Dirk Nowitzki is unselfish to a fault. That unselfishness can, in the right moments and with the right teammates, make Dirk an admirable, unique leader. As the Mavericks playoff chances dwindle, however, his selflessness is harming Dallas on the floor. The reconstructed roster lacks a clear go-to player at the end of games and needs Dirk to demand the ball. Even as he struggles to regain his form and find his shooting touch, the former MVP irreplaceably changes the complexion of the game when he plays aggressively by creating better opportunities for his teammates.
To his credit, Dirk hasn’t always had to control the reins to guide Dallas to success. There is some historical precedent for the Mavericks winning games without Dirk being dominant; he willingly ceded the leadership role on the floor during crunch time to Steve Nash during their time together in Dallas and in the locker room to the likes of Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler during the championship run. He has been equally willing to cede the floor to his younger teammates this season, telling our own Bryan Gutierrez recently that, in his own view, he is “not helping that much.”
It is impossible, however, to imagine this Mavericks team finding their way without Dirk willingly taking the ball and embracing the risk of failure. His deference to Nash, Kidd, and Chandler aside, every great Mavericks run in recent history has revolved around Dirk demanding the ball and refusing to allow his team to lose. The lasting image of the 2006 playoffs is of Dirk willing his way past Manu Ginobli for a three-point play that in turn led Dallas past the Spurs. Nowitzki’s reputation as a great player who feared big moments was shattered as he went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James in 2011 and ceded only three of the 15 contests along the way.
Yet as we watch Dirk struggle, those glory days can seem a distant memory. He is in uncharted territory from a physical standpoint, having never returned from an injury so severe nor dealt with the uncertainty it creates. That uncertainty also creates a psychological challenge, as Nowitzki and others seem to wonder whether he’ll ever regain his trademark pinpoint form. These worries sadly won’t vanish, even as Dirk’s condition improves; Father Time plays no favorites.
This does not mean Dirk should or will go gently into that great night. One sequence in the fourth quarter of an eventual overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder provides a microcosm of what goes wrong for Dallas when Dirk defers to his teammates at the beginning of half-court possessions. Nursing a two point lead, Darren Collison brought the ball down the floor and looked to Nowitzki. Dirk, however, slumped to the corner, avoiding the action. Collison, perplexed, dribbled the ball with no clear aim or purpose and got the ball to O.J. Mayo, who rolled off a make-shift Marion screen. The Thunder, adjusting their defense, shifted away from Dirk, stationary on the right side of the floor, and towards a cutting Mayo, producing a turnover off of an erratic Mayo drive.
That sequence has played out in similar form in other moments in several other close losses, most recently to the New Orleans Hornets. Nowitzki has willingly entrusted his younger teammates, notably Collison and Mayo, to control the action and create points at the end of close games. This willingness to cede the floor allows the opposing defense to relax its traditional laser focus on Dirk and produce turnovers and poor shots from the unpredictable young duo.
While Dirk wants to defer to his teammates as he struggles, his own self-image and the image the opposing team has of him are very different beasts. Regardless of whether he’s 0-for-10 or 10-for-10 from the floor, defenders form their impressions based off Dirk’s traditional ferociousness, not his current struggles. Eric Spoelstra, well familiar with what dominance Dirk can produce, described this reaction beautifully to Bryan Gutierrez, terming it the “Dirk Nowitzki Effect” in the most recent edition of The Rundown:
“I see him change how everybody plays them. It’s the Dirk Nowitzki Effect on their offense. As a defense, you absolutely overreact to every situation he’s in — or even that he’s not in — and then you lose all sight of your team defensive rules. As soon as he comes in, you see that whole effect come in. It’s fascinating to see, and he’s earned that respect, that overreaction by defenses.”
Agreeing with Spoelstra isn’t usually a popular decision among Mavericks fans, but he’s exactly right. No matter what condition Dirk’s in, Dallas plays best when he controls the ball and demands attention from defenses. Collison and Mayo can score in droves but neither is spectacular at creating their own shot. They and the other Mavericks are best when the action finds them, and it often does when Nowitzki creates space and calls the attention of the defense. He doesn’t need to make shots or be at 100% to be the best option for Dallas late in games. After all, Dirk’s unselfishness can take a very different form within a more complete offensive form; demanding the ball may well only be the first step in a more complicated sequence, by which the Mavs’ most prolific scorer draws earned defensive attention and subsequently entrusts his teammates to create points by way of a more natural offensive rhythm. Nowitzki need not be dominant to be the offensive fulcrum that the Mavs rely on him to be.