Friday, November 21, 2014
Is Dirk Nowitzki the Greatest Offensive Player Ever?
The answer to my title is more debatable than I imagined when I conceived of it. Is Dirk Nowitzki the most dominant offensive player or the best individual scorer? I would answer no to both of those questions. There are also several players whose absolute peak you could debate was more effective, but I think Nowitzki's body of work speaks for itself. I don't know if there has ever been a player that has had a greater consistently positive effect on his team's offense and win total (his team defense has been underrated over the years as well). I think it's easier to gauge Dirk's effect and value because he has always been his teams best AND most effective offensive player.
Long paragraph form doesn't really get my point across, so I'll give you season to season analysis and let you form your own opinion. I avoided the playoffs because it leaves too much up to variation and chance. With that said, Dirk's impressive playoff resume can be placed next to anyone. I don't believe in any one stat providing an accurate portrayal, so I used a combination of advanced stats, traditional stats, context, and team win output to paint my picture of Dirk's offensive greatness.
Rookie Season 1998-1999 (Lockout Season)
Dallas goes 19-31 in a lockout year and finishes 15th in Offensive Rating. A 20-year old Nowitzki averaged 8.2 points per game (PPG), on 41% shooting from the field and 21% from the 3-point line. Leading Scorer is Michael Finley at 20.2 PPG.
Dallas finishes 40-42 and ranks 7th in Offensive Rating. Leading the jump from 15 to 7 was Nowitzki who averaged 17.5 PPG on 46/38/83 (FG%/3pt%/FT%) splits. Finley increased his average to 22.6 PPG but his efficiency numbers were almost identical to the year before, and was instead boosted by shooting almost 3 more shots per game than the previous year. A 25-year old Steve Nash averaged 9 PPG & 5 assist per game primarily off the bench.
Dallas finished the regular season 53-29 and 4th in Offensive Rating. Dirk Nowitzki lead the team in scoring at 21.8 PPG and with 47/39/84 splits. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) skyrocketed to 22.8 and his offensive win-shares to 10.3 which was the 4th best in the league. For context about 8 total win-shares (offensive and defensive) is considered all-star level, although other factors need to be considered as well. Finley finished a close 2nd with 21.5 PPG but experienced a slight drop in efficiency and took over 300 more shots from the field than Dirk. Nash who finally broke out of his time-share averaged a very efficient 15.6 points. Howard Eisley and Shawn Bradley rounded out the top-5 in minutes per game.
Dallas finished with a record of 57-25 and ranked 1st in Offensive Rating. Dirk averaged 23.4 PPG on 48/40/85 and finished 2nd in the league in offensive win-shares despite still averaging less attempts per game than Finley. Finley Averaged 20.6 PPG and Nash 17.9 PPG giving Dallas their 1st true Big-3. Dirk had a PER of 24.1, Nash was 2nd with 20.1, Finley was 3rd at 17.6 and no other member of the team finished above 15 (which according to the formula is the amount of a league average player). 1st in Offensive efficiency and having 57 wins with only 3 players considered above league average in efficiency. That's impressive.
Dallas finished with a record of 60-22 and once again finished 1st in Offensive Rating. Dirk Averaged 25.1 PPG on 46/38/88 splits. Finley and Nash chipped in with 19.3 and 17.7 PPG. Nowitzki averaged a career high 10.8 offensive win-shares and a 25.6 PER.
Dallas finished 52-30 and 1st in Offensive Rating again. Dirk experience a decrease in his numbers playing mostly as a Center next to Antoine Walker. Nowitzki averaged 21.8 PPG on 46/34/88 splits. Being ranked 1st on offense while playing 3 stretch 4's simultaneously (Dirk, Walker, Jamison) was impressive. Dallas soon shipped Walker and Jamison out after 1 up & down year.
Dallas finished the regular season at 58-24 despite losing Steve Nash in free agency and long-time coach Don Nelson "stepping-down" during the middle of the season. The Mavericks finished 4th in Offensive Rating led by a resurgent Nowitzki that scored twice as many points as 2nd place on the team and averaged a career high 26.1 PPG on 46/40/87 splits. The 2nd leading scorer was a declining and banged up Michael Finley at 15.7 PPG, who was experiencing the effects of leading the NBA in minutes 3 out of 4 times from 1997-2001. Dirk finished 3rd in MVP, and 3rd in offensive win-shares. He couldn't possibly be any better, or so it was thought until the next season rolled around.
