Dirk Nowitzki was not the best player on the Dallas Mavericks this season. That honor belonged to Harrison Barnes. Yet even as Dirk took that inevitable step back at the ripe young age of 38, a transition Dallas has been looking to make since 2012, he was still arguably good enough to be the team’s second best player.
It was a challenging year for Dirk in many ways. He missed 28 games due to an Achilles injury and veteran rest. He witnessed a revolving door of teammates from a new starting frontcourt to a new starting backcourt to a new starting center. However, Nowitzki adjusted to the changes in his body and his team and maybe that’s what happened more this year than anything: we saw a franchise player gracefully adjust.
Let’s go over the ways.
He became a center
With the blossoming of Barnes and the miscasting of Andrew Bogut as starting center next to Nowitzki, Nowitzki changed positions and slid over to the five.
Although he has always played a little center, all the way back to the Nellie days, Nowitzki played half his minutes at center in 2016-17, a year after playing just 10 percent of his minutes in that position.
Dirk can’t keep up with the younger and more athletic fours in a space-driven league anymore, but on defense, he could still keep up with centers in the transition game. On offense, he acknowledged the effect of playing center after a January win against Washington: “That should be a good scoring lineup. That’s a lot of shooters out there, a lot of playmakers. We’re trying to give HB [Barnes] as much room out there as we can.”
Playing center allowed Nowitzki to play at the third highest pace of his career. Towards the end of the year, Dirk moved back to power forward to give Noel some starting minutes but don’t be surprised if he plays more and more of his minutes at the five for the rest of his career.
He found new ways to contribute
Nowitzki still remained a quality shooter as he shot 37.8 percent from the three and 87.5 percent from the line. However, his true shooting percentage was the worst since his rookie year at 52.9 percent (his career average is 57.8 percent). The most notable leak in his game was in the mid-range as his field goal percentage from 16 feet out to the three-point line was down to 43.9 percent, a career low (he has a career average of 47.5 percent).
Yet he found ways to contribute. Just by presence alone, Nowitzki still draws volumes of attention. The Nowitzki pick gave un-drafted guards like Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry career breakout moments as they operated in space they never saw before.
The rest of Nowitzki’s game has changed, too. As Nowitzki moved inside, his rebounding percentage rose to 14 percent, the highest since his MVP season in 2006-07. His block rate (2.4 percent) was the highest since 2004-05. Neither of these stats are close to being elite but still resulted in Dirk’s defensive Win Shares out-weighing his offensive Win Shares (1.9 compared to 0.6) for the first time since his rookie year.
So despite a down shooting year by his standards, Nowitzki found ways to contribute through his gravitational effect on defenses and some inside plays. All this added up to one of the oldest dogs in the league finding a way to play center effectively in a fairly untraditional way.
He embraced his super veteran status
Dirk has always talked about wanting to compete for a championship but as the reality of this year’s playoff fortunes sank in, I feel like his language and mindset evolved. He seemed to take a little more personal interest and satisfaction in seeing younger guys like Curry and Barnes, his locker neighbor, taking the next step in their careers. At times, Nowitzki seemed to speak fondly of Barnes’ development with an almost Holger-like tone.
Even back in December, Nowitzki said of Barnes, “He’s been fun to watch. We’ve run some of the same stuff that we’ve run for me for years, we run for him now: high post iso. He’s mastered it.”
And although I’m sure it burns Dirk inside on some level not to be playing this weekend in the playoffs, he took some time to take in the individual accolades as the playoffs odds grew longer. The capstone for this evolution took place when Dirk broke the 30,000 milestone:
In season-ending interviews, Dirk acknowledged his place is with the Mavericks, even if they choose to go full rebuild, a stance that would’ve never stood even just one or two summers ago. This year showed a new yet older Dirk who was more content in certain ways even as he balanced the things we loved about old Dirk — his work ethic, his humility, his desire to compete.
Nowitzki is entering the second year of a two-year “make it right” deal. He’s due to receive $25 million, which is a lot for a player who might see his minutes in the low 20s next year. However, $25 million is just right for a legend of Dirk’s stature who for years took below-market value deals.
Nowitzki confirmed he’ll be back to pick up the $25 million check and even left open the possibility of playing two more years.
Assuming he’s reasonably healthy, Nowitzki could still start next year, but he and the braintrust may finally consider having him come off the bench for either health, scheme or development reasons.
With Nerlens Noel set to be the team’s starting center and Harrison Barnes potentially the long-term fix at starting power forward, Dirk’s ability to bounce between the four and five will give the team some flexibility.
All this to say, Dirk will probably continue to look about the same as he did this year. He’ll still give the Mavericks good percentages at the line and from deep. He’ll still stretch the opposing defense but will need some coverage on the defensive end. The key question is if his dip from the mid-range can return to his career norms next year. It’ll help a lot if the Mavericks can get a dedicated passer who can get Nowitzki some easy open looks, and the Mavericks will look to do that in the draft or free agency.
No matter what, everybody will be keeping an eye on the NBA career points board, where he trails only Kareem, Malone, Bryant, Jordan and Chamberlain.
The drive for five is on.