How Dirk Nowitzki transformed basketball
Matt Ogborn @mattogborn
For those sporting stars who operate at the highest level for a sustained period of time, the desire to add tangible team trophies to personal accolades looms large in the legacy equation.
Statistics rank right up there when the time comes to say enough is enough; however, titles linger longer for most.
When German tyro Dirk Nowitzki entered the lion’s den of the NBA in 1998, he must have hoped that, one day, he might have a championship ring slipped on to one of his golden fingers.
Sadly for the Dallas Mavericks’ main man, the years have come and gone without the NBA title being added to his résumé despite a 13-year career that has earned him a Most Valuable Player award, the first European-born player to win one, and a future place in the Hall of Fame.
Nowitzki has come close, agonisingly close. He lined up opposite fellow NBA superstar Dwyane Wade in the 2006 Finals when Miami Heat went toe-to-toe with the Mavericks, but the Florida outfit sent him home crestfallen in six games. To add insult to injury, the Mavericks had opened up a seemingly impregnable 2-0 lead in the ultimate basketball contest.
Add in other Dallas sub-plots such as Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion’s title quests, after so many near misses with New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns respectively, together with veteran Jason Terry’s clutch play-off play and you could be forgiven for thinking this Finals series was penned by a Hollywood screenwriter with a fanciful imagination.
Nowitzki now has the chance to get revenge over Wade and claim the coveted prize with larger-than-life owner Mark Cuban’s savvy Mavericks taking on Wade, the Heat and, of course, the self-proclaimed king of hoops, LeBron James.
If Dallas wins the four games necessary to end their title frustration, it will be a wonderful story for the boy from Würzburg, because more than any other big man in recent history, he has changed how the game is played.
The days of just watching slow-footed beanpoles grabbing the odd rebound, forcing a sporadic putback and looping in the occasional two points are long gone.
Nowitzki has taken on board the inside skills exhibited by legendary hoops titans and added a potent outside scoring threat that leaves opposition defences shredded and has fans rising to their feet in applause.
Take the first game of the Western Conference Finals series against Oklahoma Thunder. With the weight of decades of Texan frustration weighing down on his shoulders, Nowitzki collared 48 points in a virtuoso display of scoring.
The fact he then went on to seal their second Finals appearance with a three-pointer against the hungry, young Thunder, five years after a missed trey sparked Miami’s resurgence, speaks volumes about the man.
When young bigs study other players to see how they can improve their game, the chances are Nowitzki will be front and centre with fellow European Pau Gasol of Los Angeles Lakers.
They both exude humble class, soft hands and a fierce will to win that serious students of the game know will stand them in good stead if they want to realise their own dreams of playing at the uppermost level.
One such player is Dan Clark, the unassuming English big who upped sticks from London at an early age to do the hard yards in the Spanish league when most other players would have preferred home comforts and prevailing mediocrity.
Clark, who has become an essential part of Team GB’s plans for the London 2012 Olympics, knows full well he owes a debt to the talented European players who inspired his often beguiling style of play.
The Estudiantes player said: “I can play both power forward and center, which is a positive. I think that suits Team GB, because we have a lot of players who can play different positions and gel quite well so that’s good.
“As a good passer, I can find open men and I have styled myself on a mix between Dirk and Pau. They have been the two players I align my body and my skill set with.”
A potent outside shot from beyond the D also keeps defences guessing, something Team GB backroom member and former Mavericks assistant coach Paul Mokeski has worked on with Clark after honing Nowitzki’s game during his Texas time.
Ex-center Mokeski, who worked the lane for 12 NBA years himself, said: “The game of basketball goes through phases. Before I got to the NBA, there was a lot of one-on-one with Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Dr. J.
“Then [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] came in and really brought the team game in, passing, moving and playing together. It was really a contrast in the heyday of the Boston Celtics and LA Lakers. The Lakers had Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], but they were a Hollywood up and down team while Boston used a slower half-court type of game.
“Then everybody wanted to go “Twin Towers” like Ralph Sampson and Hakeem [Olajuwon] in Houston and then, all of a sudden, everybody wanted to get smaller and play like the Lakers with everyone at 6ft 9in like the Atlanta Hawks are now.
“At center now you have Dwight Howard, who is very big and athletic, Amar’e Stoudemire, who is a power forward as well as a center, plus Yao [Ming] and Andrew Bogut. The best NBA teams have been able to adapt and play with what they have.
“In our system, Dan needs to play inside-outside. I think a lot of people have been surprised at how good Dan can score in the post, even though he can shoot the ball. He needs to know how to pick, roll to the basket, catch the ball, finish, pop and make a jump shot. Rather than get locked in one way to play, he will be successful because he can play both ways. You are more valuable as a player to yourself and the team.
