Ball Don't Lie - NBA



Nine years ago, Dirk Nowitzki(notes) was being championed as a should-be All-Star by Charles Barkley, in Barkley's first season on TNT's "Inside the NBA."

Actually, perhaps that's not the best place to start.

Ten years ago, Dirk Nowitzki was putting up 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds, remarkable numbers for his first full season as a starter, and at only 21 years of age. Mark Cuban had just bought the Dallas Mavericks a week earlier, the team was about to threaten for a playoff berth and the future looked bright.

Not the best place to begin, either.

Twelve years ago, Dirk Nowitzki was just starting to gain some steam as an unknown possible entrant into the 1998 draft, based on a dominant performance the summer before against a group of U.S. juniors.

Again, wrong. Hard to find some drama in this guy's, um, basketball life.

OK, 11 terrible years ago, Dirk Nowitzki was about to start his rookie season. One that would see him bounced in and out of the Dallas lineup even after Mavericks coach Don Nelson guaranteed he'd win the Rookie of the Year award. He looked unsure and lacking confidence at times, and his play (relative to the rest of the league) was subpar. Subpar!

And, really, despite all the nasty growing pains in that truncated lockout season, Dirk's averages of eight points and three rebounds in 20 minutes at age 20? While acclimating to a new league, a new language, a new lifestyle and a new position? Pretty remarkable.

It truly is hard to find a point in Dirk Nowitzki's career that didn't see him absolutely owning things. There have been plenty of disappointments, to be sure. The dismantling of the Big Three Maverick setup with Steve Nash(notes) and Michael Finley(notes), or the failure to grab a ring in promising seasons from 2005-07, but by and large this has been a masterful career.

Dirk passed 20,000 career points this week, becoming the first European player to do so. And while I usually ignore statistical milestones like this (I couldn't, in any reasonable way, tell you if Dirk was 10th on the all-time scoring list or 150th), we should take a timeout to point toward an innovator like Dirk.

Sure, other 7-footers took it outside. Bob McAdoo launched from the perimeter and won an MVP. Wispy centers for years stuck to the top of the key and fired jumpers. Bill Laimbeer even took it past the 3-point line, and Kevin Garnett(notes) worked the crossover, hesitation and pull-up like he was a 6-6 guard.

Dirk went all out. If he was open, it was going up. And it usually was going in. He'd put the work in, so why not?

He's toned it down over the last few years. Nowitzki has topped his 3.3 3-point attempt average just once since 2003-04, but he was an all-out perimeter beast that sometimes spent his time slumming near the hoop.

And, as things rolled on, and as he didn't feel like spending as much time gathering that 7-foot frame toward hurling another 25-footer at the rim, he grew more and more comfortable with the post game. Our man went outside-in, dropping 25 a game all the way.

With no turnovers. This guy is a legend in that area.

This isn't Reggie Miller, who used to consistently turn in miniscule turnover numbers mainly because he caught the ball and held it just long enough to fire in a bomb from long range. Dirk did his fair share of that, to be sure, but the man had the ball in his hands.

He gathered the defensive board and worked coast-to-coast, not unlike Barkley. He surveyed the scene from the high and low post, especially when the supposed word got out that a small forward could mitigate Dirk's effectiveness. Of course, even with those quicker wings slapping at the ball, it hardly mattered.

Dirk turned it over on just 9 percent of the possessions he used up. Larry Bird? 12.7 percent. LeBron James(notes)? 11.7. Tom Chambers? 12.1. The guy just didn't screw up.

If I act surprised, I'm not. As mentioned above, there was a bit of a worry in the beginning, based mainly on the unorthodox way Dirk came to play in this league.

The hype was at fever pitch as the 1998 draft approached. Word was that Rick Pitino (then with the Celtics, holding on to the 10th pick) wanted Dirk badly and was prepared to even trade up to get him.

Trade up? For this guy? A teenager from Germany?

The "German" aspect wasn't the big deal. Experience was. We were in the midst of watching Detlef Schrempf's fantastic all-around game reach the end of what was a knockout career, and his 6-10 frame rather closely approximated Dirk's.

But Schrempf went to college in the U.S. Garnett was a high school legend here, and Kobe Bryant(notes) and Jermaine O'Neal(notes) came quite hyped -- rightfully so. To jump from stateside streets is one thing, but from a lower-level German league to the pros? At that age?

If Pitino liked him, though, this was a huge deal. Pitino had just dominated in Kentucky, and taken the worst team in the NBA (the Boston Celtics) to within sniffing distance of a playoff spot in just one year at the helm.

Then Don Nelson went out of his way to trade for the guy. It was a great night for Nellie. He also picked up Steve Nash (stuck hearing trade rumors about himself for the previous two seasons) for a draft pick that later turned into Shawn Marion(notes), but we were dubious about Nowitzki. I loved Nash, had for years, before I could even learn to bother to put together a phrase like "per-minute."


But if Dirk was Nellie's sort of guy ... hmm. Because Nellie, as bad as things are now, was at a pretty low ebb in 1998.

He had made ridiculous trade after ridiculous trade with the Mavs, after having been scuttled out of New York, after his work in Golden State flamed out. When Cuban bought the team in January of 2000, it was assumed Nellie would be out the door even before Mark could put his pen down, the first coach ever to be fired by ICQ announcement.

So for Nellie to almost taint Dirk in that way, then to burden him with the "Rookie of the Year" claim, even as Dirk wasn't sure he wanted to come over to the NBA just yet?

Even as Gary Trent destroyed Nowitzki in a one-on-one game at a friendly barbecue at Nellie's house before the lockout hit? Even with the malaise of the lockout season that followed? Even if (for others) Nash looked like damaged goods as he struggled with back and ankle injuries in his first year or two in Dallas?

It didn't look good.

And then Dirk looked good, rather quickly, in his rookie season. Ate Scottie Pippen up, on both ends of the court, in a game in April of that season. Scottie got a DUI later that night, and I have to think the two are related, somehow. Dirk blew up in his second year, became part of the NBA elite in his third. Ring or not, he's just always been a huge part of this league.

One of the better parts. At times, the best part.

Congrats on 20,000, Dirk. Keep on.

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