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.

Orlando Magic 97, Dallas Mavericks 82

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 2, 2010 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot Chart — GameFlow

“Yeah. That went well.
-Captain Malcolm Reynolds

As much as we’d like for the Mavs to down the Magic on a night like this, it’s not reasonable to expect it. For one, the Magic are far and away the superior team. Plus, it’s the second night of a back-to-back for the Mavs, and they’re coming off an overtime finish and a plane ride home, no less. I know the Mavs don’t need any excuses at this point, but the realities of the NBA regular season do influence performance from time to time, and this one was off those times.

It’s no surprise that the Mavs stuck with the Magic before slipping in the second half. I didn’t quite expect them to post an effective field goal percentage as low as 40.7%, but that’s what happens when everyone’s shooting turns a bit wild. The only Mavericks who could score were Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 24 but took 22 shots to do so, and Jason Terry, who finished with similar efficiency in scoring 16 points on 16 shots. They “carried” the offense, but only because the first half was so low-scoring that even an inefficient night from the Mavs’ two primary scorers kept them close. Decent defense from both sides DOMINATED the first 24 minutes, provided your understanding of defensive domination includes both teams missing open jumpers, committing unforced turnovers, and lacking any kind of offensive cohesion.

In the second half, members of the Magic just took turns exposing various aspects of the Mavs’ defense. Orlando utilized its numerous perimeter alternatives on the pick-and-roll, exploiting the Mavs’ tendency to double down on Howard following his strong start to hit three after three. Mickael Pietrus (24 points, 7-8 FG, 6-6 3FG) was especially dangerous in that regard, and he was absurdly effective from the corners. Jameer Nelson (14 points, seven assists, six turnovers) joined in on the fun to hedge the damage of his dismal first half, and his ability to hit from mid-range and his patience in the pick-and-roll was a big reason why the Magic’s third quarter offense was so effective. Then, Vince Carter (19 points, 8-17 FG, seven rebounds) beefed up his production in time to cushion Orlando’s lead, and Pietrus finished with nine of the Magic’s final 10 points to protect it from a late Maverick rally.

It was just a matter of time before Orlando’s defense came around. Dwight Howard (18 points, 20 rebounds, five blocks) is one of the league’s most influential defensive forces, and every block (and even goaltend) made the Mavs more and more nervous around the basket. Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood passed up looks at the rim due to Howard’s very presence, and many more Mavs faked themselves out of a rhythm as they approached the basket. There are certain award races this season that have discussions or arguments involved. Defensive Player of the Year is not one of them. No player in the league has a more profound impact on the defensive end, and that’s just as obvious in what he does do (block shots, get mad rebounds, show aggressively on screens) as what he doesn’t (deter opponents from coming in the lane, alter shot selection).

Otherwise, there’s not much to say. The half-court offense was stymied by an elite defense, the Mavs blew plenty of their opportunities in transition, and the better team won. Dallas looked off, was forced into too many tough shots, and couldn’t convert their easy ones. That’s not exactly a winning formula on any night, much less one where the opponent is a true contender and one of the hottest teams in the league.

The closest thing Dallas had to a hero was J.J. Barea (16 points, 7-9 FG, two steals), who put on something of a one-man comeback in the fourth quarter. Barea, the very man so many Mavs fans are desperately trying to bury as an offering to Rodrigue Beaubois, scored 14 points in the fourth quarter alone, including Dallas’ last seven. As much as we’d all like to carve out minutes for Beaubois, Barea still deserves to play. He’ll have nights where he’ll struggle to keep the offense in control or where his shot is a bit errant. That’s why he’s a reserve and not a starting-caliber guard. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to play or even rightfully deserve the back-up point guard job. It’s crucial that Rick Carlisle keeps his options open, and more important than cementing the back-up PG role is doling out minutes based on the merits of each players’ recent performance. On this night, for example, Rodrigue finished with just two points on 0-of-3 shooting and two turnovers. He may have the potential to produce in greater volume than J.J. (hello, 40-point night), but Barea was by far the more productive player against the Magic. The debate should never have been about getting more minutes for Beaubois, but rather for getting more minutes for the players that deserve them.

