Dirk is Great, But Let’s Take it Easy

The Dallas Mavericks are champions of the basketball world! They defeated the evil Miami Heat in 6 games to take the 2011 title on Miami’s own floor! Dirk Nowtizki led a team of role players against a team with 2 and a half superstars and came out victorious! Dirk is the best scorer in the league and the best closer in the league! He should have been the league MVP! He’s a top 15 player of all time!

Wait… what?
Are people listening to what they are saying? Does that last bit sound right? Let’s look into it.
Before the playoffs if you were to take a poll of reasonably educated NBA fans where would Dirk rank? I personally would probably have him between 25 and 30, and I think the general population would probably have him around there or possibly slightly lower. Now what did he do in the playoffs to warrant the huge bump in the rankings…
He posted a PER of 25.2. A very good mark to be sure, a full 1.5 points better than Lebron James, and only 1.1 below Dwyane Wade. But wait, was this PER (which does a decent job of summarizing offensive production while factoring in pace and minutes played) affecting the huge jump in how people ranked him? I don’t think so. He topped his 25.2 mark in 5 previous playoffs, with marks of 27.5, 26.8, 26.3, 28.4, and 28.3 in ’04, ’06, ’08, ’09, and ’10 respectively. Now with the exception of 2006 (reached finals, 23 games total) and 2009 (second round, 10 games total), the samples were all rather small, but it looks from that data that Dirk did not exactly reach some new level in these playoffs. In fact, Dirk significantly outperformed this PER’s in each of the past 2 years, so we shouldn’t have been surprised by how he played this postseason. For the record Dirk also had 4 years where he had a PER higher than 25.2 in the regular season, so we have seen him play at this level for quite some time.
Now of course, PER isn’t the all determining stat. So let’s look at some other numbers. Dirk posted a stellar TS% of 60.9% in the playoffs, largely due to an absurd 175/186 performance from the free throw line. However, Dirk significantly outperformed that mark in the previous 2 playoffs, with marks of 63.5% and 64.3%. He had a reasonable EFG% of 51.4%, but once again he achieved higher marks the previous 2 years, and also in 2003. So yes Dirk definitely shot better than he normally has in the playoffs in his career, but he actually took a step backward from recent playoffs.
What about raw numbers? His 27.7 points per game was the second best mark of his career, topped only by his 28.4 in 2002. So good for him. However his 8.1 rebounds per game tied for the lowest mark in his career, and was far below his career playoff rebounding average of 10.4. Now some of that is clearly due to finally having a solid rebounding center in Chandler beside him, but it’s still not an overly impressive performance. Also, despite having probably the best shooting supporting cast of his career, he averaged only 2.5 assists per game, which is right around his career playoff average, and worse than his numbers in his previous 3 playoffs.
Now of course people will say “Who cares how great he was playing in the first round in past years, it’s all about what you do in the finals!”. Alright then, let’s look at the finals. 26 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2 assists, under a block and a steal, 41.6% from the field, 36.8% from 3, almost 3 turnovers per game. What about those numbers screams “Oh my god Dirk is amazing!”?. Nothing. Now he was truly special from the free throw line, shooting 45 for 46. He grabbed only 2 offensive rebounds all series, compared to 14 by teammate Shawn Marion and 24 by Tyson Chandler. Heck Barea doubled his offensive rebound output. And yes, he closed some games out, namely game 6, when he went 5-6 in the last quarter to seal the ring, but people will conveniently ignore that Terry carried the Mavs for the first 3 quarters of the biggest game of the year while Dirk was busy going 4-21. Really, Dirk was the deserving Finals MVP, but was he even the best player, with Wade going for 26.5/7/5.2 with 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks on a stellar 55% shooting while averaging slightly fewer turnovers and having a much bigger defensive impact? I don’t think so.
Now, while coming up huge in the finals would be nice, it’s not really necessary. Dirk’s first 3 rounds were truly spectacular at times. The number of comebacks he led was astounding. His shooting in game 1 of the WCF was legendary. He came up clutch time and time again in these playoffs, as he has done for years. If there is one reason that people think so much more highly of Dirk, it’s because this postseason helped erase the (entirely false) notion that he is a choker.
And this leads to the next problem; our society’s tendency to associate the success of a team with the performance of the individual. For Dirk, a championship validates every thing he has worked hard for, it vanquishes the demons left over from that horrible loss in ’06. For us, a championship validates nothing. Or at least, that’s how it should be. Dirk didn’t win the title, the Mavericks did. Was Dirk extremely important? Of course he was. But there is no way they win the series without the enormous contributions of Jason Terry (who probably hit more clutch shots than Dirk in the finals), Tyson Chandler (who seemed to outrebound the entire Miami team at times), Jason Kidd (who hit so many huge threes at the most crucial times), Shawn Marion (who forced the league’s best player to have his worst series in years), JJ Barea (who carved up Miami’s D despite all logic that would tell us that’s impossible), Deshawn Stevenson and more. Heck Brian Cardinal was huge in game 6. So yes Dirk was huge, and he, along with his teammates, earned this title. But here’s the ridiculous logic people use. Dirk played pretty well in the finals, he got great help, and they win, so now Dirk is a true champion, a winner, and all those other great things. This is what happened. Now suppose Dirk plays at the same level, but now suppose Bosh shot 7-16 instead of 4-16 in game 2, which we all know he was fully capable of doing since he was missing open shots, and now game 2 is a 4 point win for Miami instead of a 2 point win for Dallas. Now suppose Terry doesn’t catch fire in the first half of game 6. With Dirk shooting 1-12 the Mavs are probably in a 10 or 15 point hole and might never recover. And just like that, the Larry O’Brien trophy is headed East.
Now obviously that is a purely hypothetical situation, and far from reality. But did Dirk’s impact on the game change in either scenario? No, it did not. Yet the situation changed completely, and possibly the winner of the series. Yet one scenario results in Dirk being thought of as a clutch hero and the other as an unreliable choker? I fail to see the logic behind that reasoning.
It’s a flaw in our general way of thinking, and the media doesn’t help. What sounds like a better story? “Dirk has a solid series as Mavs beat the Heat”, or “Dirk leads Mavs over Big 3 and cements his legacy”? It’s not a contest, the second sounds better, and is also a much easier story to write. In today’s world stories must be catchy, and to do that writers often tend to produce material that is usually exaggerated, and frankly quite often wrong.
So those statements at the beginning of the post (Dirk is the best scorer in the league and the best closer in the league! He should have been the league MVP! He’s a top 15 player of all time!), are all statements I have heard several times since the Mavericks won the title. Let’s quickly examine each.
First off, best scorer. Per 36 minutes he average 24 points on a True Shooting Percentage of 61.2%.. Very good numbers. He does have a case for this one, although Durant, Melo (the most versatile scorer), and Lebron all have a good argument as well.
Best closer? I think he probably wins this one. There are other players with an argument, but when you consider the stats, and look at how dominant Dallas becomes down the stretch because of his play, I’m not sure anyone beats him out, at least not for this year.
League MVP? Now this is where is starts getting silly. Dirk was not the league MVP. Granted, he probably deserved better than the 6th place finish he got. I feel he was certainly more valuable than Kobe, and probably more so than Durant too. But no he was not the league MVP. He did not mean more to his team this year than Dwight Howard or Lebron James, both of whom deserved it more than Derrick Rose, but that’s an argument that has been addressed many times (for the record I think Dwight was the MVP). Dirk had a very good season, and I’m not a “stats tell the whole story” guy by any stretch, but 23 points and 7 rebounds per game with average defense does not an MVP make when Dwight is averaging 23 and 14 on 60% shooting with incredible defense, or when Lebron is being… well Lebron. Dirk had a very good regular season, and a great playoffs, but this is just a case of people placing too much value on the results of the playoffs. Dirk was not the regular season MVP.
And finally… Dirk is a top 15 player of all time.
Hold up…
Are you serious?
Look I’m a Dirk fan, I’ve been one since around 2001. I defended his performance against the Warriors in 2007. I defended him when people said he was mentally or physically soft, when the reality was that getting beat by the Spurs isn’t something that warrants excuses. I defended him when people said his defense was horrible, or that he was a choker…

