Season autopsies: The end of the road for the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki
Pinning a defender on his back, Dirk Nowitzki contorts his torso to the left, winding up to gain momentum towards his spin to the middle.
One dribble and contact is sufficient to create the space needed for a seven-footer with an impossibly high, feathery release. The small leg kick on the one-legged fadeaway creates more distance, the shot faithfully falls in.
It’s as beautiful and graceful a ballet as a giant man approaching 40 years old can perform.
The area on the court Nowitzki has called his home for 20 years is quickly fading out of style in the modern game as players are taught to avoid shots with a predisposition for inefficiency. Often lost in translation is the craft of morphing such spots into reliable, efficient, quasi-unguardable scoring opportunities.
In this age of layups and three-pointers, Nowitzki is a robust reminder of the myriad ways to put the ball in the hoop. What matters is not how you score, but that you do it efficiently and in droves.
More than 31,000 points into a Hall of Fame career, no one can doubt that’s exactly what Nowitzki did. Unparalleled footwork and touch, combined with an understanding of space, physics, and flow of basketball have secured Dirk Nowitzki’ spot in NBA pantheon. The Dallas Mavericks’ franchise icon occupies the same tier of legends as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Anyone who says otherwise fails to see that highlights are not the only path to efficacy.
When Dirk Nowitzki hangs up his kicks—be it in a few weeks, or next year—there will be a distinct lack of his signature shot and style in the NBA. And with it, so too will the Mavericks’ identity fade.
The end of the Dirk Nowitzki era in Dallas
If there was one happy storyline on the court at American Airlines Arena, it was Dirk Nowitzki and all the poignancy that comes with him.
On the cover, Nowitzki was slowed in his 20th season. He averaged the fewest minutes, points, and rebounds per game since his rookie year. But he also adjusted admirably to his physical declination, adding subtlety and refinement to his legendary repertoire.
He shot 41.9 percent from deep, the third-highest rate of his career. His turnover rate was an all-time low, while his rebounding and block rates were above his career averages. And somehow, someway, one of the greatest scorers in NBA history managed to post a true-shooting percentage in his 20th year that was stronger than his career rate.
It’s unclear if Nowitzki will return for the 21st chapter in his fabled career. He’s certainly good enough to continue playing quality—albeit, limited—minutes. And it’s clear his love of the game is as present now as ever. But lacing them up for a team headed straight for another lottery pick may bring more despondence than joy to the all-time great.
The Mavericks’ lost season
So, how does a team with such low expectations sill manage to find a season lacking? With an immaculate cocktail of middling on-court performances, puzzling off-court decisions, and dastardly organizational deeds.
The starkest reality of the Mavs’ season is, perhaps, a tough pill to swallow. The team simply lacked talent across all levels. Dallas had no token All-Star, or anything resembling it. Worse yet, there was a distinct lack of a budding star fans could count on to blossom in the coming seasons.
Dennis Smith, the boom or bust of the post-Nowitzki Era
Nearly a year ago, Dennis Smith Jr. was tabbed to be that next star player. And how fans feel after his rookie campaign paints a picture with various shades of color, from the dismally pessimistic to the curiously optimistic.
Smith showed flashes throughout the year. That certainly cannot be denied. His stellar athleticism was on display all year long, culminating in an impressive highlight reel of transition wizardry, explosive blow-by drives, and empathetic rim rockers.
⬆️ Dennis Smith Jr! ⬆️ pic.twitter.com/AaEoEBjDgZ
— NBA (@NBA) November 15, 2017
But it wasn’t all pecan pie, corn dogs, or whatever tasty fare they grub on in Dallas. While Smith dazzled in certain facets of the game, he struggled with what has quickly become the most essential trait for NBA guards: shooting.
Dennis Smith Jr. has attempted nearly five triples per game this year, making only 30.6 percent of them. Equally troubling, he’s logged just a 70 percent mark at the charity stripe while making only 23.3 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet and 34.6 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line.
Those numbers suggest Smith may need to alter his mechanics to become a plus-shooter, rather than naturally growing and evolving in his next few years.
From the poor shooting, to the propensity for driving with conviction with athleticism that is half-Hercules, half-falcon, Smith categorically followed the Russell Westbrook mold this year. And the Russell Westbrook mold is fine and dandy if you’re . . . well . . . Russell Westbrook.