Closing thoughts:

  • Brandon Bass (eight points, two rebounds) doesn’t always crack the rotation for the Magic, but he played well in 12 minutes. His defense was a mixed bag (some things never change, right?), but offensively he was a nice boost.
  • Caron Butler (three points, 0-4 FG, three rebounds, three turnovers) is really struggling right now. On the bright side, his poor shooting isn’t shifting him into chucking mode, but he really needs to establish his value on the offensive end. Otherwise, he’s probably not worth the minutes. I’m not saying Butler should frequently try to take his man one-on-one, but what is Caron providing on the floor during these stretches where only Dirk or JET is clicking on offense? Part of that is the tendency to milk the hot hand, which is fine. It’s after the hot hand cools off that the problems begin to surface, and ideally that’s where you’d like to see Caron chip in.
  • Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood combined for 10 points and 18 rebounds, which is alright, I suppose. Both were clearly upstaged by Dwight (as is to be expected), but the defensive effort was there even if neither could properly hold Howard down. The Mavs began their coverage of Howard with a variety of double-teams coming from different angles at different times, but to no avail; Dwight showed off a variety of post moves (including a beauty of a lefty running hook) and found his open teammates on the perimeter. He’s such a tough cover in this system, and that was before the Magic’s outside shooting really started clicking.
  • Though the Mavs often looked a step slow, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Dallas really competed in this one, and kept fighting to trim the lead even when a comeback seemed impossible. The loss still hurts (especially in the standings), but the fight is important.
  • Orlando finished 14-of-24 from beyond the arc. Ouch.

Dallas Mavericks 95, Orlando Magic 85: Abridged

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 20, 2010 under Recaps | Read the First Comment

Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
-Louisa May Alcott

  • In light of everything that’s happened over the last two months (the Josh Howard Witch Trials, The Depression of 2010, and Tradeapalooza, in particular), this win should give Mavs fans a greater sense of optimism than any other this season. We’re starting to see how Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood fit in with this Maverick team, and the early returns are definitely promising.
  • The story of the game is, without a doubt, the Mavs’ 19-0 run that spanned the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Even more impressive: the last 12 points of that run came without Dirk Nowitzki on the floor, as a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Butler-Marion-Haywood rattled off 12 uncontested in a little over three minutes. It was also an incredibly balanced run, as JET, Kidd, and Haywood chipped in five apiece and Dirk added four.
  • Without such a terrific team-wide performance late in the game, the Mavs would’ve been doomed to a loss. Orlando put the pressure on the Dallas early by dropping 33 points in the first quarter (on 65% shooting) to the Mavs’ 23, including 20 points in the paint based on Howard’s strong start.
  • Dwight Howard (29 points, 11-16 FG, 16 rebounds, five blocks) was incredible, but Brendan Haywood’s defense was nothing to scoff at. Dwight did a lot of damage in the first quarter against the Mavs’ inferior post defenders, and though Howard ended up with some pretty incredible totals, Haywood really did bother him with his length and strength. Howard had 10 touches against the rest of the Mavs, and either scored or drew a foul on eight of those possessions. But against Haywood? On 26 touches, Howard only scored or drew a foul on 11 possessions. I know it’s not rocket science to declare Haywood the Mavs’ best post defender, especially with Dampier absent, but those numbers are indicative of not only how well Brendan plays on-ball defense in the post, but also how well he denies position and the ball to opposing centers.
  • J.J. Barea played just eight minutes, all of which came in the second quarter. But in those eight minutes, he did a surprisingly effective job of buoying the Maverick offense at a time where it looked to be in peril. The Mavs were doing a much better job defensively in the second quarter than they did in the first, holding the Magic to just 14 points in the quarter. The only problem? Dallas couldn’t score. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry combined for five straight misses over the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, and aside from an Eddie Najera three with 7:03 on the clock, Barea had the only points of the first five minutes. Never underestimate the impact of a couple of buckets when a team is completely unable to score.
  • Another game with a short rotation for the Mavs — only seven players played 10 minutes or more, and only eight played at all. For contrast, the Magic played ten players overall, nine of which played 10+ minutes. This could change when Erick Dampier comes back from injury or as Rick Carlisle sees more situational opportunities for Rodrigue Beaubois, but given the personnel the Mavs now have, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Carlisle run a tight rotation from this point forward.
  • The key for Dallas was, again, balance; five Mavericks finished in double-figures, including 15 points on 10 shots for Haywood, 16 points on meh shooting from Butler, and a tidy 16 points, seven rebounds, and four assists from Terry.
  • Caron Butler has not shot well in any of his first three games as a Maverick, but he is showing improvement. Right now he’s showing some skill in creating in one-on-one situations, but that’s where most of his looks are coming from. Butler’s having some trouble finishing around the basket (per HoopData’s Tom Haberstroh, “Caron Butler is a crisp 3-14 on layups since he joined the Mavericks.”) and is taking too many long jumpers (six of his eighteen attempts came between 16-23 feet away from the basket, and three of his attempts were threes), but as he gets more and more comfortable with the offense, his teammates will find him in positions more conducive to scoring efficiently. Think about the way Dirk plays. He gets the ball in most efficient spots on the floor, and then capitalizes by using his height and footwork and by relying on optimal court spacing. Right now, Butler’s left to pump fakes and crossovers, and while it’s getting him some points, he isn’t nearly as efficient as he could be.
  • Re: above, it’s essentially the same for Brendan Haywood and defense. He’s playing well in one-on-one contests right now, but he clearly gets a bit lost in the rotations and in more complex coverages. It’s not a hole in Haywood’s game, just lack of familiarity with a defensive system he stumbled into barely a week ago (if that).
  • The Magic, who are 8th in the league in three-point shooting percentage at 36.3%, shot a miserable 16% (4-25) from beyond the arc. Part of that is good shooters going cold, but the Mavs also appeared to be chasing the Magic off of the three-point line by design. Many of Orlando’s shooters, however, simply refused to be chased. Credit them for their perseverance, I guess, but the result was a lot of tough, contested jumpers.

