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Blazing the Trail: Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became world champion

Blazing the Trail: Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became world champion

Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.

In this seventh installment, Mat goes in-depth on the offensive splendor of Dirk Nowitzki. He explains what made Nowitzki the first full-fledged unicorn, with insights from former Dallas Mavericks coaches Dwane Casey and Brad Davis, and former teammates Adrian Griffin and Greg Buckner. 

In Volume Two of Blazing the Trail, we discussed the progression of the stretch 4 through the lens of Rashard Lewis. Our decision to use his career as our case study left a few people wondering this:

While Dirk Nowitzki was a proficient three-point marksman in his own right, the 7-foot German star never even averaged 5 three-point attempts per game. On the other hand, Lewis eclipsed this per-game total five times in his career.

But Nowitzki was still revolutionary. After all, he was the game’s first true unicorn.

What does that even mean exactly? Let’s find out.

WHAT MADE NOWITZKI SPECIAL?

Contrary to public opinion, Nowitzki did not earn his designation as a mythical beast overnight. Like the evolution of a Charmander to a Charizard, his metamorphosis was a three-step process.

Stage 1: The Play Finisher (2001-04)

In the early chapters of Nowitzki’s prime, he operated a lot like Lewis, playing off-ball next to an on-ball creator (in Nowitzki’s case, Steve Nash). During this period, a large portion of his shot diet consisted of corner threes, pick-and-pops and jumpers coming off of pindown screens.

Thanks to his table-setting companion, young Nowitzki had the opportunity to steadily acclimate himself to the rigors of the postseason, posting 25.6 points per game on 58.0% True Shooting in his first 40 playoff appearances.

Stage 2: The Isolationist (2005-07)

Once Nash (and later Michael Finley) left town, Nowitzki’s self-creation burden increased. His percentage of assisted two- and three-pointers decreased from 67.0% and 97.0% in 2003-04 to 49.1% and 80.2% in 2004-05, per Basketball-Reference. Those uncontested catch-and-shoot jumpers turned into arduous post-up and isolation endeavors. 

This role change had little bearing on his team’s regular-season performance, as few rosters touted the personnel to match Nowitzki's outlier size and ball skills. These weaker defenders allowed Dallas to hide the deficiencies in Nowitzki’s back-to-the-basket game.

“He won MVP [in 2007] because they had big, slow dummies guarding him, and he would just abuse those guys," said Buckner, a Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach and former teammate of Nowitzki. "He wasn’t quite comfortable posting up at the time, and we weren’t quite comfortable posting him.”

Nowitzki's shortcomings in that area manifested themselves when the Mavericks were matched up against opponents with the tools or, as Buckner calls it, “the cheat code” for slowing down his former teammate.

For a while, it was believed this code merely consisted of enlisting lengthy, athletic forwards to shadow him. However, Nowitzki eviscerated both Shawn Marion’s Phoenix Suns and Bruce Bowen’s San Antonio Spurs to the tune of 27.2 points per game on 58.9% True Shooting in 19 games during that stretch. 

So the secret for containing this 7-foot Pegasus was that you needed to both field rangy forwards and exploit Dallas’ weaknesses: poor passing and spacing.

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If codified, the pamphlet for slowing down Nowitzki would read something like this: 

1) Aggressively front the post to force the Mavericks' lackluster facilitators into difficult entries (Nowitzki — an average passer at best — was the team’s best passer in 2005-06, according to Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric).

2) If Nowitzki does receive the pass, overload the paint with defenders because the Mavericks don’t have the shooting to burn you (they ranked No. 21 in three-pointers made in 2005-06).

3) Be physical with him to exploit the deficiencies in his post-up game, and catch his spin move to disrupt his balance and timing. 

Here are some examples of teams using those amendments:

From 2005 to 2007, the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors followed these instructions, holding Nowitzki to 21.3 points per game on 50.3% True Shooting in 19 games.

Stage 3: The On/Off-Ball Hybrid (2008-11)

After multiple playoff disappointments, narratives began matriculating about the likelihood — or rather unlikelihood — of reaching the promised land with Nowitzki as your centerpiece. The old "you-can’t-win-with-an-offensively-oriented-big-man" take machine reared its ugly head.

In a quest for redemption, Nowitzki doubled down on his training and completely revamped his diet following the 2006-07 season.

“What he did was he went back home to Germany and worked on [his post game] and made sure that shit didn’t happen again,” Buckner summarized. 

Back in Germany, Nowitzki worked relentlessly alongside his trainer Holger Geschwindner in order to add counters to his mid-post game (e.g. his patented one-legged fadeaway).

