The Futile Case of Dirk Nowitzki for MVP

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 15, 2010 under Commentary | 10 Comments to Read

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images.

This year’s MVP Award is about as open-and-shut as it gets. It’s not so much a ‘race’ as it is an ordaining, with LeBron James securing the second of what should be many MVP honors with another absolutely dominant season. Other names are thrown around to artificially generate some conversation where there should be none, and as something of a consolation prize to every NBA superstar not named LeBron.

As far as individual accolades go, that’s what these guys have to play for: second place, runner-up, honorable mention. James has reached such a stellar level of individual production that claiming to be his equal is as foolish as it is false, and thus the highest individual honor another player can receive is simply to have a place at his table.

That’s essentially what the MVP “conversation” has devolved to this season, and in the name of giving Dirk Nowitzki his due among the next tier of stars, I’ll simply point you toward Dirk’s body of work this season.

PlayerPERadj +/-win sharesWARP
LeBron James31.117.318.525.3
Kevin Durant26.117.815.817.6
Dwight Howard24.121.813.119.2
Dwyane Wade2816.11320
Dirk Nowitzki237.212.211.7
Deron Williams20.615.710.313.2
Steve Nash21.713.49.713.4
Kobe Bryant21.97.89.511.1

Nowitzki is truly elite. His numbers compare favorably to even the best in the league. However, while the metrics are fairly kind to Dirk, there is yet another divide that exists between Nowitzki and some of his contemporaries. At the absolute pinnacle of the game is James, who should start clearing out a shelf or six in his trophy case. On the second tier are Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Durant, three spectacular talents that are somehow only getting better. Below them sits Nowitzki, as well as Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Deron Williams, as well as a few other stars that either aren’t performing quite up to their usual levels of excellence or haven’t experienced enough team success to be considered viable MVP candidates.

Dirk lies at the impressive intersection of those criteria, and his individual ability to impact a basketball game is obviously directly related to the Mavs’ 54-win mark. He is Dallas’ unquestioned offensive anchor, and though Jason Kidd also has a profound influence on how Dallas operates on that end, this is Dirk’s show. His ability to operate out of the high post is unmatched, and he’s a far more accomplished low post scorer than many are willing to admit. He’s ultimately a more productive player than Nash (which is partially attributable to their different roles), both more productive and more efficient than Williams, and posted a better overall season than Bryant.

I would argue that Nowitzki warrants prime placement on MVP ballots among that third group of stars. I’ve always interpreted the MVP as an award for the player with the most outstanding season, and with that as the basis for selection, I fail to see how you could choose any other third tier candidate. It’s not that Nash, Williams, or Bryant are inherently flawed choices; each is having a fine season and is near the top of their profession. Dirk has just been a bit better this year.

Steve Nash is an absolute wizard when it comes to running an offense, and he’s one of the most efficient shooters in the game. But he’s also one of the league’s worst defenders (not an exaggeration) and most of Nash’s edge in scoring efficiency can be chalked up to his notably low usage. Once that’s accounted for, Steve’s alarming turnover rate (21.3%!) starts to hedge his offensive value, if only a bit. Nowitzki, on the other hand, is positively stingy in his protection of the ball; Dirk’s turnover rate is about a third of Nash’s, despite a significantly higher usage rate.   I think it would be difficult to argue that Nash was more productive this season on offense than Nowitzki to begin with, but Dirk’s added scoring volume, defensive edge (Nowitzki may not be great, but he’s still far better than Nash), and rebounding push him well over the top.

The nature of Dirk’s comparison to Deron Williams is quite similar, though with a few exceptions: Nash is a far more efficient scorer than Deron and a slightly more prolific passer, but Williams is a significantly better defender and less prone to turn the ball over. The net result of a comparison between Dirk and Deron is thus more of the same: Nowitzki’s impressive combination of high volume and high efficiency (despite his high usage) just makes too convincing of a case.

As for Kobe Bryant, I’m going to put this in a way that’s sure to inspire some reactionary commenters: where is it exactly that Kobe is supposed to have the advantage over Dirk? Bryant’s points per minute edge over Nowitzki is negligible. Kobe doesn’t get to the free throw line more often, he too turns the ball over more than Nowitzki, and faces a sizable deficit in shooting percentage (despite having superior teammates, a legendary offensive system, and a masterful coach). He creates for his teammates more often than Dirk does, but not to a particularly dominant degree (23.8 assist rate vs. 12.8). The only significant advantage that Bryant has over Nowitzki is his defense, but he also has a few things working against him:

  • The Lakers are struggling badly, and team leaders — like Bryant — are held accountable for those struggles. There’s no excuse for L.A. not to put fear in the hearts of men, and yet they only seem particularly intimidating on paper. Los Angeles is still the favorite to win the West, as they should be, but the fact that their conference supremacy is even slightly in question is a blemish.
  • Clutch play, typically regarded as a Bryant strength, is actually advantage: Dirk. And this is one of Kobe’s most impressive clutch seasons ever.
  • Efficiency matters. It really, really does. Basketball isn’t so much a game of how much you score but how you go about doing it, and the fact that Nowitzki can nearly match Bryant’s scoring production by using less of his teams possessions means quite a bit.

