5 Ways Dallas Mavericks Can Get Most out of Dirk Nowitzki This Season
Changes highlight the Mavericks roster, though Nowitzki remains the focal point of the Mavericks' attack. Dirk's impact transcends his play on the court, as Mark Cuban has expressed time and time again (via DallasNews.com).
Dirk defines our culture. When your best player, no matter how old, is the first one in the gym and the last to leave, and works the hardest and encourages guys the way Dirk does ... that has a value that goes far beyond what you see on the court.
That's all well and good, but Cuban isn't paying the seven-foot sharpshooter $20 million just to set a good example for his teammates. Nowitzki is the best player on the roster, and as such, he must produce for the Mavericks to have a shot at the postseason.
The Western Conference is loaded once again this season, so Rick Carlisle needs to figure out how to mesh new players with the incumbent star quickly.
That starts with utilizing the skill that has brought Nowitzki success for so many years: shooting.
Pick-and-Roll Sets with Jose Calderon
For the first time in a long time, Jose Calderon has a starting job firmly in his hands.
The 32-year-old Spaniard will have the opportunity to pair with Nowitzki in a deadly shooting duo that opens up the floor for the rest of their teammates.
Calderon has battled with the likes of T.J. Ford, Kyle Lowry and Brandon Knight for playing time over the years. He has been an impactful offensive player whether he's starting or filling a reserve role. His career average of 7.2 assists per game—good for nine per 36 minutes over his career—didn't happen by accident.
What makes Calderon such a threat in pick-and-roll scenarios, however, is his ability to shoot the basketball. He shot a marvelous 46 percent from downtown last season, setting career highs in both efficiency and volume with almost four attempts per game.
If Nowitzki is setting screens on Calderon's man, there are a few ways for Dallas to turn this into an advantage.
If either of their defenders shades towards the rim, the Mavericks have two knockdown shooters that can capitalize on the space. On the other hand, if both defenders hug tight, a wide lane of real estate will be open for Calderon to drive and Nowitzki to roll to the basket.
Nowitzki's shooting opens up space for Calderon, who hopes to bring another dimension to Dallas' offense.
Pick-and-Pop Sets with Monta Ellis
Monta Ellis represents the yin to Jose Calderon's yang, a whirling dervish who compensates for poor outside shooting with an uncanny ability to get to the basket.
Ellis' most productive area of work is at the rim—as indicated by the heat chart above—where he attempted 421 of his 1,436 shots from the field last season, converting 62 percent of them (Basketball-Reference).
Nowitzki's shooting prowess is a big asset for a guard who shoots as erratically as Ellis does from the outside (career 32 percent from three). As opposed to a more traditional big who might muck up space that Ellis needs to be successful, Nowitzki actually creates space by dragging his man to the perimeter.
This is not lost on Dirk, who touched on this very subject in an interview with the Dallas Morning News on September 30.
Defenses play me tight. They still have some fear for me with my shot-making ability, and the pick-and-roll coverages change for them when I’m out of the game and there’s not as much room out there.
There should be some room for Monta to get in there and create some havoc. He’s got to be one of the fastest guys in the league off the dribble. With me setting some picks and the way they have to play me on pick-and-rolls, he should be able to walk in there, really make the defense collapse and make things happen. I really think offensively we’ll be fine.
Whereas Nowitzki might be utilized as a large target in pick-and-rolls with Calderon, using him as the pop man with Ellis allows him to serve as both a threat and a decoy simultaneously. Opponents will have to pick their poison carefully.
Limit Dirk's Minutes
After 15 seasons in the NBA, the best way to get maximum value out of Nowitzki is to protect his health.
Nowitzki missed the first couple months of last season because of his ailing knees, a looming concern for a man who has logged almost 40,000 minutes in the NBA. At one point or another, Father Time catches up with even the brightest stars.
Health has a lot to do with it. Dirk’s health is going to be a massive key. He’s been working hard this summer. We’re hoping that we can get him going early and keep him on track. If we can do that, that’s going to really help us.
While using your best player in a limited role might seem counterproductive, Nowitzki's per-minute effectiveness makes it a little easier to swallow. The 19.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes he put up last season are reasonable targets for Nowitzki with less of the offensive burden falling on his shoulders.
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint, so saving your best player's legs for the stretch run is more important than coming guns blazing out of the gate.
Playing Time as "Small-Ball" Center
Nowitzki has pulled no punches when it comes to the defensive strength of his team, pointing out that there are several weak links in the chain—himself included.
“Defensively, some nights we’re going to be challenged,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “With myself, Monta [Ellis] and [Jose] Calderon, that’s three average or below-average defenders. We got to make it work.”
With that in mind, the Mavericks should own their identity and unleash the offensive blitzkrieg they're capable of by using Nowitzki at center in small spurts.
Dirk took a subtle jab at his defensive abilities this offseason, but the often-maligned piece of his game isn't as bad as some might have you believe. Nowitzki was over a point better than his team's overall defensive rating at 106 last season (per Basketball-Reference). He has been a steady, if not impactful, player on that end of the court for most of his career.
While he won't be keeping up with the increasingly agile stretch 4s around the league, sticking him on opposing centers might give him a better shot on defense. He's got the size at 7'0" and 245 pounds to at least occupy space, and the pivot position isn't exactly a murderer's row of names league-wide.
Give Him the Ball Late in Games
Dirk Nowiztki is one of the great late-game scorers in the NBA. That is a truth backed up by both anecdotal and statistical evidence.
But with the import of Ellis, who himself has been known to hit a late-game bucket or two, Rick Carlisle will have the flexibility to run sets that utilize more of a two-man game in crunch time.
That doesn't mean he should.
Advocating hero ball is usually a poorly conceived idea, but there are few shot-makers in the league as prolific as Nowitzki. With the ball in Ellis' hands, you're just as likely to see an off-balance runner as you are a clean look at the basket. That may also be the case with his German teammate, but Nowitzki can offset this with his astronomically better shooting.
While Dirk will be taking a lesser role in the twilight years of his career, there's no reason to stop leaning on him in late-game situations.