Under Geschwindner's tutelage, Nowitzki’s regimen was, to say the least, unconventional.

“He did some of the damnedest workout routines,” joked Dwane Casey, the current head coach of the Detroit Pistons and a former Mavericks assistant. “He really didn’t lift a lot of weights, but he did a lot of bodyweight-type exercises — standing on one leg, doing headstands and striding the length of the court. Doing all different things, and I think out of that, he developed that one-legged [fadeaway]."

Even more important than their atypical routines, Geschwindner emphasized situational training to help Nowitzki prepare for the in-game playoff situations he had faltered in before.

“He didn’t just put up shots. He was getting game [repetitions], so by the time the game would come around, he already had his timing,” said Toronto Raptors assistant coach and Nowitzki's former teammate Adrian Griffin. "[Nowitzki and Geschwindner] worked on a lot of game situational moves and sequences...

"It’s popular in sports psychology, the visualization of putting yourself in situations so that you’re comfortable when [they] come. Your mind already has experience being in that situation, so it knows how to perform and recall those movements that you need. From a sports-psychology perspective, they were probably ahead of the game."

But Griffin believes there was a second catalyst to Nowitzki’s mid-post growth: 1-on-1 sessions with longtime Mavericks assistant and player development specialist Brad Davis.

“He would take the things he was learning [with Geschwindner], and he would transfer that over to the 1-on-1 setting with [Davis],” Griffin explained. “So he had the perfect combination of working on his physical skills and his mental skills.”

“I used to get really physical with [Nowitzki], down in the mid-post,” Davis explained to Basketball News. “Lean on him, push him a bit, make him take some tough shots and let him go both ways. We went through a little bit of everything.”

In 2007-08, Nowitzki's hard work paid off and he was ready to conquer his past demons.

And conquer he did.

Nowitzki had reached his full form, and there wasn’t a soul on the planet who was capable of stopping him during his killer postseason attack from 2008 to 2011. During that span (42 games), Nowitzki scored 27.2 points per game on an illustrious 61.7% True Shooting. 

  • First clip: Nowitzki counters the New Orleans Hornets' full fronting tactics with the basketball equivalent of jousting for position. This off-ball work enabled him to free himself for an easy jumper.
  • Second clip: The Portland Trail Blazers overload the paint on him, so rather than venture into the eye of the storm, he pulls out that aforementioned one-legged fadeaway.
  • Third clip: Russell Westbrook tries to dig down on his drive to disrupt his timing, but Nowitzki immediately responds with a kick-out pass to his open teammate Jason Kidd.
  • Fourth clip: The Denver Nuggets get cute with a sneak-attack double team, but Nowitzki senses the defender coming and sprays the ball over to Jason Terry for three easy points.

Nowitzki had become scheme-proof. No matter the situation, he had a counter for whatever defensive coverage his opponent employed against him.

And with that, the unicorn had finally emerged. 

Visual Provided by Luceo Sports

ON-COURT PRODUCTION

So what exactly is a "unicorn" anyways?

Oxford Languages describes this term as “something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain.”

Nowitzki was a rarity at his time because he was an efficient big man who also wielded the much-heralded "bag" that often gets discussed today. In his essence, he was equipped with all the tricks that made us fall in love with the late, great Kobe Bryant.

“I guarded Kobe Bryant many times,” Griffin recalled. “He was the same, had all the tricks — like [Nowitzki].”

Both embraced the mid-post as their personal torture chamber. It was an art they mastered after their superstar teammates left them to fend for themselves (in Bryant’s case, this maturation took place after the departure of Shaquille O’Neal).

While they shared similarities, they were obviously different players. Where Bryant’s 6-foot-6 frame made elevating over the wings and forwards who guarded him a laborious task, Nowitzki could loft his jumper over anyone.

“It was impossible to block [Nowitzki's] shot. No one could get to his shot,” Griffin laughed. “Not only did he have the height as an advantage... he had a high release on top of that.”

To visualize this, take a look at the differences in degree of difficulty on the fall-away jumpers of Bryant and Nowitzki. (Note: They were both the same age in these clips; Bryant was contested by 6-foot-5 DeShawn Stevenson while Nowitzki is guarded by 6-foot-7 Metta World Peace):

Not only was Bryant forced to initially give the ball up to gain better position, but Stevenson was able to get much closer to the apex of his jumper than World Peace was with Nowitzki's.

