The Verdict: Dirk at 35; he’s still got it

A rejuvenated Nowitzki is quietly enjoying a remarkable season; his improvement from the injury-plagued 2012-2013 season was encapsulated by a 40-point explosion in New Orleans last Saturday in which Dirk shot 15-16 from the free throw line.

The Mavericks’ 12-year streak as a playoff team came to an end last season; Dirk’s persistent injury troubles saw him miss 29 games whilst his scoring average dropped to the lowest mark since his rookie season.

Having already cemented his legacy as the greatest international player and shooting big man in league history, Nowitzki could have easily rested on his laurels in the off-season. In the character of a true champion, he persisted, working harder than ever to strengthen his knee, hone his renowned skill-set and build on his cardiovascular fitness.

Is Dirk’s off-season grind paying off? It sure is; Dirk is yet to miss a game this season and is having his most efficient shooting season since his championship year (2010-2011). Averaging 23.5 points per outing, the big man is shooting 48.7% from the field, 41.1% from deep and 90.3% from the free throw line. When Nowitzki worked out with then-Boston Celtics Coach Rick Pitino prior to the 1998 NBA Draft, Pitino immediately drew a comparison between the German youngster and Celtics legend Larry Bird. If a 35-year-old Dirk can maintain these numbers and improve his field goal percentage by just 1.3% he will join Larry Bird and former teammate Steve Nash as the only players in league history with multiple 50-40-90 seasons. His career shooting numbers not only place him firmly at the top of great shooting big men, but amongst the likes of Ray Allen and Reggie Miller as one of the top shooters in basketball history.

Statistically speaking: Dirk is one of three players in NBA history with 25,000+ points, including 1000+ three-pointers. The other two? Kobe and Reggie.

ESPN ranked Dirk 26th in their annual pre-season rankings of NBA players. Chris Bosh and Al Horford were amongst Power Forwards ranked higher than Nowitzki. Many would consider Horford and Bosh to be superior players to Dirk at this point in their respective careers. The numbers suggest the opposite is true and show that Dirk is vastly underrated:

2013-14 season Points Rebounds Assists Blocks FG% 3PT% FT% PER Age
Nowitzki

 

21.2

 

5.8

 

3.0

 

0.7

 

48.7%

 

41.1%

 

90.3%

 

23.7

 

35

 

Bosh

 

15.4

 

6.7

 

1.0

 

1.0

 

52.2%

 

33.3%

 

80.3%

 

19.2

 

29

 

Horford 18.6

 

8.4

 

2.6

 

1.5

 

56.7%

 

36.4%

 

68.2%

 

22.4

 

27

Dirk leads these three players in 5 of 8 major statistical categories. (Note that many of Horford’s Field Goal attempts come in the paint whilst Dirk attempts far more perimeter shots; his true shooting percentage is around 4% better than Al’s). Although nothing more than a popularity contest in the eyes of many, All-Star voting gives us a relatively accurate picture of how highly fans rate the league’s stars. In the 3rd returns of All-Star balloting Chris Bosh had garnered 304,986 votes to Dirk’s 156,792 – an injustice if ever there was one. Here’s hoping the league’s coaches see sense and vote Nowitzki as a Western All-Star reserve in recognition of his astounding season.

Two sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famers. Two 35 year olds coming off disappointing seasons that were ruined by injuries and under-performing teammates. The circumstances surrounding Kobe Bryant’s Achilles injury and Dirk’s knee are vastly different in some respects, but both of these all-time greats spent the off-season participating in intensive rehab programmes and returned to action in the 2013-2014 season. Sadly, Kobe played just six games before falling to a fractured tibia. The similarities between the ordeals of these two are sufficient to justify a statistical comparison:

2013/14 Points Rebounds Assists Steals FG% FT% 3PT% PER
Kobe 13.8 4.3 6.3 1.2 42.5 85.7 18.8 11.4
Dirk 21.2 5.8 3.0 1.1 48.7 90.3 41.1 23.7

Statistically speaking: Nowitzki is the 13th All-Time leading scorer (25,855) in the NBA and holds Maverick franchise records for most career minutes, points, field goals made, three-pointers made, free throws made and rebounds.

“I feel 45”: that’s what Dirk told the media following his 40-point game in New Orleans. It doesn’t look like it! He is as important to the Mavericks this season as ever; Dallas’ net points per 100 possessions increases 11.3 points when Dirk is on the court. However, Nowitzki’s contract runs out this summer and he has publicly stated that he will not sign an extension in-season, instead opting to test the free-agent waters. He wasn’t happy when the Mavs failed to sign Deron Williams in 2012 and CP3 or Dwight in 2013, especially since he played an active part in recruiting their free-agent targets. There is nothing to suggest that Mark Cuban will be successful in signing a member of the coveted 2014 free-agent class that includes the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Dirk will be faced with a choice in the summer: he can close out his career with his beloved Mavs, becoming one of the few players in league history to play their entire career with one team, or he can sign with a contender and chase another championship alongside one of the league’s younger stars. The latter has appealed to veterans such as Ray Allen and Derek Fisher in recent times and should the Mavs fail to add star power in the off-season it could well be the path Nowitzki takes.

Regardless of which path Dirk chooses, #41 will someday hang from the rafters at the American Airlines Center, he will be remembered as a player who revolutionised his position like no other, and as a key figure in the globalisation of the league. Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy as one of the greatest players to ever grace the hardwood is secure.

Image: Getty