Forget Me Not

Posted by Bryan Gutierrez on September 23, 2013 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

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In today’s society, we often look for the next big thing or look to say something has served its purpose and it is then time to move away from it. Sometimes, people get lazy and fail to recognize what is still directly in front of them. It feels like Dirk Nowitzki is the latest victim of this circumstance.

Earlier in the month, NBA.com asked their bloggers to predict which player born outside the United States would be have the biggest 2013-14 season? It seemed like most of the bloggers, outside of Lang Whitaker, went ahead and tried to peg the next big thing. It’s kind of funny to see how everyone is looking for the next big thing, mainly due to what Nowitzki was able to do over the course of his career, and equally downplayed what he still could have left in the tank.

The tossing to the side doesn’t end there. Surprisingly, Nowitzki couldn’t get the love from the international folks, either. Again, in another informal poll, 38 players – why 38 – participating in this year’s EuroBasket tournament were asked who were the Top 5 European basketball players of all time. Nowitzki ended up being ranked fifth on the list.

Drazen Petrovic (Croatia), Tony Parker (France), Arvydas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Dejan Bodiroga (Serbia) all ranked ahead of Nowitzki in the results. It’s hard to segment a player’s career just based on what they did in international play, completely ignoring what they did or didn’t do at the highest level of the sport, but that seems to be what was done when coming up with the results.

Now, the German national team hasn’t been a force in international play, but Nowitzki has certainly carried that squad for over a decade. He led them to a bronze medal in the 2002 World Championships, a tournament that saw him awarded the MVP. Just three years later in Eurobasket 2005, Nowitzki led a Cinderella-like run for the team as they made it to the Finals. The ultimately lost to Greece, but Nowitzki was named MVP of that tournament, as well.

His work wasn’t done as he helped the national team qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. That was the team’s first appearance in the Olympics since 1992. Even after winning his first NBA Championship, Nowitzki served his country by playing in EuroBasket 2011.

Tim MachMahon of ESPNDallas.com did the numbers and came up with a very solid point. Bodiroga never played in the NBA. Petrovic, Parker and Sabonis have a combined 25,007 NBA points — 44 fewer than Nowitzki.

He can’t get the love overseas and is relegated to relative fodder in America. Why exactly is this happening?

Most are looking at what he did last season, coming off his worst statistical season since 2000. But by doing that, most are taking the easy way out and putting all of the blame on Nowitzki. Yes, he did come off knee surgery, but he also had to work with a new cast of characters that often didn’t know what to do with him.

While O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison were potential pieces to the future, they never really panned out due to the fact they could never really co-exist or operate alongside Nowitzki. It’s not like the 35-year-old big man was problematic to work with. They just didn’t understand how to work alongside him in the pick-and-roll. Let’s also remember the Mavs fell just short of making the playoffs after falling 10 games below .500 during the season. The fact that they sniffed a chance to be in the playoffs is mainly a testament to Nowitzki.

Looking at his averages after his first six games played of the 2012-13 season, all coming off the bench, he started in the team’s remaining 47 games, averaging 18.2 points on .476 shooting from the field and .415 percent from 3-point range. He also chipped in with a nice 7.2 rebounds per game average in those 47 games.

Looking at those numbers, a few things pop out. His scoring average is very low. In those 47 games, that scoring average would be his second lowest average in a full season (17.5 in 1999-00). He only took 14.3 shots per game in that 47-game stretch, also dramatically low. Prior to last season, Nowitzki had averaged 17.7 shots per game over his previous five seasons. Those numbers seem to indicate one thing: the Mavs were dreadful in getting Nowitzki the ball. There were times during the season where he deferred and dished the ball out due to double teams, but there were also multiple times over the course of the season where he would be out on an island, calling for the basketball and no one would deliver it to him.

That issue should be resolved with a massive upgrade in the point guard position. Jose Calderon is a strong catalyst on offense. While not a pure point guard, Monta Ellis can work with Nowitzki in the pick-and-roll. The Mavs have two rookies in Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel who will benefit from what Nowitzki can offer as a screener. Nowitzki also has Devin Harris returning at some point in the regular season, already having chemistry with Nowitzki. The shot attempts and scoring likely won’t remain down.

Another set of numbers to look at with those averages was his shooting accuracy. Simply put, he was a beast when he actually shot the ball. I covered this earlier in the summer for ESPN Dallas. The art of the mid-range jumper is fading, but Nowitzki is still dominating in that area of the floor. Sixty percent (437) of Nowitzki’s 728 field goal attempts were mid-range jumpers. He shot .481 percent on those shots. Of the players who shot at least 400 mid-range jumpers, only Luke Ridnour had a better field goal percentage at .499 percent.

Nowitzki’s 3.0 shots taken from long distance last season was his second highest average over the last seven seasons (he shot 3.4 of them on average the previous season). There was clearly a higher volume of long distance shots taken, but Nowitzki shot over .400 percent from 3-point range for only the fourth time in his entire career. It’s not necessarily a new trick up his sleeve, but Nowitzki is extremely dangerous in transition as a pull-up shooter from beyond the arc. It’s also a crafty way for him to not necessarily run the entire length of the floor, but that’s what a wise, savvy and older player does. He’ll look for a way to make people pay, help his teammates and put points on the board.