Dallas finished 60-22 and reclaimed the number 1 spot in Offensive Rating (Over the 7 seconds or less Suns). Dirk led the team in scoring at 26.6 PPG on 48/41/90 splits, and Jason Terry replaced an amnestied Finley as the 2nd leading scorer at 17.1 PPG. Probably more impressive was the fact that no one on the team averaged more than 3.8 assists per game. This team was simply a product of Dirk's greatness. He led the NBA with 13.5 offensive win-shares along with a 28.1 PER and once again finished 3rd in MVP (probably should have been his 1st).
Dallas finished 67-15 and 2nd in offensive rating. Dirk averaged 24.6 PPG (drop had more to do with the fact the Mavs played at the 3rd slowest pace in the league) on 50/42/90 splits. That is absurd, especially for a jump-shooter playing on a slow paced, iso heavy team (24th in assists). Josh Howard averaged 18.9 PPG and Terry was 3rd at 16.7 PPG. Dirk definitely had help but wasn't exactly playing with world-beaters either. Dirk once again finished 1st in offensive win-shares at 11.8 and won the MVP award. This season is remembered for the upset that really wasn't an upset in the 1st round (a shrewd deadline trade had given the Warriors more talent than the Mavericks), but it doesn't get appreciated for how great Dirk was this year.
Dallas Finished 51-31 and 8th in Offensive Rating, which was the lowest since Dirk's rookie year. Dirk averaged 23.6 PPG on 48/36/88 splits. His 8.9 offensive Win-Shares ranked 9th in league and his 24.6 PER ranked 5th. Josh Howard peaked this year at 19.9 PPG but had almost as many shot attempts as Dirk.
Dallas finished 50-32 and 5th in Offensive Rating in Rick Carlisle's first season replacing Avery Johnson as Head Coach. Dirk averaged 25.9 PPG on 48/36/89 splits. Jason Terry averaged 19.6 PPG. This season was the start of Josh Howard's injury woes as he played in only 52 games. Without him for large chunks of the season and postseason the lineup was mainly Jason Kidd, Terry, Antoine Wright, Dirk and Erick Dampier. Dirk's offensive win-shares dropped to 7.5 which was good enough for 8th best in the league.
Dallas finished 55-27 and 10th in Offensive Rating. This team probably overachieved a bit, led by Dirk's super efficient 25 PPG on 48/42/92 splits. Terry was 2nd on the team at 16.6 PPG and trade deadline addition Caron Butler was 3rd at 15.2 PPG. Dirk's 8.4 Offensive Win-Shares ranked 5th in the league.
Dallas finished 57-25 and 8th in Offensive Rating. Dirk once again was the leading scorer at 23 PPG and on another ridiculous split line of 52/39/89. Terry at 15.8 was the 2nd leading scorer and the number 3 scorer, Caron Butler, was lost for the season after only 29 games. Dirk somehow only finished 6th in MVP voting, but finally snagged the prestigious NBA Finals MVP after leading Dallas to its 1st Championship over the Big-3 Heat. This is another season where I think Dirk's presence was undervalued. He missed 9 games and the team went 2-7 in his absence despite playing some of the weakest teams in the league. This team had very effective high-end role players, but this was another example of Dirk's greatness. This is a team that isn't a playoff team without him, and that's a very rare thing to say about a championship team.
Year-14 2011-2012 (Lockout Season)
Dallas finished a pedestrian 36-30 and bottom tier in Offensive Rating at 22nd, easily the worst of Dirk Nowitzki's career. Years of losing free agents, and aging finally caught up to the Mavericks roster (along with a Lamar Odom trade that completely backfired). After showing up out of shape and not regaining his form until after the All-Star break, Dirk still averaged a respectable 21.6 PPG on 46/37/90 shooting splits. Jason Terry averaged 15.1 PPG and Marion was 3rd at 10.6 PPG. This team advancing to the playoffs and pushing Western Conference Champion OKC was definitely an overachievement. This team wasn't very good on offense, and Dirk is the only thing that kept this team that depended on Kidd, Marion, Haywood, Mahinmi, and a terrible Lamar Odom (all offensive inept by this point) from being an offensive laughingstock.
