Saturday, December 29, 2007

Frustrating Week

The Mavericks’ local TV and radio crews were happy to put a positive stamp on the team’s 13-point home win over Atlanta today, but the fact is that after jumping to a 12-0 lead in the first quarter, Dallas barely edged the Hawks the rest of the way. Dallas’ defense in the fourth quarter was as porous as ever, while Dirk shot 1 for 5 for the quarter, and the Hawks’ aggressive defense forced a handful of turnovers and made the Mavericks look timid.

Dallas has many strengths, but in the second half what I saw was (1) Atlanta punishing the Mavericks with blocks and turnovers every time they tried to get into the lane, and (2) Atlanta getting close to the hoop and drawing a foul almost any time they wanted to.

I don’t like to be too harsh on Dallas when they lose a game, and here’s an example of where they don’t deserve much credit for winning. Dallas won, but they looked like they got bullied. Against Utah the other day, when the Jazz tightened up the lane, Dallas settled for (and missed) a series of three-pointers late in the fourth quarter. Tonight they tried harded to get inside, but they couldn’t for the most part. They made enough shots to win, but their performance wasn’t much more impressive than it was against Utah.

As a footnote, the Mavericks deserve to get called out for a lame performance against Cleveland on Thursday night. My brother and I were there in the upper deck, and the effort by the team was abominable, with the lone exception of Nowitzki, who fought for 20 rebounds. No one (Dirk included) could shoot that night, and no one other than Dirk bothered to rebound or defend for most of the game. Just like Utah the night before, any given Cavs’ player could count on an open shot most any time he wanted it. That Cleveland only shot 36 percent (same as Dallas) was the Mavericks’ good fortune, not the result of defensive aggressiveness. In the end LeBron only needed an average performance (with a pair of nice dunks) in order to win on the road.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Dallas or Miami?

OK, setting aside the specific question of Dirk’s play, and whether he has the heart/guts to win a title, let’s talk about the Mavericks as a franchise during the Dirk era. If Dallas somehow wins a championship the next couple of years, this will all be moot, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they just have three or four more decent playoff runs with Dirk, with maybe one WCF appearance, and that they won’t make it to the finals again.

If that’s what happens, I have two questions:

1) Who would you rather have been a fan of over these past few years and the next couple of years: Dallas or Miami?

2) Who will history have more respect for as a team?

First of all, this question is not about whether the Mavericks have done what they should have done. I think it’s safe to say all of us are disappointed or even angry with the past two seasons. Both Dallas and Miami appear to have been severely flawed, so saying the Mavericks have problems is irrelevant to this question unless you’re also prepared to say that Miami’s problems are no worse.

Of course everyone remembers the title, but Miami also has to contend with being known as one of the worst championship-winning teams ever. The year they won it, they came out of an awful eastern conference and won only because (1) Dallas choked and (2) Dwyane Wade put on one of the most spectacular finals performances that I know of (with some help from the refs, I think everyone would have to admit, but still spectacular). After winning the title, they promptly crumbled as a team.

Dallas, of course, shares part of the shame of Miami’s victory, so that goes against Dallas’ legacy. At the same time, though, Dallas has contended year after year, and just never had enough to get the title. Of course everyone would rather have been Miami the year they won, but I’m talking about the longer term.

So, will commentators 5 years from now speak fondly about a very good Mavericks team that just couldn’t get the title, while shaking their heads at a Miami team that had everything go just right once, but then crumbled? Or will they scorn the very good Mavericks team that couldn’t hold on when it counted, while wondering what might have happened if Dwyane Wade hadn’t gotten injured this past year?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dirk a Coward?

Jeremy wrote: “Has there been a bigger coward in NBA history than Dirk Nowitzki?”

This is becoming a scripted argument for us, but here goes again.

If you’re talking about how he misses almost every potential game-winning shot, then I would say your criticism is probably fair, although I'd want to check a bunch of other players’ stats in those situations. I hear Kobe’s percentage of makes in those final shots is well south of 50% too.

If you’re saying Dirk was a coward in the Miami series, I’m still not buying it. His game 5 line overall was weak, but he hit a couple of big shots down the stretch, including the potential game-winner with 9 seconds left in overtime. In game 6 he didn't finish as well, but he still ended up with 29 points (10/22 FG, 8/8 FT) and 15 rebounds. That loss had far more to do with Terry and Howard combining to shoot 12 of 41 (29.3%). My post is here, although now I would change a big part of what I wrote to admit that Dirk fouled Wade on the last play of game 5.

I’d also remind you of Dirk’s 50-point game to save the Pheonix series and get the Mavericks into the finals two years ago. (Post is here.) Nothing cowardly about that.

But if by “coward” you’re talking mainly about is last year’s Golden State series and this year’s mediocre start for Dirk, I have a different answer.

I have a lot of sympathy for Dirk because I think he plays like I would if I had his height and shooting touch. I tend to get pushed around on the court, and there's usually nothing I can do about it short of punching someone. I think Dirk is physically unable to do what you need to do when you get pushed around by an NBA athlete. This isn’t so much an excuse as a physical fact; what’s amazing is that he’s gotten as far as he has with that limitation.

This came up here, and in another blog I was reading, this past summer. Specifically, I don't think Dirk has the coordination to channel force into successful moves. Most big players are a lot stronger than he is, so the great ones (Duncan, Shaq) simply don’t have to worry about getting pushed around. Garnett is thin, but he’s also quick, so if someone wants to be shove him, he can just go around them. Dirk can’t do either.

People might ask why Dirk isn’t more like Larry Bird. If anyone can watch this video and still ask that, we need to talk. Bird was not slow, and he had amazing hands; Dirk simply can’t do most of the great stuff he did. (The video will also make you really depressed about today’s NBA.)

To put it another way: if Charles Barkley got mad at someone for trying to push him around, he could push back in such as a way as to get open, controlling his energy and force to get to the basket or put up a good shot. When Bird was getting pushed around he could make a quick spin move to get open, or else he could rely on his phenomenal passing ability. When Dirk pushes back, or tries for a spin move, he mostly just flails, and he either misses the shot or commits an offensive foul. This lack of coordination isn’t unusual, even in the NBA –– it’s just that most players who can’t harness their strength don’t ever have the kind of success Dirk has had, so they never have to deal with being criticized for their limitations.

What does this mean? It means that if Dirk were only 6'-3", he’d be Steve Kerr: a gifted shooter, but not much else. Apart from Dirk’s height, there’s no reason he should be able to get his own shot. I think it’s safe to say that last season was an example of Dirk doing as much with his physical abilities as a player can reasonably do. But because of his unique combination of height and finesse without quickness or strength, success for him simply depends on the refs calling the games tightly so that players can’t push him around. Most of Dirk’s inside game actually consists in drawing fouls, and you can’t count on that in the playoffs.

This all changes when he’s hot from outside -- then there’s no stopping him. But that’s not enough to win in the playoffs.

So is Dirk a coward because of this? You can’t get your own shot against tough athletes; does that make you a coward? OK, let’s get more reasonable. Eduardo Najera can’t get his own shot if a defense decides to shut him down; does that make him a coward? Would you call Steve Kerr a coward for not being able to get open against a tough physical team when the refs are allowing a lot of shoving?

Like I said, there are plenty of other players who could easily be pushed around because of their physical limitations. They just aren’t the ones defenses focus on defending with the game on the line, so they rarely get exposed the way Dirk does.

So say Dirk is weak if you want –– it’s true enough. And it’s also true that he doesn’t have great nerves with the game on the line. Maybe it’s the Mavericks’ fault for counting on him. But I maintain that he does about as much with what he’s got as anyone in the league.