Shot distribution data from HoopData.com.

Dallas Mavericks 105, Orlando Magic 95

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 3, 2009 under Recaps | 3 Comments to Read

Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.”
-Oscar Wilde

The Mavs put together another complete performance, but this time around things were different.  This wasn’t against the Warriors, or the Heat.  This one was big, and it was against the contending Orlando Magic.  I like what I saw.

Somehow, a Dallas outfit that has been miserable in guarding the three point line turned a group of “snipers” into kids with cap guns, firing blanks at every opportunity.  A lot of credit goes to both Carlisle and the players themselves, who combined a solid gameplan with excellent execution.  Looking to the box score, it may seem like the Mavs were absolutely grilled inside.  This is entirely true.  Dwight Howard awakened his inner Hakeem as he threw in hook after hook, and he finished the night with 35 and 11.  But this time, Dwight’s dominance was by design.  Erick Dampier has shown himself to be a capable one-on-one post defender in the past, and tonight he was given the task of derailing Howard with no help from the weak side.  That not only forces Dwight to (theoretically) force up errant shots, but also keeps the ball out of the hands of Orlando’s shooters, who typically capitalize on Dwight’s ability to draw double teams.  Nuh-uh.  Not last night.  Wing defenders were all over the place, and their efforts were bolstered by a poor shooting effort by the Magic.  Even when they had open looks, the Magic shooters were hearing Maverick footsteps.  Or maybe they were just cold.  Whatever.

The offense just rolled and rolled, snowballing into a monster during the late 3rd and early 4th.  Josh Howard was aggressive early but struggled a bit with his shot, and Jason Terry seemed a bit off the entire night.  That didn’t stop Dallas from claiming a 7-point lead at halftime, largely behind the efforts of Dirk Nowitzki (29 points, 12-21 shooting).  Dirk was the anchor during the tough stretches, and his work was rewarded by a supporting cast that came around and a defense that made life easier for everyone in blue (body, not trim).

Ryan Hollins actually broke a sweat tonight, playing and fouling out in 11 minutes.  Some of his fouls seemed ticky-tacky to be honest, but that’s the way it goes when you’re young, and that’s the way it goes when you’re Ryan Hollins.  He still put his imprint on the game though, manning the center position for a key third quarter stretch in which the Mavs went +13.  Hollins and Dampier didn’t exactly shackle Dwight Howard, but they did make him work for his points one way or another.  Any other night, y’know, one where he doesn’t make around 10 hook shots, and Dwight’s stat line looks a lot more palatable to Mavs fans.

