Monday night will mark Dirk Nowitzki’s second missed contest as the team withholds him from game action, though in the backwards spirit of the lockout season, Nowitzki’s injury-related absence isn’t exactly what it seems. From Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas:
Carlisle said Nowitzki needs “an uninterrupted eight days of work to resolve some physical issues and conditioning issues.” He emphasized that the break is designed to help Nowitzki, who is expected to return Jan. 29 against San Antonio, get into better game shape.
The Mavs coach said Nowitzki would prefer to keep playing but coaches and training staff decided it would be better for the team if he is restricted from game activity for the next week. Carlisle stressed that “this is not a rest situation” but “quite the opposite.”
Every rehabilitation effort requires an intense workload, but seeing a star player miss games to work out some minor injuries and improve their conditioning isn’t exactly a common occurrence in the NBA. That said, the Mavs deserve a lot of credit for playing the long game, and for not overreacting to their underwhelming record with a desperate grab for wins. This team is nothing without Nowitzki, and as much as the team’s offensive struggles can be pinned to the poor performance of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Lamar Odom, or the rust of the team in general, all of those problems function as a half-truthed red herring. Clearly those other individual factors have played a role in Dallas’ offensive failures, but no single element has made a more profound impact than the lapse in offensive relevance for Dirk Nowitzki.
The Mavericks’ offensive structure not only relies on Nowitzki to provide consistent and efficient production, but also to trigger much of the strong and weak side action by commanding the attention of opposing defenses. This simply can’t be done by shooting spot-up jumpers, and yet Nowitzki’s physical limitations forced him into an uncomfortably static role as a standstill shooter:
“You saw it. I couldn’t go by anybody off the dribble and that’s part of my game,” Nowitzki said. “Right now is just basically a pop-up shooter every time I caught it, and if I didn’t have it [a shot] I had to swing it because I just couldn’t make a move, couldn’t go by anybody and just didn’t feel comfortable.”
Though Nowitzki is typically regarded as more of a shooter than a driver, his ability to attack off the dribble and use fakes to shed defenders requires an entire team defense to pay attention to his movements at all times. After all, Nowitzki could spin into the middle of the lane for a fadeaway on a moment’s notice. He could use a shot fake to free up his left-handed drive to the rim in the blink of an eye. He could throw off his defender with a jab or a pump fake and necessitate a defensive rotation at any particular moment. When on his game, Nowitzki creates a spiral of defensive decision-making and vulnerability, and the impact of that spiral provides the crux for the Mavs’ offensive success.
Because of Dirk, the Mavs have extra breathing room on the perimeter and open lanes to cut to the basket. The floor opens up for Jason Kidd. The offensive rebounds materialize for Shawn Marion and Ian Mahinmi. Everything clicks into place, as Dallas’ combination of strong-side dominance, good floor spacing, and effective screening culminates into a beautiful — and complete — product. But it’s only possible because all eyes are on Dirk, giving the offense just enough space for some sleight of hand on the periphery.
We all know that the Mavericks are a much better team with Nowitzki as their effective centerpiece, but what this season has crystallized is just how far their offense can fall if Nowitzki is anything other than his best offensive self; even 20.4 points per 36 minutes on 46-percent shooting isn’t good enough, as Dallas is scoring just 100.2 points per 100 possessions (22nd in the league) this season with Dirk phased out. Nowitzki has to be dominant in order for this team to operate in its current structural form. Rick Carlisle could theoretically make some strategic adjustments to feature other players if Dirk’s struggles were a long-term consideration, but the Mavs are currently sandwiched between Nowitzki’s ineffective reality and the impractical option of altering the system to counter a lockout apparition.
Ideally, nothing will change in the coming weeks but Nowitzki. The Mavericks only star has miles to go before he’ll sleep, but this absence — however unconventional it may be — is the only way to resurrection.