Dirk Nowitzki has been synonymous with the Dallas Mavericks for what -- in basketball years -- might as well be an eternity. To consider what the team might look like without him in the mix is a strange and perhaps even painful thought, but the reality is such a time is coming. To all who adore him, our pledge the next couple of seasons must be to soak up as much of Dirk's greatness as is left.
Dirk's season last year
After a spectacular run in 2013-14, the 2014-15 campaign saw Dirk slip a little in a few important areas. With 36-year-old legs supporting his enormous frame, Dirk's lateral mobility on defense -- not a strength to begin with -- became a pretty big problem for Dallas, and was notably exploited by the Houston Rockets in the playoffs.
Even the return of Tyson Chandler could not sufficiently cover this up, as Dirk went from a respectable 20th in defensive plus-minus among all power forwards in 2013-14 to 84th. Rick Carlisle did his best to hide Dirk on defense, which kept his opponent-PER and Synergy numbers from cratering, but the Mavericks still gave up 2.5 fewer points when Dirk was off the floor. Though still seven feet tall with quick hands (his best move is stripping drivers with a well-timed slap), Dirk isn't a shotblocker or much of a rebounder, and the last point may be an area to really keep an eye on as Dallas shuffles the aforementioned Chandler out and Zaza Pachulia in.
On offense, Dirk is still a major weapon, but his ability to create his own shot took a hit as well. Nowitzki was assisted on more of his baskets than he had been in years, and while the Maverick offense does put a premium on ball movement, this does not seem to be a complete accident. Postups accounted for a little under a quarter of Dirk's offense, and the only player to post up more times with a better point-per-possession ratio was LaMarcus Aldridge (gulp). However, Dirk has eschewed isolations in favor of spot ups, and curiously that tradeoff was not the "win" you might expect from a PPP perspective, perhaps because it limited Dirk's ability to get to the free throw line.
Dirk finished the year with his lowest true-shooting percentage since his rookie season, though it was only barely worse than two years ago and still puts him in the upper echelon of the NBA's power forwards. The only PF with a higher usage rate and a TS% as good or better than Dirk was Anthony Davis, who I'm told is pretty good at basketball. Dirk also was tied for the lowest turnover rate of any power forward, again with that Davis guy.
Looking ahead to 2016
Creating lots of offense efficiently is Dirk's calling card, as he will still be one of the game's best shooters when he's 70. For Dirk it seems like the biggest obstacle now is simply staying fresh. Nowitzki got off to a torrid start to the 2014-15 season, shooting extremely well the first month and change, but had major dry spells in December and February. The stat of the season for Dirk might be his home road splits: at home he shot 49.5 percent from the field and 44.5 percent from three, but on the road he made just 41.9 percent of his field goals and only 32.2% of his threes.
I can recall a conversation with our SB Nation league manager Seth Pollack back in 2012 about Steve Nash. He said that as great a shooter as Nash was, there were just certain nights where his legs weren't there (or his back didn't cooperate), and he couldn't hit a shot. I fear Dirk is at this point, where it's not simply about having an occasional "off-night", but about physically not being able to be anything much more than a decoy for certain games.
So, the big challenge will be limiting his workload. Carlisle has indicated that he wants to get Dirk down to the 26 minute range, which won't be a walk in the park given the quality of bigs behind him. I also expect that Dirk will play about as many road games on the second night of back-to-backs as I do this season.
When Dirk does play, and is healthy, I see no reason to think he won't still be a vital part of the Maverick offense. His reputation still draws defenses in, and when you add to the mix the other shooters Dallas looks to employ, I expect lots of driving lanes for Deron Williams, Chandler Parsons, JJ Barea and Devin Harris. Something I've long wondered is why Dallas doesn't get Dirk more looks at the short-corner three, since he's so good at long twos. As you can see from his shot chart, he attempted just three corner threes all year, and none from the right corner.
For years, as Dirk has gone so have the Mavs. This season, Dirk may not be the most important piece, but both the team and the player seem to be in a similar position, as national media members are preparing to write both off as too old, too slow, too soft. It goes without saying that fighting for the last playoff spot is not the final chapter Mavs' fans want for Dirk and his storied career, but here we are, so we might as well make the best of it.
If the playoffs are not destined for Dallas, then at least we can enjoy Dirk taking one more step up history's ladder: with 478 points, Dirk will pass Shaquille O'Neal for sixth place on the NBA's all time scoring list. For those who don't remember just how dominant Shaq was and for as long as he was, passing a player like that is pretty damned impressive. Next on the list would be Wilt Chamberlain, but to get there Dirk would almost certainly have to play three more full seasons at roughly the same level. If Dirk's hints at retiring after his contract ends are legitimate, then sixth place will be as high as he goes.