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.


Jeremy said...

Dirk is a coward not because he is weak, but because when he faces adversity—when the question is fight or flight—he turns and walks away.

Exhibit A: In the biggest game of his career, with his team depending on him and the world watching, he takes 13 (meaningless) shots and scores 8 points.

Exhibit B: Faced with severe criticism and his manhood challenged, he responds not by getting pissed off. He does not decide to take on the world. He does not take 10000 more free throws, run 100 more miles, and do 1000 more squats. Instead, he parties his way through Australia.

Exhibit C: With his reputation thoroughly tarnished, the reigning MVP returns to Dallas, where he is promptly made the team’s second option. He takes this in stride.

Fight or flight? Dirk chooses flight. That's as basic a definition of cowardice as there is.

scoots said...

@Exhibit A: Last season against Golden State was not remotely the biggest game of Dirk’s career. The biggest game of Dirk’s career was game 6 against Miami two years ago, when, as I mentioned, he got 29 points and 15 rebounds. Of course, he did make that late pass to Erick Dampier, who fumbled it out of bounds -- but if it had been a score/assist (as the same play worked the game before), it would have been a “good” decision. Also, keep in mind, e.g., Kobe taking just 3 shots in the second half of a blowout game 7 loss to Phoenix two years ago. Sometimes these things happen.

@Exhibit B: Ridiculous example. Dirk did the 10,000 more free throws thing after the Miami series, which led to an MVP season where his performance faded late and he flopped in the playoffs. If he wants to try something different to get his mind off of the fact that everything thinks he’s the biggest coward in the history of the NBA, I’ll cut him slack on that. I have a feeling he shot some free throws in the second half of the summer.

(As it turns out, at this moment, I’m blogging to distract myself from the fact that I’m terrified to work on my last two papers, since [1] I don’t know what I’m going to say, and [2] I haven’t told my professors that I’m going to need an extension, even though both are technically due nine days from now. Did I mention I feel like I can relate to Dirk?)

@Exhibit C: Everyone knows that Terry and Howard are more likely to hit the big shot at the end. The only reason Stein says it should be Dirk is because of this basketball orthodoxy that says the best player should always take the big shot. That might be true Bird and MJ, but I’ve seen the Spurs go to Ginobili instead of Duncan, and the Lakers went with Kobe instead of Shaq many times, even though Shaq was the real reason for their success.

As mediocre as Dirk has been this year, he’s still leading the team in minutes, points (though just barely), and rebounds.

Jeremy said...

None of your blows landed, my man. You still have not refuted my basic argument that when Dirk is challenged, he backs down every single time.

The only possible exception is Game 7 in San Antonio, but nobody expected the Mavs to win that game, and there was very little pressure on Dirk to win it himself. Thus, it says nothing about his courage that he was able to hit the winning shot.

Dirk’s Ricky Williams tour through the outback is a wonderful example of how he responds to pressure. Can you imagine any legitimate champion responding to a crushing loss by spending the summer getting high?

As for your other points:

The Miami example only reinforces my argument, as he threw the ball away instead of taking the money shot.

Inserting Kobe into this discussion is utterly ridiculous, as the man has multiple championships and innumerable game winners, at least 20 of which can be seen here. Using Kobe to justify Dirk is like saying that Phil Mickelson isn’t a choker because Tiger Woods misses an occasional putt too.

And of course Duncan and Shaq don’t always get the ball. But they always demand it. Dirk shrugs and walks away.

scoots said...

Now you're just making things up.

First, I admitted up front that Dirk misses most of his game-winners, so you don’t get to throw the kobe game-winning shots back in my face. Besides, kobe is ridiculous, and I don't think that everything short of his performances is cowardly. It's not as if Dirk hasn't taken (and mostly missed) a lot of potential game-winning shots in his career. We watched one last year, one of the few he happened to make.

Second, I have to admit that Dirk has had a couple of emotional breakdowns while or after the Mavericks were losing. I think he got bullied against Golden State last year, and I think it’s made him question his ability -- as he should, because I don't think he had the ability to get his shot against GS. So yeah, he was a coward against Golden State last year; and then he freaked out afterwards.