To quantify Nowitzki's elevation, ESPN Sports Science once did a segment on his fadeaway. There, they explained that even if an individual had Yao Ming’s 7-foot-6 height coupled with prime Derrick Rose’s vertical pop, they still couldn’t challenge Dirk's shot.

Remember, in basketball, the most efficient offenses aren’t typically the ones that make the toughest shots; they are the ones that generate the most high-quality attempts. That’s why during their peak playoff years (which coincidentally coincided), not only did Nowitzki nearly match Bryant’s scoring volume, he did so on an efficiency that was over five percentage points higher.

Visual Provided by Luceo Sports

Nowitzki outdueled arguably one of the greatest scorers ever, and he did it by becoming something we had seldomly seen before him.

WEAVING THE THREAD

In a 2022 interview with Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck, Nowitzki named Toni Kukoc and Detlef Schrempf as the two players who paved the way for his path to stardom.

Kukoc was a precursor to the point-forward model that eventually became commonplace in today’s NBA. His combination of size and face-up acumen is easily apparent in Nowitzki’s offensive repertoire. 

However, Nowitzki’s mid-post game — the core subject of our analysis — was born from watching the original German Wunderkind. 

“He mentioned the fact he watched [Schrempf] as a young player,” Casey explained. “People don’t know this, but before [Nowitzki], [Schrempf] was the man in Germany.”

Casey even mentioned that coaching Schrempf in Seattle as an assistant under George Karl helped him to better serve Nowitzki during their time together in Dallas from 2008 to 2011.

Ironically, Schrempf was originally skeptical of Nowitzki’s ability to act as the torchbearer for their country.

“I remember talking to [Schrempf] about [Nowitzki], and [Schrempf] said, ‘Oh, he’s just a young German kid. I don’t know if he is going to be anything or not,'” Casey said.

As fate would have it, the student surpassed the master and achieved a feat that his predecessor never accomplished: winning an NBA championship. And while Schrempf’s teams in Seattle were consistent title contenders, they didn't get the job done.

Schrempf was a supremely talented scorer, but his efficiency waned a bit during the postseason. In his career, he lost nearly 2.5 percentage points on his True Shooting percentage in the playoffs.

Schrempf never had a Geschwindner in his corner to help groom him for these big moments. He never added the bevy of counters that vaulted Nowitzki into the pantheon of scorers. He never graduated to full-fledged unicorn status.

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IMPACT ON TODAY'S GAME

Without a doubt, the most salient feature of Nowitzki’s carefully crafted mid-post arsenal was his famed one-legged fadeaway. An unguardable move that was once only achievable by Nowitzki has now been reproduced and rebranded by some of the best scorers in today’s game.

“It’s funny…you see so many players today doing the one-legged [fadeaway] that [Nowitzki] perfected,” Casey reflected.

Arguably chief among his fall-away followers is the four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. According to Marc Stein, while still in Oklahoma City, Durant hired Adam Harrington — who played with Nowitzki and studied under Geschwindner — to be his shooting coach and put him through a modified version of Nowitzki’s routine (and it looks like KD got his return on that investment).

Along with Durant, the two other offensive supernovas dawning the unicorn mantle are Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Towns, of course, has not shied away from the parallels between him and Nowitzki. Meanwhile, Jokic has established himself as the premier post-up presence in the game today, leading the league in points per possession (1.17) among players with at least two post-ups per game.

Unfortunately, both bigs have fallen victim to the fallacies that plagued Nowitzki during his playing time. Surface-level narratives about the impossibility of building championship-level defenses next to Towns and Jokic have become common criticisms.

Casey, the defensive coordinator of the 2011 NBA champion Mavericks, disagrees with this assessment.

“No question,” he told Basketball News when asked if he thought Dallas' defensive infrastructure was replicable in today’s game.

Casey prescribed tactics like hedging ball-screens, scram switching and pre-switching to help remedy any attempts at exploiting the mobility of these big men.

There's no question that unicorns like Nowitzki are an infrequent breed, but they are not a dying one. His legacy lives on in the hearts of the skilled 7-footers that inhibit today’s landscape.

And thanks to his story of perseverance, they now have a pathway to becoming NBA champions. 

Tune in next week for Part VIII of Blazing the Trail, which focuses on Anfernee Hardaway, the floor giant. 

Click Here to read Part VI: Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist

Click Here to read Part V: Andrei Kirilenko, the five-tool defender

Click here to read Part IV: Reggie Miller, the moving target

Click here to read Part III: Shane Battier, the data-ball defender

Click here to read Part II: Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4

Click here to read Part I: Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the paint

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