But I will not defend this. Dirk is not a top 15 all time player. He’s great, but here’s a quick list (in no real order).

MJ, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Wilt, Russell, Duncan, Oscar, West, Baylor, Olajuwon, Garnett, Shaq, Kobe, Moses, Barkley, Erving, Havlicek Stockton, Isiah.
That’s 20, quite easily. Even if you don’t agree with all 20, there are numerous other arguable ones, such as Karl Malone, Pippen, Walton, Iverson, Nash, Pettit, Reed, Ewing, Drexler, Mikan, Robinson, Kidd, Cousy, and screw it, Lebron. Even if you throw out the old guys because, let’s face it, they just weren’t as good at basketball, there are still easily 15 guys who are better than Dirk. And you know what, there’s more that I’m forgetting.Dirk is terrific, he’s a transcendent scorer, a dependable clutch player, and by all accounts a beloved teammate. But he lacks certain things that most of those players in that upper echelon possess, such as a dominant impact on the defensive end. Or some other skill to fall back on when his shot isn’t falling (in game 6, when he was busy going 4-21 through 3 quarters, what else was Dirk doing to try to impact the game? Not a whole lot). He’s not a great rebounder for his size (I don’t care how far away he is from the basket during the offense, no 7 footer should only grab 2 offensive rebounds in a 6 game series). He’s an incredible player, but to get into that top 15 or so players of all time, you need to be nearly perfect. Dirk is not.

It will calm down in a few years. People will look back on this year’s playoffs, and they will remember that Dirk was consistently cool under pressure, that he delivered when they needed him, that he submitted a few truly memorable performances, and that he found redemption. And we will think back, and compare it to the other great runs in history, and realize that while Dirk was special, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t as magical as it seems in the moment. And nobody except the most die hard of Dirk fans will still be making these ridiculous claims.
Unless of course, he does it again. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in these playoffs, it’s that Dirk is fully capable of proving people wrong.



2 Comments on "Dirk is Great, But Let’s Take it Easy"

  1. Anonymous | June 18, 2011 at 6:07 am |

    To me he earned a place in front of Kevin McHale on the grand power forward scale but that's about it. Agree with alot of what you're saying here. Great memorable playoff run but I compare it to what Pierce did in 08 more than anything.

    1) Duncan
    2) Malone
    3) Garnett
    4) Barkley
    5) Nowitzki/Pettit (from what I know he was a long perimeter scorer like dirk but also rebounded)
    6) McHale

    I had to penalize Chuck a bit because he was known as a defensive liability, undersized, poor effort.

  2. Anonymous | June 19, 2011 at 5:52 am |

    Barkley was better than Malone and Garnett.

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