Why We Watch: Dirk Nowitzki, The Stretch

Dirk Nowitzki was at the mercy of a silly narrative, until he blew it up simply by being his own weird self.
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Oh you a fashion model now.

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The year before Dirk Nowitzki arrived in Dallas, Mavericks coach/GM and resident mad scientist Don Nelson drafted an Australian named Chris Anstey in the first round and dubbed him “the best running seven-footer in the world.” So when he dubbed a painfully shy German teenager the future of the franchise, there was plenty of skepticism. Few would have guessed he had unearthed the most unlikely franchise player in NBA history.

At the time, the only basketball that “mattered” was happening in the lower 48 states. NBA players were still unbeaten in international competitions; the painful drubbings given to Team USA overseas were still years away. Dirk was the first foreign player selected in the Top 10 who hadn’t played in the NCAA. No one knew what to make of him, especially after a rookie season where he averaged only 8 points a game. The NBA was a more provincial place, then.

When Dirk started coming into his own in his second year, the league really didn’t know what to make of him. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett had shown that seven-footers didn’t have to be centers, but they were still athletic big men who dominated the glass and thrived in the paint. Dirk, on the other hand, was sui generis. There had been other sweet-shooting big men, but none who preferred running off screens and spotting up from 25 feet like a shooting guard. Dirk wasn’t just unconventional; he was a challenge to almost a century of conventional wisdom in the sport.

***

Dirk was born in 1978, the year before the three-point line altered the game and opened up the floor. He was part of the first generation that grew up with the shot rather than viewing it as a gimmick. His path to stardom began 16 years later, when Holger Geschwindner saw him goofing around in a gym in Wurzburg. Geschwindner, an eccentric coach who became Dirk’s Mr. Miyagi, was a man possessed of some radical notions:

A former captain of the German national team and a physicist, [Geschwindner] has developed a series of formulas that may reveal the optimum arc for jump shots, using a combination of player height, arm length and release point. “Take differential and integral calculus. Make some derivations and create a curve,” he recently said. “Everybody can do it.” “The higher the arc, the better, but you can go too high. The optimum is around 60 degrees.”

If a proper shot was a matter of mechanics, then a skilled player, with enough practice, could make it any time he had a clean look at the basket. And who had have a better look at the basket than a seven-footer who literally towered over his competition? So instead of making his pupil a post player, Geschwindner made him a jump-shooter. He molded Dirk into a 7-0 shooting platform, a human artillery piece who could fire from any spot on the floor.

Big men whose first instinct was to concede the jumper had no answer for a seven-footer who played like Steve Kerr. After a lifetime of wrestling in the paint, they were uncomfortable moving their feet along the three-point line. By his third season in the NBA, Dirk was averaging 22 points and nine rebounds a game. He was a 7-0 240 forward who shot five three-pointers a game and knocked them down at a hyper-efficient 39% clip.

Post scorers created shots for their teammates by drawing double teams; Dirk created space for them just by being on the court. Most NBA defenses were designed around shuttling penetration towards two big men at the rim; Dirk’s defender had to respect his shot all the way out to the three-point line. Instead of four players cluttering up the action inside, there were only two. For guards raised on the dribble-drive game, an open lane to the rim was worth more than an open shot on the perimeter. Dirk wasn’t the first “stretch four,” but he was the first great one.

But as the first of his kind, people had a hard time evaluating him on his merits. His game couldn’t be categorized in a familiar box. Big men were supposed to dominate on the low block and control the game defensively in the same way that quarterbacks were supposed to stay in the pocket and manage a game through the air.

Dirk is a 7-0 perimeter scorer, and if you look through history, every great perimeter scorer, with the notable exception of Michael Jordan, needed to play with a great big man to win an NBA title. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West needed Wilt, Magic needed Kareem, Bird needed Robert Parish, Kobe needed Shaq. Yet people blamed Dirk for not winning a title with Shawn Bradley, Erick Dampier and Raef LaFrentz protecting the rim.

***

You can divide the prime of Nowitzki’s career into three distinct eras. First came the “Big Three” of Dirk, Michael Finley and Steve Nash. Incredibly good offense, incredibly bad defense. By their final season together, Nelson abandoned any pretense of two-way basketball by bringing in Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker. The Mavs had the first “Big Five”: five guys who could score 20-plus points, and give up 20-plus points, on any given night.