What the Mavs have done over the last two-to-three years is create a blockade of sorts to create more separation for him on 3-point shots. Vince Carter has often filled the role of Nowitzki’s “bodyguard” in transition as he creates space via screens, allowing Nowitzki to receive a pass in transition and fire away a 3-point shot. That action has clearly been successful for the team.

Another curious number to look at is his rebounding average of 7.2. That’s a rather high number when you take into account the Mavs weren’t exactly rewriting the record books in the rebounding department last season, combing with his advancing in age (and the fact he also came off knee surgery). The rebounding numbers will be something to watch this coming season. The team’s front office hopes that they reloaded in the frontcourt by signing Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair and bringing back Brandan Wright and Bernard James. The hope is that all of them are able to alleviate some wear and tear off Nowitzki’s legs by handling the rebounding responsibilities, which would go a long way in preserving Nowitzki.

For the most part, many in the media have relegated Dallas to a third or fourth-tier team in the Western Conference pecking order, coinciding with the relegation of Nowitzki. Mark Cuban has been extremely vocal this offseason. One of the things he’s been most adamant about is the fact that everyone is downplaying how much his face of the franchise has left in the tank. While Cuban has been vocal, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has taken a different stance.

“All of us that have been around this game understand the way to approach it every day is to approach it like you’ve got something to prove every day,” Carlisle told the Two Man Game last week. “That’s how I am going to approach it, that’s how Mark is going to approach and that’s how Dirk is going to approach it.

“Really, it’s not about talking about it. We all know that we’ve got to do it.”

While Carlisle speaks about the approach the organization will take as they look to prove people wrong, the message can resonate when it has Nowitzki in mind. As media locally and players internationally give somewhat of a slight towards Nowitzki, he’s been quiet.

Outside of the news of him and his wife’s first child, Nowitzki has remained silent as the news of his apparent demise swirls around him. Instead, he spends time with his family, gets acquainted with his new teammates and does what he loves best: works. He’s logging long hours at the team’s weight room and practice court, gearing up for the new season.

“Dirk has put in a lot of work this summer, probably more than he’s ever done before,” Carlisle continued. “We’ve got to take that momentum into training camp and into to the season.”

If the Mavs are able to build momentum, it’s mainly going to be due to Nowitzki.

The work he’s doing could be seen as a carbon copy of what his I-35 rival has done. Two years older than Nowitzki, Tim Duncan averaged 18.1 points, 11.2 rebounds in 35.1 minutes of action in the playoffs last season as the San Antonio Spurs made their run to the NBA Finals. Duncan had his own doubters as he hit a “wall” of sorts around 2009-10 as injuries started to pile up on him. He responded to the criticism and re-emerged with his traditionally dominant yet understated game.

That’s not to say that Nowitzki will be an MVP candidate in 2013-14. It does say though that if Duncan can show that walls can be broken, Nowitzki can easily do the same. While Nowitzki’s best days are behind him, he can still deliver magic.

The performances like the one against the Chicago Bulls on Mar. 30, 2013 – a season-high 35 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter – are likely to be fewer and farther between, but he can still be a beast when things line up.

Dirk versus Chicago

It should be noted that the German national team failed to advance past the group stage of EuroBasket this month, but they did turn heads by beating France, the eventual champions, in their Group Stage opener. Nowitzki told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein earlier this month that if he thinks his return to the national squad can clinch a spot for his homeland in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, he’d consider a return to international basketball. Nowitzki would be 38 during those Olympics. Maybe by then he’ll convince some more players that he’s a better international player.

Going back to the scoring issue, if you go conservative with this season and imagine Nowitzki averages 18.0 points per game and only plays 70 games in the regular season, he will still climb as high as 13th or 14th on the all-time scoring list.

If his health doesn’t betray him anymore, Nowitzki will end his career as a top 10 scorer all time in the NBA. He will also be known as an NBA champion, a future Hall of Fame player and a man who revolutionized the game. That’s great, but he’s apparently done, nasty one-leg fadeaway jumpers darned.

We sometimes abandon our favorite t-shirt for a new one, or think the grass might be greener on the other side. Dirk Nowitzki is an example of where stopping and smelling the roses can be a good thing.

He’s working harder than ever before, putting more time in with his new teammates and even contemplating more international basketball in his future. That sounds like a man who is hungry and determined. Simply put, Dirk isn’t done. If teams assume that he is done, they’ll find out when they throw just a single defender at him.

Bryan Gutierrez writes about sportsmen. He also attended Ball So Hard University. Bryan channels his inner-Clark Kent on a day-to-day basis. You can follow him on Twitter @BallinWithBryan.

  • dirk papadopoulos

    for some reason Dirk has always been underated,probably due to his unconventional type of play:a jump shooting,perimeter-oriented big man whose low-key character and foreign descent play a role too,i think.still,he just gets out and performs without really caring about recognition,fame etc. and that’s what every basketball player should do.i believe Dirk has a lot to offer to the game and many things left to accomplish,whether some just seem to ignore him or not…

  • beachdrifter

    On the other hand, Kobe Bryant said just a few months ago that Dirk “is the best foreign player of all time, period.”

    http://www.fibaeurope.com/coid_OA8hZrueHas6C,l6URR-T2.articleMode_on.html

    Considering the fact that Kobe has been Dirk’s favorite NBA player for as long as he’s been in the NBA…this must have been huge for him! There’s no higher praise than that, other than maybe an MVP trophy.

    NBA.com bloggers? Some unnamed Euro ballers underrating him? I doubt Dirk will lose too much sleep about those!