“Dan is a very good outside shooter and you need bigs in the game now to open up the floor for the likes of Luol [Deng] and Pops [Mensah-Bonsu] to drive. It’s very important to have a big that can spread the floor out to the three-point line. He’s a good low-post player too, which is a great combination.
“If he can come close to Dirk that would be great. Dirk’s start was similar. He started really young in his professional career outside shooting then, as his career became more advanced in the NBA stages, he learnt to catch it on the post and operate, and also at the 15-foot area.
“When I was with Dallas for five years we worked Dirk on the elbow, kind of like a post up for him. Shooters are shooters, but you can work and tighten up on technique with repetition. Dirk was one of the best I’ve seen working on game-time shots.
“You don’t have to have 20 moves; you need five good moves like Tim Duncan. Do something really good and do it really efficiently. Your footwork makes you successful. Dirk and Dan’s success are all the little things put together.”
Even though the addition of a slick three-point game to a big’s repertoire is crucial to elevating yourself above the masses, the majority of the workload is still carried out jostling in the paint.
One such player who endeared himself to Detroit fans doing exactly that, during a Pistons career that included back-to-back title wins in 1989 and 1990, is “Bad Boys” team member Bill Laimbeer.
“The Prince of Darkness” used to rub up the opposition, and hoops fans who prefer more graceful play, the wrong way time and again with aggressive play, foul flopping and, to be fair, a subtle reading of the game that helped him overcome a lack of pace and leap that would have sent most back to the little leagues early on.
As Laimbeer once divulged to Sports Illustrated: “As far as centers go, I’m not Moses [Malone] or Kareem. I’m striving to be the best of the rest.”
Consequently, Laimbeer, a rough and ready warrior, knows full well the value of banging the boards and getting in competitors’ faces, as well as sinking the odd trey to confuse the opposition.
Former Lakers hustler and Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis brought Laimbeer into the Minnesota fold in part to work with Darko Miličić in his native Serbia during the past pre-season.
Four-time All-Star Laimbeer, who was traded to Detroit for Mokeski and others in 1982, said: “I think Darko listens very well. He wants to be successful and he knows he has a great opportunity. He is still going to be a little rusty at times, but he is showing good progress.
“Mostly we have been working on mental focus, competing every minute and being in shape. He is a very smart basketball player, so if he applies himself he will be successful.”
Miličić himself is sanguine about how he can improve his game, especially after a tough NBA baptism that has seen the seven-footer tossed between teams like a hot potato since Detroit landed him with the second pick in the 2003 Draft.
His improvement to 8.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game from career stats of 6.1, 4.3 and 1.3 shows that the work with Laimbeer has started to pay off on the court.
Switching from a perennial underachiever to an NBA powerhouse, Gasol embodies the archetype of a more traditional big man. The Spaniard can boast his own career averages of 18.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in stops at Memphis and LA.
Now that Phil Jackson has retired, and the Lakers are seemingly in flux, Gasol’s guaranteed stats will be crucial to their immediate future, whether it be at center or power forward, for new head coach Mike Brown.
The Barcelona-born giant said: “I have tried to always take the few good things that I like or that I think are useful to my game from every coach. I did a lot of guard skills when I was growing up, because of my lack of body at the time. I had a chance to work on the perimeter, outside moves and vision, which helped later on when I developed physically and could incorporate it into my inside game.
Much like Nowitzki, Miličić and Clark, Gasol patrols the paint in two positions, whereas Laimbeer and Mokeski were asked solely to concentrate at center in an age when scoring was more often left to the remaining positions outside of the occasional point monster such as Wilt Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Malone.
Spurs legend David Robinson, Rockets dynamo Olajuwon and the now retired bucket-buster Shaquille O’Neal have proved the exception to the rule at center in the past three decades, their ability to score at will combined with 10-odd rebounds leaving us breathless each night.
What of the current generation, you ask?
True centers Howard and Brook Lopez rack up 20-point and 10-rebound games more often than not, while power forward Kevin Love amazed us this season with a meteoric average of 15.2 rebounds per game allied with 20.2 points.
Can they boast the all-round skills of one Dirk Nowitzki, though? A player, who at the time of writing, has succeeded with 1,197 of the 3,145 three-point attempts he has made so memorably from beyond the arc.
That makes him the only player in NBA history to make 150 three-pointers and 100 blocks in a single season – a staggering feat.
A player who has a 20-plus point average over the past 11 seasons, while grabbing 8.4 rebounds and dishing out 2.7 assists on average during a career at, lest we forget, the very same team where he started his NBA playing adventure.
When the Dallas Mavericks standard bearer takes to the floor in this Finals series alongside Kidd, Marion and Terry opposite the Heat’s “Big Three” of James, Wade and Chris Bosh, one thing is certain.
Nowitzki has transformed the way bigs play basketball and there will be few who will begrudge him the honour of accepting that ring in time for his 33rd birthday, if the Mavericks realise their long-held dream of winning the sport’s biggest prize.