The second era began when Nash left for his own date with immortality in Phoenix. Nelson and Finley soon followed, while Jamison and Walker were moved as swiftly as they were acquired. “Nellieball” was over: the Mavs brought in a defensive-minded coach (Avery Johnson) and athletic, tough-minded slashers (Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, Marquis Daniels) to complement Dirk’s ability to stretch the floor. Dallas was, more or less officially, his team.

In his first year without Nash, he made the All-NBA first team. In his second, he averaged 27/10/3 as the Mavs won 60 games. Dirk didn’t need anyone creating easy shots for him; he had an easy shot every time he stepped on the floor. But, to take the next step, he would have to defeat Tim Duncan and the Spurs in a seven-game series, something only the Shaq/Kobe Lakers had done before.

Due to a quirk in the seeding, the Mavs met their fellow 60-win juggernaut in the second round. In six of the seven games, the final outcome was undecided with the ball in the air and the clock at 0:00. Nowitzki was brilliant, no more so than in Game 7, when he hit an and-1 in the teeth of the Spurs defense in the final seconds to force OT. It should have been his greatest triumph, but it faded down the memory hole after Dwyane Wade’s NBA Finals.

Despite the setback, Dallas appeared no worse for wear the next season, going 67-15. Nowitzki was even better, winning his first MVP while reaching the shooters “Holy Grail”: 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the line. Then, the unthinkable. The Mavericks lost—out-run, out-strategized and fully-counterpunched—to the eighth-seeded, Nelson-coached Warriors.

In Dirk’s first nine seasons in the NBA, the Mavericks had won 50+ games eight times. L.A. and San Antonio won seven championships in that span; Dallas had zero. And so Nowitzki was overtaken by the familiar narrative of What It Takes To Win and the star player who just didn’t have It.

***

The Golden State loss exposed a hole in Dirk’s game, but it wasn’t enough to point out that he lacked a strong post game to punish smaller defenders. Instead, the usual armchair sportswriter moralizing began in earnest. It was the the fundamental attribution error at its finest—when something happens to you, it’s a matter of circumstance, when something happens to someone else, it’s a matter of character.

Wins and losses were matters of toughness and who “wanted it more.” Being a champion was something “ingrained” in a chosen few, a matter of having “a killer’s DNA”. Michael Jordan had won six championships by “imposing his will;” Wade had done the same to Dallas in the 2006 Finals. This was just something a soft European jump-shooter would never be able to do. Dirk hadn’t won an NBA title in nearly a decade of trying; hadn’t we all seen enough?

Unable to judge the process, pundits went by the results. It’s the same warped view of the game that explains why, just last season, some doubted whether a team with LeBron James was capable of winning a title. It’s the same stupid, silly story, oddly and endlessly repeated.

Once the narrative was set, it was impossible to dislodge. So in 2009, when Dirk said that the Denver Nuggets “gave him problems” on defense, it became yet another example of why he didn’t have the instinct to be a champion. Dirk averaged 27/10/3 on 52% shooting in those same playoffs; two years after the debacle in Oakland, he had learned to unleash his Geschwindnerian fade-away while playing with his back to the basket. He was essentially scoring at will. And still the story stuck.

***

After graduating from college, I moved home, picked up a job as a copywriter and began attending Mavericks games in person for the first time since high school. By the fall of 2011, the story was the story about both Dirk and the Mavericks, but the team seemed different to me. For the first time, Dirk was surrounded by elite defensive players at the three and the five in Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler.

So I took a leap of faith and put a paycheck on the Mavs winning the title at 16:1. Four months later, I had a new career. Dirk Nowitzki changed my life.

In kindergarten, they teach you that if you believe in yourself and try your hardest, you can accomplish anything. Why limit the imaginations of six-year olds when the world will do it soon enough? Unfortunately, those stupid, silly stories hold up more often than they should. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the Emperor actually does have clothes, however ill-gotten. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a genuinely new way of doing things won’t prove conventional wisdom wrong. But, every once in awhile, someone like Dirk comes around. With all due respect to Kevin Garnett, anything isn’t possible, until that one time out of 100, when it is.


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