But Smith is not. And as Nick Young and Jordan Crawford have reminded us in recent years with their far-from-inimitable Kobe Bryant impressions, replicating a superstar’s mold without the superstar’s fabric is often troublesome.
Still, Mavs’ fans are right to be excited about their young point guard. But in a season tailor-made for a Rookie of the Year performance, Smith leaves the franchise with more questions than answers after his first year.
Harrison Barnes is who we thought he was
While it’s overly harsh to label Smith a disappointment, the word quite accurately depicts Harrison Barnes’ season.
In his second year since emerging from the shadows of Golden State’s All-Star triumvirate, Barnes once again proved he is not up to the task of providing maximum contract value, no matter what the checks he cashes say.
Barnes attempted to drive Dallas’ poor offense through a series of individual moves, racking up the sixth-most isolations per game (Smith was eighth, proving the Mavericks sorely lacked ball movement).
While Barnes did relatively well in that role (he was in the 70.6 percentile), it set the tone for a Dallas offense that simply could not find a rhythm all year long.
When Barnes wasn’t attacking out of isolation, he was holding the ball, stagnating the offense from inefficient areas. Dallas fans grew all too familiar with Barnes holding the ball 20 feet from the hoop, allowing the opposing defense to reset and the shot clock to wind down, jab-stepping on repeat like an aging Kobe, and then making a boring pass or taking a mid-range jump shot.
While his assist rate marked the highest of his career, Barnes still struggled to show the playmaking abilities that are vital for an inefficient first option, turning the ball over almost as frequently as he created scoring opportunities for teammates.
The defensive potential that made him such an intriguing draft prospect many years ago remained hidden on the back of the shelf, while Barnes’ athleticism was stored in the garage like a show car, only to be made public on the rarest of occasions.
Harrison Barnes opens the night with an and-1 dunk on Oladipo pic.twitter.com/a7GXqCEWAQ
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) February 27, 2018
The Mavs are on the books for two more expensive years of Barnes and, short of trading for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how they’ll utilize him in a manner that is actually valuable.
But the biggest disappointment for the Mavericks, at least on the court, came from the Nerlens Noel fiasco—a situation handled with all the grace of Tom Thibodeau and Zaza Pachulia running a fast break.
Dallas’ slim hopes for the year largely came and went with the sky-high potential and defensive prowess of Noel.
While much of Nerlens Noel’s early disappointment was due to injury, much was also due to Head Coach Rick Carlisle publicly stating Noel needed to earn his minutes; instead dolling the playing time to the less-heralded Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Salah Mejri.
While this pseudo-Popovichian approach may work for a playoff team seeking to fire on all cylinders, it was a clueless tactic for a lottery team to employ with a young prospect approaching free agency.
Noel, who is about to turn 24 and rebuffed one contract already from the Mavericks, will surely enter the offseason looking to sign elsewhere. And solid performances in recent outings only further mar attempts to determine his value this summer with so much time already lost.
If he goes on to have a productive, starting caliber season next year, this poor Mavericks’ season will only look worse than it already does.
A toxic culture
Of course, the Mavericks cannot be sent to the cemetery without mention of their biggest failure this year, which came in dress shoes and cubicles, not Nikes and locker rooms.
A scandal rocked the Mavericks organization as it was revealed the franchise kept a long history of sexual harassment and abuse under wraps, failing to change a culture of sexism, misogyny, and immoral workplace conduct.
Owner Mark Cuban, who has so often portrayed himself as a conscious businessman, made the unforgivable act of either not noticing, or not caring.
The ramifications for the organization remain to be seen, but of course the damage is not to the team, but the women impacted by years of misconduct. Unlike the on-court putridity, this cannot be rectified by a top draft pick in June.
The end of the Mavericks as we know them
For two decades, Dirk Nowitzki provided cover for the Mavericks from 10 feet out to the three-point line.
His gregarious smile, unique game, and lovable personality lifted Dallas to height higher than his release point.
But his spotlight is diminishing, shrinking his shadow. From the basketball court to the business side, Dallas must reinvent itself. Without that reliable, one-legged fadeaway, the Mavericks really have no leg to stand on.