Magic point guard Jameer Nelson dislocated his right shoulder while fighting with Dampier for a loose ball.  I’ve loved Nelson’s play all season, and it’s a shame that this had to happen just after Nelson’s first All-Star selection.  Best wishes for a speedy recovery to Jameer.  Although, it should certainly be noted that the Mavs didn’t win this game because Jameer went out.  It certainly didn’t help Orlando, but the Mavs had already “imposed their will” on the game by that point.  He probably could’ve made a difference down the stretch, but the Mavs won this game because they played well, not because Jameer went down.

Three blips on my radar: the Mavs bench was absolutely nuts tonight, standing at all times, jumping up and down, and really showing some love for their teammates.  I love it.  Second, the Magic play some really strange sound effect on made shots.  It sounds like that toy laser gun you had when you were growing up, mixed with the intro synth on any prominent 80s pop song.  Wacky.  And third, I want to give some props to the Magic broadcast team.  I watch a lot of basketball and I’ve heard some pretty biased/blatantly wrong commentary, but this crew was not only fair but incredibly knowledgeable.  They avoided all the classic pitfalls regarding the Mavs, and from the small sample size I’ve heard of them (around 5 games on the season), I’ve been impressed.

Oh, and one final thought: as Mavs fans, we’re not often treated to exquisite dunks.  Sometimes Bass will throw down something fierce, or Dirk will dunk on the break.  But tonight, we witnessed something truly special.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Dunktacular Stylings of Sir Erick of Dampier.

I’m moved to recite the words of the infamous Rhinelandic techno/hip-hop group, Lazer, in their epic 2006 track, “M-F-F-L“: “Stand clear of Erick Dampier/Stay out the paint, he’s the man-pier!”

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT:

The Gold Star of the Night goes to Jason Kidd, who provided some offense of his own while getting Dampier and co. involved as well.  Dirk really needed a boost to get this team over the hump, and Kidd skipped the shot in the arm method and instead went straight for the jugular.

No Game Is an Island: Paper or Hardwood?

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 2, 2009 under Previews | Read the First Comment

The Dallas Mavericks visit the Orlando Magic
6:00 CST

When boiled down to a purely theoretical framework, I think the Magic might have the best team in the NBA.  They don’t have the best players and they’re not the most complete, but in terms of approach and personnel I’m not sure there’s a better way to do things.  That could be because I see a little bit of the Spurs in the Magic.

As far as big men go, I don’t know that there are more philosophically different players than Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard.  Duncan supplants technique and precision over athleticism and strength, a shockingly lethal array of bank shots, footwork, and baby hooks.  His game reeks of calculation and blueprints, not gunpowder and rocket fuel.  On top of that, his high post mastery has marked the free throw line extended as his kingdom.  Dwight Howard has no such jurisdiction, but that doesn’t change the way they function within the offense.  The San Antonio triumvirate functions because each individual brings something unique to the table, and because they can give defenses fits without stepping on each other’s toes.  Beyond that, many a role player has found themselves on the receiving end of an open three-pointer or a hundred because of those three.

In a sense, Orlando is a dignified and yet deeply flawed San Antonio.  Jameer Nelson is a point guard who’s quick enough to get where he needs to go on the floor, and yet shares some of Parker’s defensive limitations.  Like a young Parker, Jameer has a singular midrange talent (jumper versus teardrop).  Hedo Turkoglu provides offensive movement and a creator away from the point.  He doesn’t have Manu’s explosiveness, but he supplements his talents with considerable size and a nice passing touch.  Rashard Lewis is, for all intents and purposes, the super-scorer/role player that may have kept the Spurs from exploding into a ten year dynasty.  The Magic are decidedly Bowen-less, and maybe that’s what separates them from the cream of the crop (possible).  Or maybe it’s the difference between Howard and Duncan (likely).

We all know that Dwight Howard with a legit low-post skill set would be something to behold, but is it possible that his transformation could usher in a more far-reaching evolution of lovable, innocent Magic into the infinitely more exciting and smiley neo-Spurs?