Saturday, April 16, 2011

What it would take

This blog has been obsessed with Dirk Nowitzki over the years, and I think it's justified. Apart from 1988, the Mavericks have had virtually no success as a franchise apart from the years he’s been on the team. And it’s often been noted that this regular season, Dallas was 55-18 with him in the lineup, and 2-7 without him.


I want to look at last year’s playoffs and talk about the Mavericks’ identity as a team, and what Dirk means for them. His numbers for the Spurs series last year were strong (26.5 points and 8 rebounds on 54.7% shooting), but I want to focus on one game––in fact, one quarter––where I think the Mavericks lost the series, and in a sense I think they lost it because of Dirk.

His biggest weakness, in my opinion, is his struggles to make something happen when opponents play rough and he gets angry. I don’t mean angry like his 50-point WCF barrage after Tim Thomas blew him a kiss in 2006, but rather angry like when Bruce Bowen or Udonis Haslem is holding him and shoving him 17 feet from the basket.

If the refs are calling fouls in Dirk’s favor, he can barrel into the lane and get to the free throw line anyway; but when he doesn’t get calls, his angry playing often just ends up in missed shots and turnovers. Or sometimes, he seems to check out of the game completely.


Consider what happened in game 3 against San Antonio last year. During the third quarter, Antonio McDyess started holding and shoving Dirk every possession, and Dirk lost it. You could see he was angry, shoving back and flailing his arms, trying to get the refs’ attention. He got bullied.

Dallas started the third quarter with a 14-point lead. Dirk’s stats for that quarter? He shot 0/1 FG, 2/2 FT (after being flagrantly fouled), he got 1 rebound, 3 turnovers (including an offensive foul on George Hill), and 1 technical foul. But aside from the numbers, you could see that the Spurs got into his head. When he did get the ball, it was obvious he had no interest in shooting or making a move. He’d catch it and just pass it to someone else on the perimeter.

Dallas’ 14-point lead turned into a 7-point deficit by the end of the quarter. Dallas ended up losing the game by 3.

Dirk wasn’t the only one with a problem that quarter. The whole team only scored 11 points. But on all those possessions where the rest of the team was missing 12 shots and committing 4 turnovers, what they needed was for their best player to take his share of shots and keep his mind in the game. Aside from the fact that Dirk probably would have hit a higher percentage than the rest of the team was hitting that quarter, they needed him taking shots to keep the offense flowing, and to help the team keep a mindset to win with.


If Nowitzki had kept his head in the game, it’s easy to imagine a 3-point swing and a win that game for the Mavericks. Then the series goes 7 games, and the Mavericks probably win game 7 at home. Nothing guaranteed, but that first-round series was winnable.

Now, there are two different ways to look at the series. One is that the Mavericks should have won easily, and that saying one quarter swung the series is kind of missing the point. The other way to look at it is, if Dirk were tougher mentally, the Mavericks could have won anyway.

Any of course, you could say the same thing about the 2006 Finals. The officiating in favor of Dwyane Wade was of course a factor there, as was Wade’s brilliance in hitting big shots. But the other main thing going on was that Dirk got bullied by Udonis Haslem and others in that series; and while his numbers were still pretty good, and he had some big moments, the Mavericks needed him to be consistently brilliant. It didn’t quite happen. To put it another way, they could have won even despite the officiating, if Dirk had held it together more consistently.


And here we see the problem with these Mavericks. Dirk has to play out of his mind for them to win a playoff series, and even then it’s regularly not enough. One bad quarter from Dirk might swing a whole series, if the other team can stick on its game. Put yourself in that position, and imagine if you’d hold up knowing you had to be on your best game for every moment of a seven-game series. I’m sure there are players who can do it, but I’m pretty sure Dirk can’t.

As always, of course, I have to stress that it’s very rare for a single star to have to stay on his best game like that. Shaq and Kobe could take turns being the hero, as could Duncan/Ginobili, Pierce/Allen/Rondo, and most recently Kobe/Gasol. (Remember that last year Kobe shot 6/24 in game 7 of the Finals while Gasol saved the series for the Lakers.)

But for our Mavericks, we’re left with this problem: no one has shown that they’re ready to step up consistently and make big plays if Dirk doesn’t do it. Butler was pretty good in last years’ playoffs, averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds on 44% shooting, but he’s injured now. Terry and Kidd have been erratic in the playoffs recently. And Dirk has a decent amount of mental toughness, but it’s clear he doesn’t have enough to keep things together consistently by himself.


Dirk will have a lot of good moments against Portland this series, but at some point they’ll start bullying him, and the refs won’t call things in his favor. If Dirk can turn that frustration into strong moves to the basket, Dallas will beat Portland in the series. If Terry and Kidd can step up their games and score consistently, Dallas will win even if Dirk *can’t* get past the physical defense. But if neither one of those things happens, my money is on the Blazers for the first-round upset.