Dirk missed the first 29 games after undergoing off-season knee surgery and only appeared in 53 games. It was only the 2nd time in Dirk's career that he hadn't played at least 90% of his team's games (in the championship year he technically only played 89% by missing 9 games). The Mavericks finished 41-41 and 14th in Offensive Rating. Dirk still led the team at 17.3 PPG on 47/41/86 splits, despite wearing a bulky brace much of the season. It is important to note that the Mavericks were once 10 games under .500 and once Dirk rounded into form, he led the team of misfits (23 players appeared in games) into contention for the final playoff spot. It seemed Dirk's days as being the number 1 scorer on a playoff team were finished.
Dallas rebounded to finish 49-33 and tied for 2nd in Offensive Rating. New additions Calderon, and Ellis played a role in that, but a bulk of the credit for that turnaround has to be Dirk's resurgence. Nowitzki averaged 21.7 PPG on 50/40/90 splits. Dirk ranked 7th in Offensive Win-Shares despite only averaging 32.9 MPG. He also reclaimed top-10 status in PER, True Shooting Pct, and total points. Accomplishing this at 35 in your 16th year is unheard of. More importantly he got the Mavericks back in the playoffs where they pushed the Champion Spurs to 7 games.
Year-17 2014-2015 (12 games so far)
Through 12 games Dallas is 9-3 and ranked 1st in Offensive Rating. Dirk is averaging 19.1 points on 13.5 shots in 27.5 MPG. His splits are 53/47/85. The season is young but early signs point to Dirk being a ridiculously efficient part of a great offense. The Mavs do have some interesting offensive pieces, but nothing that makes you say guaranteed Top-5 Offense. Dirk has readjusted his form and his role (shooting more three's), and is once again playing well with a new group of teammates.
What Does It All Mean?
I for one was shocked at how consistent Dirk has played while changing coaches, and teammates over the years. For a number of years, him just being on the court seemed to guarantee a top-5 Offensive Rating and 50 wins in a strong Western Conference. He has shared the court with talented players, but his two best teammates either declined or left the team before he turned 25, so the fact that he was able to continually rack up wins is underrated. He's shown he can play offensively with any group of teammates, and does a great job of empowering his teammates to be successful as well. That's evident by him only finishing in the top 10 in usage rate 4 times, and never finishing above 6th. From 2004-2007 when he was arguably the best offensive player in the league (at least the most effective) he never finished in the top-10 in usage rate and his team averaged over 60-wins. That shows that he gave up some of his game, in order for his teammates to be effective and find their spots as well. That's the sign of a team player, not only doing what is best for him, but for the entire team and being more efficient on less shots to allow his teammates to be less efficient on more shots. It isn't rocket science as to why his teams have always played up to their capabilities or overachieved. As team players Kevin Love, Melo, and a few others could learn a thing from that (empowering their teammates that is).
With all that said, if I had the first pick to choose an offensive player, it would probably be Jordan, but Dirk would be in my Top-5. As an offensive player, he brought everything to the table: points, shooting, shot creation, passing, and being clutch while taking none off of it (relatively low usage rate, 12th in career turnover rate). I also can't overlook his total games played, and the effect he always had on his team being successful. I will agree that there are other players you could make a strong case for, but none did it alone quite like Dirk. I'm not saying that fact makes him better, but it makes it more easy to attribute credit. This is all subjective, but I think it is common knowledge that Dirk is one of the most effective offensive players ever. I think it's hard to compare eras because of different rules, and strategies but from Dirk's era I would chose him. That's not a knock on Kobe, Duncan or anyone else. I just know for a fact what I'm getting with Dirk offensively and I'm getting that almost no matter what or who I put around him.
I'm going to finish this off with a scary thought, what if Dirk had a superstar teammate, or even a consistent all-star one? How many more wins would they have achieved and how much more efficient would Dirk have been (is that even possible?). The best thing about him winning a title is that we don't have to guess "what if" for Dirk's career. I have always felt it was kind of a backhanded compliment to call him the greatest European player, or the greatest 7ft shooter. I feel like that doesn't give him his full due as a player. Dirk Nowitzki can be known as those things, but more importantly with his name should be mentioned, Great Leader/Competitor/Winner, and one of the Greatest Players PERIOD.