The Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers are not just fighting for seeding but for the chance to avoid each other and face a Mavericks squad that is viewed as the weaker of the good teams, first round fodder for a contender.
Those memories of Dallas’ historically great offense to start the season have been replaced by constant reminders of defensive ineptitude. Rajon Rondo has been getting most of the blame for Dallas descent into pretender status and Chandler Parsons is seen as a disappointment after a hefty contract. Yet like everything about the Mavericks for the past 15 years, Dirk Nowitzki’s performance is defining how good the Mavericks ultimately are.
Nowitzki is posting the worst true shooting percentage since his rookie year and is struggling to get to the line more than in the past but he remains a deadly weapon. His shot is still unblockable and while he has lost a step he’s still too quick for traditional big men. Rick Carlisle limited his minutes this season so we might get a chance of seeing a fresh Dirk in the postseason and that means at least a couple of nights in which he dominates on offense, making impossible shots that somehow look easy when he takes them. It’s on the other end where it’s hard to see him improve at all this season and that’s what could doom the Mavericks to an early unceremonious exit.
Nowitzki has never been a great defender so his contributions on that end rarely get scrutinized. It’s simply expected that his offense will more than make up for what he costs his team in its own end. What’s happening now, as Nowitzki has gotten older, is the net gain his presence represents in the aggregate has reduced. In simple terms, Dirk’s defense has gotten bad enough that not even his still elite offense can allow his team to outscore opponents by large margins.
When Nowitzki is on the court, the Mavericks allow 105 points per 100 possessions, the most of all Mavericks rotation players and about two points worse than the team does as a whole. Because the offense is so good, the team’s net rating with Dirk playing is still positive, but has dropped to below four points. Last season that number was five points and Dirk has only posted a worse net rating once in his career: in the 2012/13 season in which Dallas missed the playoffs. The Mavericks’ biggest star doesn’t make his team better at the rate that others do and that, more than anything else, is Dallas’ problem.
Opponents shoot three percentage points better than their average when Nowtzki is guarding them, per SportsVU player tracking stats provided by the league. Dirk allows a field goal percentage of 43.5 on three pointers he defends and 52.1 percent on shots at the rim, two terrible marks that have him among the worse defenders in the league. He’s below average at guarding spot up situations as well as isolations, according to Synergy Sports data. His mere presence on the court even when he’s not directly involved in plays hurts the defense, as opponents shoot at the rim more often and convert at a much higher rate when Dirk is on the court. The same happens with three-point attempts. Dirk is killing the Mavericks’ defense.
As bad as those numbers are, the eye test is even more damming to Dirk’s already shaky defensive reputation. Nowitzki has never been a good rim protector but he used to be able to guard perimeter-oriented big men decently. Not anymore. He loses his man, helps when he shouldn’t and doesn’t close out with any purpose. The Raptors got a clean look for Patrick Patterson just by having him set two picks while Nowitzki was guarding him.
He helps tentatively and often in situations in which he’s not needed.
The simplest coordinated action gets him out of position and then he simply gives up.
The lack of effort showed in those three plays is indicative of how lackadaisical Nowitzki has been on his own end all season long and it’s inexcusable. Sometimes players that have been able to rely on their physical tools to defend well are so used to cutting corners that not giving all they have or not playing smart can be forgiven. Nowitzki, on the other hand, has always had to exert himself to the maximum to even be a neutral defender so he know what it takes, yet he’s stopped doing that this season.
Normally when a player shows that level of incompetence on defense he would see his minutes reduced but it’s Nowtizki we are talking about. The Mavericks’ offense gets four points worse per 100 possessions when he’s not on the court and a huge part of their playbook is designed around his talents, which means that his minutes will likely increase heavily in the postseason, potentially costing them the Mavericks on defense almost as much as he helps them on the other end.
In their title run Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion masked Nowitzki’s flaws, but Marion is now gone and Chandler is not able to plug every leak. When he shares the court with Nowitzki, the Mavericks allow over 106 points per 100 possessions, a similar mark to the Sacramento Kings’ defensive rating. That number doesn’t exactly scream “dark horse contender.” Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league, so he will find a way to not hemorrhage points by making adjustments. As long as Nowitzki remains such a drain to the team on his own end, however, it’s hard to imagine the Mavericks pulling a first round upset.
There’s always a chance Dirk steps up his effort level and awareness in the playoffs, that he was just taking it easy in the regular season. Yet it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. It simply looks like the normal deterioration on the game of a 36-year-old who never cared much for defense and was never truly good at it.
Nowitzki is one of the best players of his generation, someone who redefined the power forward position. His legacy is safe no matter what he does from now on. Yet to those of us who have enjoyed watching him play like few others, the possibility that this regression will define the last stretch of his career is a scary thought that looks more and more like an inevitable reality.