Micah said...

Go Mavs! This will be fun...I hope :)

jeremy said...

I don't disagree with your analysis, in general, but it's beside the point. Whether Dirk keeps his head in the game, or not, the Mavs will not go deep in a solid playoff field because Dirk is a 3 in a 4's body. He can't play defense, post up, or push anybody around, and therefore the Mavs have a grave liability in the paint, which is the most important area of the court in April, May, and June. Still, their greatest liability is that they have never found a true second superstar, which is the most important element of most championship teams.

scoots said...

Early 4th quarter of game one prediction (Portland is currently up by 2):

Kidd is coming back into the game, and he’s going to end up with a lot of open shots, and he’ll probably take them. For most of the game, he’s made them, but it’s hard to see it holding up for the rest of this one.

If Dirk and Terry can’t start getting some consistent offense, it’s hard to see us winning this game.

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scoots said...

Huh, 18 points in the fourth quarter by Dirk. I can’t say I saw that coming.

Maybe this one came down to a pretty simple point: Dallas had two guys put up all-star numbers for the game. A big part of the time, that will get you a playoff win.

JKnott said...

The Mavs obviously can't expect Kidd to shoot so well throughout the series. The most encouraging thing about last night's stats is the rebounding. Almost identical between the teams, which indicates the Mavs are not being dominated in the paint. (Though all the highlight dunks went to the Blazers.)

Micah said...

I was screaming through most of the fourth quarter for Carlisle to get Barea out of the game. It felt like he was such a liability. But in the last six minutes when our best guys were on the floor, we went from down 6 to up 8. That was encouraging for me. At least for one game, when it mattered most, our best guys were better than their best guys - by a lot.

jeremy said...

Mike Wilbon just said on PTI that Dallas looks like the best team in the West.

Justin Burton said...

As someone who sees Nowitzki in highlights more often than in a real-time game scenario, I have a limited sense of him as a player. So this is a surprising analysis of his limitations. I've always considered him to be pretty mentally tough and as automatic as any scorer in the last two decades.

I wonder something:

Is this a Nowitzki problem or a basketball problem? I'm not surethere's anyone who is capable of single-handedly carrying a team any better than he has the last few years. when Kobe was stuck with a limited arsenal of colleagues in the middle of the aughts, he would disappear in frustration for stretches, too (most famously in Game 7 against the Suns in 06). I have a slightly different question: has anyone done better than Nowitzki in a similar circumstance?

scoots said...


Just to get in a quick comment before game 4 this afternoon, I’m still pretty high on the Mavericks even after the game 3 loss. Portland was playing desperate at home, hitting a ton of shots, and they still couldn’t shake Dallas for the most part.

Nothing would shock me for game 4, but I feel pretty good about a Mavs victory. After the first games have been pretty close, it seems pretty likely we’ll have a blowout one way or the other.

scoots said...


Well, Lebron did something similar in Cleveland for a short term, and I think he had worse teammates than Dirk has. But he also bailed after about 5 years.

Most people would say that the reason Dirk doesn’t have a title is that he’s never had a teammate as good as Gasol, or Pippen, or even Ginobili. On the other hand, at various times Nash, Finley, Nick Van Exel, Terry, and Josh Howard have played very well. Even Caron Butler had one really nice game in last year’s playoffs.

But they haven’t had anyone who’s been good consistently apart from Dirk, and that’s been rough.

Justin Burton said...

The consistency is the problem, right? Without knowing who the second best player is on a team from night to night, it seems nearly impossible to win a championship.

I guess there can be some exceptions. Ginobli and Parker seem to trade off being the second best player on their team, but that's probably mostly about matchups, not particularly inconsistent play from either guy.

Mostly, it feels like since Nash left, Nowitzki has been surrounded by guys who should be no better than the third best player on a championship team. I'm not convinced that LeBron's teammates in Cleveland were appreciably worse than Nowitzki's in Dallas (without injuries and psychological disaster, this year's Cavs looked like a 32-35 win team, which probably isn't far from where Dallas would be without Nowitzki for the year). And LeBron and Dirk accomplished essentially the same thing: lots of wins, moderate playoff runs, a couple of early and embarrassing exits, and a trip to the finals. Better than Kobe, Pierce, or Wade fared in comparable years.

scoots said...

It’s kind of interesting how Lebron has gone from a guy who was young and impressive to a guy who’s been in the league a surprisingly long time without a championship. If this experiment with Wade and Bosh doesn’t pan out, and if OKC and Chicago get good enough, Lebron might see his big chances pass him by before he knows what happened.

Or he might, you know, win 5 championships in a row. I love this league.