By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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"How's that?" he asks, seemingly surprised even by the notion.
"Because," he is told, "your game stands to show the most dramatic improvement."
Nowitzki shrugs and says, "Oh, I think everyone's game could improve."
But everyone's game won't. As a general rule, once an NBA player reaches the age of 23 or 24, you can throw out the best and worst years of his career and find a remarkable consistency in the remaining numbers.
Dirk's game has not yet peaked, and the upside could be electric. Last year at age 22, even as he led the Mavericks in scoring (21.8) and rebounding (9.2), his overall game kept skyrocketing.
Donnie Nelson says, "We pretty much know what our top eight or nine players are going to give us, but every year Dirk returns from the off-season he's added some element to his game. That makes him the 'X' factor.
"Our taking the leap to the next level will largely depend on how much better he is. Dirk knows that. He's super humble, and he may downplay his importance to the media. But believe me, he's not light in the area of confidence."
Last season, Nowitzki canned roughly five free throws, two three-pointers and five two-point field goals in 38 minutes each outing. That's a two-point basket every 7.6 minutes of playing time. This year, Nelson plans to go with an expanded 10-man rotation that promises plenty of rest time for almost everyone, even Finley, the NBA's perennial toiler. (He once again led the league in minutes played last year.) But Nelson calls Dirk "a young horse" and the exception in his rotation. Look for Nowitzki to average about 40 minutes per game, shifting each night from small forward to power forward to center and back.
With any kind of improved post-up play to go with his willingness to drive hard to the basket, Dirk could earn an additional 100 trips to the free-throw line, where he's an 83 percent shooter. That alone will hike his scoring average a point per game. Figure a few additional shots per game with increased playing time, and Nowitzki could average 24 to 27 points per game, which puts him in elite company leaguewide.
Those numbers are not unrealistic. In March, when the Mavericks won 10 and lost four in an impressive stretch run for positioning before the playoffs, Nowitzki averaged 24.7 points a game. In the playoffs, when scoring usually drops off, he averaged 23.4 points a game.
No Maverick has put up numbers like that since Mark Aguirre waddled around Reunion Arena 15 years ago. And although it may seem the NBA has changed so much that all comparisons with this team and the late-'80s Mavs are moot, Nowitzki indeed has something to learn from the team's previous stud: an Aguirre-like post-up game.
Mark Aguirre was a thick small forward--thick-framed and thick-headed--who could back down lighter small forwards to within 10 feet of the basket, receive the pass and swish. Whether you liked him or not, Aguirre could lay that mother down.
Foreign big men, especially the European variety, learn the game facing the basket. They don't grow up with a ball in their hands, but they also don't develop lazy habits. They conquer the fundamentals in their teens following their biggest growth spurt, and they tend to be better passers, dribblers and outside shooters than their American big-men counterparts. This is true of Nowitzki.
But, the foreigners are too often unskilled in the art of posting up, whereby the offensive player gains better position near the basket by backing down his defender, then with or without a dribble rises, twists and shoots from a much shorter distance (often drawing fouls as well).
As impressively as the Mavericks started last season, Nelson longed for that vital post-up player who can jump-start a struggling offense with easy buckets. Nelson tried posting up Nowitzki, but Dirk seemed flustered by the back-to-the-basket approach, as if someone were asking him to sign his name with his off hand. Even with a much shorter defender on him, Nowitzki often acquiesced and passed the ball back out or rushed a clumsy turnaround jumper.
"Everybody matures in different ways," Donnie Nelson says. "When Dirk started out, he was in the fragile stages of being a young European man learning a new country. To me, the first step in his rite of passage came when he got his tooth knocked out in the playoffs. His showing that willingness to take a pounding, when the physical play got maybe a little out of hand, I think was a lesson to Dirk that you've still got to fight the fight."
Before the playoffs, though, no one knew if he was tough enough. It was certainly known he didn't have the low-post game needed in the playoffs. That's why, in February, Nelson got the post-up game he wanted in Juwan Howard as part of the eight-player trade that sent several players and some of billionaire owner Mark Cuban's pocket change to the Washington Wizards. The aforementioned Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie (don't bother learning to pronounce it; he's gone) joined Howard on the plane ride to Dallas. Howard's presence requires Dirk to spend most of his time at small forward. Dirk is versatile enough to make the shift without any qualms, but is it best for the team?