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On the Understated Statistical Brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki

Oh, I know it  (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Oh, I know it (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bongarts/Getty Images

I have always felt that Dirk was born just a smidge too late for the statistical revolution. In terms of things like PER, win-shares, and all that, mid-career Dirk was an absolute beast, but it caught on only as he got a little bit older.

Not only that, of course, but especially in Dirk’s later years he’s been employed more as a precision-guided missile than a shock and awe force. Despite his pre-dominance both in the league and in an offense utterly devoid of players of his caliber, Dirk has never once had a top 5 usage rate (a measure of how much of a team’s play a player dominates). In fact, he’s only been on the list 4 times, with two 6th place finishes, a 7th place, and a 10th place.

We know how clutch he is. Of the players active in the NBA today, the one who recorded the highest single playoff game score was Vince Carter, with apparently the 7th best game of all time, in 2001, a 50 point, 7 assist, 6 rebound, 4 block, 1 steal performance. Dirk put up the 8th best game of all time, his sublime 48 points on 12-15 shooting night against the Thunder. He’s also got the 20th, dropping 50-12-3-1 on the Suns. Only Dirk, Kobe and Lebron have two of the top 20 playoff games of all time.

But when I think of Dirk Nowitzki, I think of prolonged, metronomic superiority. And so then I played around with basketball, and I gotta say, even I hardly remember Dirk being this good. Here we go:

We all know that Dirk is a scorer nearly unparalleled, but that he neither takes enough shots nor goes all out to TRY to score. Especially the last few years, he picks his spots, he warms up and waits for the 4th. So it was a little bit of a surprise, though just a little bit to see that

Dirk Nowitzki has finished in the top 5 in points scored six times (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009).

That’s a pretty conventional stat. But then, so are rebounds. As you’ve heard, Dirk can’t rebound because he’s soft. Though that’s false, it’s certainly true that Dirk these days certainly does save his rebounding for the postseason. However, though he was never Kevin Love, did you know that:

Dirk Nowitzki finished in the top 10 in rebounding three times (2001, 2002, 2004), as high as 7th (2002)

Okay. Alright. But that’s conventional stats. I thought it would be fun to compare Dirk as an offensive player with the only other offensive player of his caliber in his generation, Kobe Bean Bryant. I didn’t want to compare him with Kobe in points scored, since, you know, but if you look at the better statistics for offensive production, it’s by no means clear who’s been the better offensive player, over their careers

Take PER. I always felt Dirk was particularly slighted in PER. After all, he was number one in it in 2005, before anybody had really heard of it, and 2nd in 2006. But did you know:

Dir Nowitzki finished in the top 5 in PER 5 times (2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), to go along with an 8th place finish in 2009 and 10th in 2011?

Did you know that that’s the same number of times Kobe Bryant finished in the top 5?

Obviously, this column is about Dirk and not Kobe, who I have huge respect for but also whose game I currently detest---but, believe it or not, once you start talking about offensive win shares---a measure of how important someone’s offense has been in producing victories, this one’s not close. Because,

Dirk Nowitzki finished in the top 5 in Offensive Win Shares EIGHT TIMES, including a 2nd place finish in 2001, 1st place finishes in 2005 and 2006, and 3rd place finishes in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

Kobe, for what its worth, finished 2nd in 2002, 4th in 2005, 3rd in 2006---and that’s it.

But what about win shares in general? I don’t think anyone would disagree with the idea that Kobe’s a better defender than Dirk, historically—I certainly would not. However, did you know that:

Dirk has been top 5 in Win Shares, period, six times, including two 1st places finishes (2005, 2006), two 2nd place finishes (2002, 2004), and a 3rd place finish (2001)?

Kobe, for what it’s worth, 4 times---but never higher than 4th.

And, obviously, if you adjust it to win shares per 48, which will help Dirk out given his relatively light load all these years, you won’t be surprised if I tell you:

Dirk Nowitzki was the number one player in the league for offensive win shares per 48 minutes for a three year period, from 2004-2006. He finished in the top ten six times, total.

So, yeah, pretty impressive career. A couple of things obviously stand up, namely that it’s hard not to call Dirk the NBA’s best offensive player from 2004-2006. Second, that his statistical peak is past, of course, but not so very distant.

One particularly interesting stat, to me, is offensive rating. It’s points produced per possession, and the big name scorers almost never show up on it, for the obvious reason that they take too many shots and too many hard shots. Tyson Chandler was number one in this category, this last year, for example, and to take a random year, 2009-2010, the top 5 finishers were Nene, Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Anderson Varejao, and Chris Paul.

You do see guys like Chris Paul on there, and Pau Gasol even won it in 2008-2009, though that’s about it for a non-point guard star. Durant isn’t on the list, neither is Kobe. LeBron’s on there a few times, but never higher than 8th.

Dirk Nowitzki has been in the top ten of Offensive Rating 5 times, including a 2nd place finish in 2005, two 5th place finishes six years apart (2000 and 2006), a 6th place finish (2001), and a 10th place finish in 2003.

In other words, the one thing we always believed Dirk does better than anybody is score as much, or nearly as much, as any of the big guys, but with unbelievable, supernatural, indeed, never seen before efficiency.

The stats would seem to very much bear that out. Tim Duncan is not on that list. KG isn’t on there once. Kevin Love had a 5th place showing in 2010, but didn’t make it last year. The year Pau Gasol won was one of two visits to the list, the other being a 10th place finish in 2009. In other words, you can't find a big name scorer who isn't a point guard on that list more than a couple of times.

Nobody does that. Nobody but Dirk.

And I can well believe it.