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Is Dirk Nowitzki’s Greatness Overlooked?

Every now and then I make a point on Sportstalk that I would like to further explore and analyze in an online post.  There is a groupthink notion that Dirk Nowitzki is a little soft and shrinks during the physical nature of the playoffs.  Because pro athletes are ultimately judged by their championships, if Dirk never cashes in his greatness may be overlooked. I hope last night’s game one against the Lakers squashed that notion that Dirk is soft.  I believe I heard analyst Steve Kerr utter the words ‘Dirk Nowitzki and unguardable’ in the same sentence at least five times.

Forget regular season stats, I decided to delve into his playoff statistics.  Nowitzki and the Mavs have reached the playoffs the last 11 seasons.  In 110 playoff games Dirk has averaged 25.7 points and 10.7 rebounds.  He shoot field goals at a 46% clip, threes at a 37.5% clip, and is nearly 90% from the line.

After crunching the numbers, Dirk Nowitzki's greatness and importance to Dallas is revealed. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Traditional statistics don’t tell the whole story because if Dirk gets most of his points in the first three quarters or in blowout losses then his critics are validated.  To really understand Dirk’s greatness you have to look at him sabermetrically.  The good people at basketballreference.com keep advanced sabermetric statistics.  One good statistic is WS/48 (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes).  The league average for WS/48 is .100.  In 110 playoff games Dirk’s WS/48 is .206, more than twice the league average.

It gets better.  In his playoff career Dirk has a player efficiency rating (per) of 24.7.  The league average is 15.  His win share (ws) is 19.6.  I’m not entirely sure how to interpret that number, but just know that Dirk has contributed to a boat load of Mavs playoff wins.

Now for the bad.  Dirk can be a defensive liability.  He’s 6′ 11″ and long, but easy to beat off the dribble.  Being close to 7 feet, I’ve always felt people want him to bang more in the low post.  That’s not his game.  Larry Bird was nearly 7 feet too, but he had Parish and McHale to do the dirty work.

Dirk has also been hindered by coached and teammates.  In Dirk’s first five playoff seasons his coach was Don Nelson.  Nelly ball is innovative and entertaining for the regular season, but translates horribly in the playoffs.  Nelly sacrifices true centers for smaller power forwards who can run.  The playoffs are all about executing in the half court and having bigs who can rebound, clog the middle, and score.  The Mavs didn’t have that under Nelly.

Enter Avery Johnson.  In Johnson’s first full season, the Mavs had more emphasis on defense and better bigs.  The Lakers were also down, and the Mavs were two games away from winning the NBA title.  After the loss to the Heat in ’06 it wasn’t a matter of if but when for Dirk and the Mavs.  After disappointing first round losses in ’07 and ’08 Johnson was fired.  Rick Carlisle replaced Johnson and ’09 and ’10 was more of the same.

At the risk of being reactionary after one win over the Lakers, something feels different in ’11.  At 32 Dirk is still one of the best in the league, the bench is one of the deepest, and Tyson Chandler has finally given Dallas the interior toughness they have lacked in the past.  An NBA title would validate Dirk’s greatness in a lot of fans eyes, but the numbers show he was already one of the best ever.

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