Just take a little glance up at the chart that’s posted above. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Even looking at the metrics where defense is accounted for (adjusted +/-, win shares, wins above replacement player), Bryant claims no advantage. His biggest victory among those four measures is a +0.6 edge in APM, while Dirk’s win shares are notably higher and his PER marginally higher.

It’s likely that if you consider Bryant to be an All-NBA defender, he makes your hypothetical MVP ballot. I don’t. He’s a good defender and a great one when he’s interested, but the Lakers’ troubles this season didn’t exclude Kobe and they weren’t solely restricted to the offensive end of the floor. The lack of focus and effort applied to Bryant as well. I’m sure part of that was natural letdown, part of it frustration, part of it having Ron Artest around to lock down on the perimeter, and plenty of it injury. All understandable, but they don’t reconcile the drop-off even if they do excuse it.

If you ask me who is the better player between the two, I’ll tell you it’s Kobe. If you ask me which of the two has had a better season, I’ll tell you it’s Dirk. The MVP rewards a player for having the most outstanding season, not necessarily for being the best player. That’s why things like games missed due to injury and consistency aren’t just arbitrary criteria. They legitimately matter because the award goes to the player with the greatest performance rather than the greatest potential to perform.

That player is LeBron James. But a few pegs down is Dirk Nowitzki, and he’s not too bad, either.

For kicks, my MVP ballot, if you haven’t discerned it already:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Dwight Howard
  3. Dwyane Wade
  4. Kevin Durant
  5. Dirk Nowitzki

Thanks to Basketball-Reference, Basketball Prospectus, and Basketball Value for stats and metrics used for this post.

  • j.d.hastings

    Kobe probably had his worst year since 2005. He looked good to start the season but his injury woes clearly affected him- to the point that at times his toughness may have hurt the team. He had more 25-30% shooting nights than I can ever remember him having before, but continued shooting, which took the team out of its offense. Occasionally he’d come back and have very efficient games, but overall Kobe’s play wasn’t up to his usual level. His defense was very good, as Kevin Pelton pointed out a few days ago, but otherwise his well publicized game winners have given the public a misleading view about his overall season.

    What you’re saying here isn’t remotely controversial.

  • harry

    Wow. Dirk is +32 in ‘clutch time’.
    Other fun facts gleamed for sorting that list on 82 games all different ways:
    A) Durant’s turnovers in clutch time are crazy high, 5.4. Something to think about as the Thunder go into the post season, eh? (Chi might worry about Rose as well).
    B) Sort that list by blocks, and who leads? Haywood with 5.2 and also chipping in 2.2 steals. hmmm. . .

  • harry

    P.S.
    Dwade has been really, really bad during clutch time this year. Like completely, awfully, horribly bad. Avert your eyes, shield your thoughts, and try not to vomit out your nose bad.
    However, there is one catagory where he is pretty decent in. I bet you Mav fans can guess which one.

    Free throw attempts.

  • Andrew

    MVP
    1. Lebron
    2. Howard
    3. Nowitzki
    4. Williams
    5. Durant

  • Matt WH

    Great article. The look into 82games.com for evidence makes Dirk’s case for MVP even more valid. I often try to convince people of his clutch talents, but popular opinion (thanks to biased ESPN frontmen such as John Hollinger) has created the idea that Dirk fails in the clutch. How can people say that after looking at the facts? It’s mind boggling. Dirk deserves so much more credit than he receives. I want him to get that championship so badly. This is probably the best team he’s ever had around him, so let’s go get it done.

    Finally, does it bother anyone else to no end that after 12 years and 9 All-Star appearances, ESPN personalities STILL cannot pronounce Nowitzki?

  • harry

    I like when they call him Ner-wit-ski.

  • Brandon

    Matt, I think the perception of Dirk as un-clutch comes down to a single free throw in the ’06 Finals. Because of that a lot of “experts” ignore the dozens of buzzer beaters since then. And for some reason people outside of Dallas just love to hate on the big German. I’m not really sure why but I’ll leave that to each person to decide for themselves.

  • Mark Steirer

    Other fun facts gleaned for sorting that list on 82 games all different ways….

    Here’s one: the second-best FG percentage in clutch time is 69.4% by Carl Landry of Houston.

    The best is 92.3% by … Eric Dampier!

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