The Dallas Mavericks are at it again. Despite entering 2017 with a 10-24 record, Dallas somehow begins the weekend in the thick of the playoff race. Entering Friday's game against the Nets, the Mavs are just a game and a half behind the Nuggets for the final playoff spot in the West. If you’re wondering how this has happened, stop. The reason for Dallas’ return to winning ways is the same one it’s always been: Dirk Nowitzki.
It’s not a coincidence that during that putrid start to the season, Nowitzki played in only nine games. Since January 1st, Nowitzki has only missed one -- a loss to OKC -- and Dallas has gone 17-12. It’s incredible that at the age of 38, Nowitzki is still capable of such an impact.
If there was a star player whose game was destined to age well, it was this German shooting machine. For years, Nowitzki’s uncanny accuracy on jump shots has driven his success. Even in his 19th NBA season, Dallas’ future Hall of Fame big man is still canning 37.2 of his 3-point shots on just a shade under four attempts per game.
To label Nowitzki as an aging shooter, however, would diminish what he does for his this Dallas team. The primary thing that has made Nowitzki so special is that he isn’t just some run-of the-mill pick-and-pop big man with a little bit in his post game. The fear of Nowitzki was that you simply could not cancel out his post ups or pick-and-pops by swapping a smaller defender on him. It’s going to be a big part of his legacy. And guess what? Even with all the miles on his legs, Nowitzki still does this to helpless defenders switched onto him:
It’s probably not a shock to find out that Nowitzki is on the floor this season, Dallas is outscoring opponents by 7.3 points per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com data. When he’s been out, the Mavericks have struggled, getting outscored by 2.1 points per 48 -- quite the difference. Dirk is how Dallas keeps staying competitive despite a rotating supporting cast made up of players found further and further off the beaten path.
And this year, the Mavericks really went away from the standard NBA route of finding players. While most rosters are made up of first and second round picks -- only about a ninth of the league didn’t hear their name called on draft night -- Dallas has a whopping eight players who went undrafted. Those eight aren’t just languishing on the bench waving towels either.
Two of them -- Wes Matthews and Seth Curry -- actually start. Despite suffering an injury that can derail careers, Matthews has recovered to be one of the league’s premier 3-point shooters this season, shooting 38.3 percent from deep on almost seven attempts per game. Add that to his customary tough, physical defensive schtick that works well in his new role as a small forward, and the Mavs have half of a solid wing duo.
The other half has been completed by the evolution of Curry from D-League nomad to NBA starter. For all the knocks on Curry’s game, he undeniably possesses the family ability to shoot. Despite taking a number of fairly tough shots each game, Curry’s 48.6/43.4/83.1 percentages are pretty damn impressive. On top of that, he’s shown some of his brother’s creative flair as well:
Largely because of the presence of Nowitzki, head coach Rick Carlisle has found ways to mitigate the deficiencies of players like Curry and turn them into potent forces. Curry, and to a lesser extent, fellow undrafted starter, Yogi Ferrell, are just the latest incarnation of lost souls who have found their way next to Nowitzki.
Ferrell in particular is almost a straight rip of another undrafted veteran about to return to health -- JJ Barea. Like Barea, Ferrell’s diminutive stature gave teams pause about including him on their rosters. But also like Barea, Ferrell has used Nowitzki’s gravitational pull to unleash his quickness against Dallas opponents. Though Ferrell is much more of playmaker than the shot-centric Barea, they both are adept at penetrating the paint to collapse defenses and cause all sorts of problems.
The trio of Nowitzki, Curry and Matthews provide an ideal supporting cast for players like Ferrell and Barea because of their elite shooting. Very few teams can trot out three members of a starting lineup that shoot at least 37.2 from 3 (which is Nowitzki’s percentage!). In fact, in the 374 minutes those three share the floor Dallas posts an offensive rating of 109.5 per NBA.com -- a number that would have them right near the top-5 of the NBA if it was drawn out over a full season. Not bad for an old man and two players that weren’t even drafted.
On the topic of undesirable players, the trade deadline acquisition of Nerlens Noel -- whom Philly had deemed expendable -- is starting to look like a major heist for Dallas. Since their championship run in 2011, the Mavericks have been looking for the, well, 2011 version of Tyson Chandler. His ability to protect the rim and create spacing due to a lob threat made Chandler an invaluable piece to the Dallas championship puzzle.
After a rough stint in Philly which saw some issues raised about his professionalism, Noel has shown flashes of Chandler-esque play in his early days in Dallas. Just take a look at this play from the Mavs recent win over the Lakers.
This play has shades of 2011 all over it. At the start, Devin Harris finds a lane to attack the paint because Nowitzki’s defender scurries back to him too quickly. This trigger a second rotation along the back line. In his heyday with the Mavs, this is where Chandler thrived. Once his man stepped up, no other rotating help defender could win a lob-catching contest against Chandler. Nowadays, it’s Noel who creates an almost indefensible situation.
To be clear, this isn’t comparing this Mavericks team to the one that captured a title in 2011. But the acquisition of Noel and the steady play of some unheralded acquisitions are putting the Mavs on the playoff track -- though there’s a lot of work left to do. Of their last 19 games, 11 Dallas opponents are currently in the playoffs. On top of that, 11 of those 19 games are on the road, probably why ESPN’s playoff odds has the Mavs with just a measly 10.9 percent chance of making the postseason.
Judging the Mavs success this season on recovering from an awful start to earn a playoff berth overlooks the key issue: this team has no business being in this position to begin with. The legacies of great players are often defined by championship wins and their postseason exploits. If things break right, Nowitzki may continue to add to those for yet another spring.
But when looking back on Nowitzki’s career, it would be a disservice to only include the parts in the legend when he turned good teams into championship contenders. Part of the greatness of Nowitzki is also in years like this; when he made deficient teams into average ones.