maybe I’m wrong.

The second note is this. If there is anything approaching a major change in his game, in this extremely small sample-size, is that while last year 54 of his 89 3-point attempts were spot-up jumpers and only 20 in transition, he’s already shot 12 3-pointers in transition to 11 spotting up. Shooting more in transition—as well as slightly more on the pick and roll and slightly less in iso—means that Dirk isn’t being as patient as usual, this season.

In other words, Dirk is doing what anyone else would be doing in his situation which is pressing, trying to get something going. The ball is not going in.

So what's going on?

Well, let's suppose this:

I think that Dirk's training camp issues (conditioning or whatever) are over, because of his good play for a long stretch of time, in the middle there. On the other hand, it's obviously not something completely new since that seems a bit coincidental. No matter how wildly the Mavericks mismanaged his basketball time out, it's clear that he was dealing with a physical issue, which was his knee.

It looked to me like he hurt his knee against the Knicks, and certainly he hasn’t been the same since. Not only that, but it looked like he hurt it again against New Jersey, and he hurt his back against Memphis. I don't know if any of that's true, except the back thing, but no matter what anyone on Earth tells you, and Dirk and Carlisle both have, a knee injury is not the kind of thing that gets better the more you play on it.

Probably, it got better when he rested. Probably it hurts again, but this time, with half the season and the all-star break behind him, he knows there's nothing to do about it. He certainly can't take time off again. The last time, the Mavs were buoyant enough that they won three of the four games he missed. Anyone think that would happen now?

As the Mavs offense has more or less deteriorated, the fact of the matter is that they need Dirk more than ever. What Dirk seems to have realized is that, unusually for him, however he’s shooting, he has to keep shooting. Last season, between January 1st and the end of the season on April 13th, Dirk shot more than 20 shots 6 times. He went the whole month of February without doing it once. This year, he’s done it three times since February 17th.

More importantly, it means that he has to keep playing. After playing less than 30 minutes six times in the first 13 games, Dirk’s hit 35 or more 9 times in the month of February alone. In fact, he played less than 30 minutes only once, in the blowout win vs. Denver. This is not exactly the way to care for a veteran player, but at this point in the season there might not be a choice. With the Mavs sitting at 6th in the standings and a tough stretch a head, they have to find a way to get their best player on the court to stay.

The frightening truth is, we really don’t have any way of knowing whether whatever this is, is going to reverse itself this season. If he needs rest, he's not going to get it. If he just needs to get back in a rhythm, there's a chance.

For Dirk Nowitzki, it is not about scoring 25 points a game. It is about how he does it, with tremendous efficiency--better than Kevin Durant, better than LeBron James, better than Kobe Bryant. That's because Dirk doesn't have Russell Westbrook, or Dwayne Wade, or Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. He has to make them all, and he always has.Neither he nor the Mavs can survive this way.

Here's hoping they don't have to.