DALLAS – Before Thursday night's game against Dallas, Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said to me, "The power forward position in the NBA has been revolutionized. It's no longer a big bruising players' spot – guys like Dirk Nowitzki are changing the way the position is played."
Unfortunately for Van Gundy, Nowitzki then went out and proved his theory. The Dallas Mavericks star scored a career-high 53 points in an overtime victory over Houston.
Dirk scored every way possible – postups, three-pointers, fast-break layups, offensive rebound putbacks and free throws. His ability to handle the ball, run the floor like a gazelle and shoot from 25 feet belies his 7-foot frame. Yet his size allows him to do the things traditional power forwards do, like rebound and clog the lane.
He is a unique talent, and I struggle trying to think of anyone in basketball history who can do the things he does. Larry Bird comes to mind, but Nowitzki runs the floor much faster. Kiki Vandeweghe? Maybe. But Dirk is much bigger and a better ball handler. James Worthy? Didn't have the shooting range.
The reality is that Nowitzki and a group of athletic big men are carving out a new position in the NBA, just as Van Gundy noted. Many players manning the four spot today are no longer just rebounders and defenders in the Maurice Lucas/Kurt Rambis mold. They're ball-handling, play-making big men who take over games and run offenses – guys like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom, Rasheed Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko.
They are shot blockers and rebounders; scorers and assist men. They're big enough to guard opposing centers and quick enough to extend to the perimeter to cover three men. Some of them you can post up or run a perimeter screen and roll – with them handling the ball. Basically, they're talented guards who are living in centers' bodies.
For those unfortunate coaches who don't possess one of these freaks of nature on their rosters, it has made the game much more difficult. Van Gundy knows all about that. Houston had a nightmarish time trying to match up with Nowitzki defensively, and on offense, they couldn't spread the floor with a big, versatile big man of their own.
Imagine how much easier the game would be for Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady if they had a guy like Nowitzki next to them. The defense would be spread out, the ball would move and there would be open shots for everyone.
Perhaps we should rename the position because, these days, there's a lot more than just "power" that goes into it.
- Jeff Van Gundy