Other than that, you've only offered one piece of data outside that one-month period of Dirk’s career, and that’s his pass to Dampier at the end of game 6 against Miami. Yeah, he should have shot it, but the pass had worked the night before. Not his best decision, but not the same thing as cowardice.

Your montage doesn't give much support to your idea that Shaq "demands" the ball. Kobe was not only the first option, but the only option, when LA was going for game winners back then. Shaq actually gets pulled from the end of games sometimes because of his bad free-throw shooting. As for Duncan, when Dallas beat the Spurs in game 7, the last play for San Antonio in regulation was called for Manu all the way.

Next, Kobe didn't play badly in the game I'm talking about--he disappeared, not trying to get the ball or take shots. So as far as I can tell, he's disappeared from the losing game a playoff series exactly the same number of times as Dirk (see below).

As for Dirk not having pressure on him in San Antonio: Dallas had already blown a big lead in that game, and everyone knew Dirk needed to come up big to prove he could win in the playoffs. That was the biggest shot of his career, until the Miami series. Against Miami, he took the big shot and made it late in game 5, and he passed up the big shot in game 6. You say he’s a coward for passing in game 6, I say he stepped up and made a nice shot in game 5.

Either way, in the playoffs, the Golden State series last year is the first time Dirk *ever* failed to step up in a series the Mavericks lost. I've written here at great length about Dirk’s numbers when Dallas loses its last game. As a quick reminder, Dirk’s points/rebounds in those final games (before Golden State) have been 42/18, 32/12, 31/14, 28/13, and 29/15.

If this year goes down like the Golden State series again, then I'll be agreeing with you. But if the Mavericks win the title, or else if Dirk goes for 30/15 in the losing game, I just don’t see how you’ll have a case.

Jeremy said...

...if the Mavericks win the title...

that's funny. the dirk-era mavs are toast. his legacy in the minds of objective observers will be folding against golden state. if I can't remember the 42/18, 32/12, 31/14, 28/13, and 29/15 games, nobody else will either.

Jeremy said...

“Nowitzki on Sunday analyzed the Mavericks' state of affairs and concluded now is a good time for him to step aside and let Howard become The Man, even if it's not a permanent setup.

"With him playing the way he is, there's no need for us to be out there competing for shots," Nowitzki said. "That would be the wrong thing. He's playing great, and whenever the team needs me, I'll try to be there."”

In the history of American sports, can you imagine another MVP saying this? Unbelievable. Link.

micah said...

Interesting that Dirk followed up those comments by taking 22 shots tonight and outscoring anybody else on his team by 17.

I wouldn't put much weight on those comments as evidence that Dirk is a coward. What are you supposed to say after a teammate scores 47? "I let Josh have the points tonight. He better be thankful I wasn't calling for the ball." I don't think so.

scoots said...

I think it depends on the MVP. You'd never hear MJ say something like that, but I could easily imagine Tim Duncan commenting that Manu could carry the scoring load for awhile. Who cares, as long as you win titles? And I'm convinced that Duncan’s titles have far more to do with him simply being good than with him being somehow courageous.

The more important question is whether this is all happening because Howard is playing well, or because Dirk is playing poorly--and the latter is probably the real reason. That is pretty sad, but I don't think it makes Dirk a coward. If he’s sick of getting himself pumped up for the regular season, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. If he wants to lay back until his game gets going again, I say he should do it.

Dirk may have already peaked last year, but let's remember that that peak included leading a team that won 67 games, while hitting 50% FG, 40% 3Pt, and 90% FT. His stats might be mediocre so far this year, but his scoring average and rebounding average still are both less than half a point behind his career average, and he's well ahead of his career average in assists.

To have played the way he did last season after the finals loss already shows that he's resilient to a point, and I'm not convinced he's washed up emotionally just yet. I don't think Dirk's likely to fade any faster than Duncan, and he'll certainly outlast Nash, which means Dallas ought to have at least two more title shots before LeBron and Dwight Howard have good enough teams around them to say much about it.