Don't Forget About Dirk
The incredibly tight playoff race in the Western Conference has been the defining narrative of the NBA season.
With the focus on the collective picture, then, certain individual team and player performances have been lost in the mix; with the playoff race almost decided, one of those performances deserves to be highlighted.
On Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki surpassed Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson on the all-time scoring list, placing Nowitzki in the top 10 in NBA history. Nowitzki's revolutionary one-foot fade-away jumper has carried him through 15 NBA seasons and various hairstyles to 26,714 points.
Nowitzki's scoring this year hasn't resulted from voluminous chucking during a lost season. Rather, Nowitzki has been piecing together a remarkable year amidst tough competition while missing only two of his team's 79 games to date.
Nowitzki currently ranks eighth in nERD (12.8), which identifies how many wins a player adds to a team over a season, and eighth in numberFire's efficiency rank among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game. (To see a full explanation of the metrics numberFire uses, click here.) Nowitzki is currently averaging 21.6 points per game, good for 14th in the league and one-tenth of a point per game from a four-way tie for 11th.
To add some context, look at how Dirk stacks up against some of the other elite forwards this season.
The 35-year-old Nowitzki is shooting an effective field goal percentage of 54.6%, his highest ever, and he's scoring at a per-game rate as well as some of the other top forwards and does so in fewer minutes. His assist and rebound numbers still compare to the top forwards considering his minutes per game. Dirk's game has always centered on his scoring, and he's still producing those points at a steady and effective rate.
Nowitzki's nERD of 12.8, though, is the takeaway number from the table. Through consistent and efficient production, Dirk has kept his Mavericks relevant and his numbers comparable to the new wave of NBA forwards.
The Bigger Picture
Nowitzki's efficient scoring and distributing have helped the Mavericks to a 48-31 record, the fourth-most efficient offense, and a 91.5% chance to finalize a playoff spot.
With three games left in the regular season, Dirk's Mavericks sit in the seven seed spot, but still have a difficult road ahead, proving how relentless the West has been from the opening tip back in late October.
Tonight, the Mavericks square off with the San Antonio Spurs, who have the best record in the league, pitting Nowitzki against his fundamental foil at power forward, Tim Duncan. If the Mavericks falter out of the seventh seed but cling to the eighth, then they will find themselves in a first-round matchup with the Spurs, one that has been one-sided so far this season. Dallas is 0-3 against San Antonio this season and has allowed at least 112 points in each of the three games.
A more ideal situation for Dirk is a rematch from the 2012 playoffs with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder swept the Mavericks two years ago, but the Mavericks are 2-1 against them this season. The loss came in Dallas's fifth game of the year - the two wins occurred in a two-week span in March. If Dirk wants to make another playoff push and add to his post-season legacy, he'll need to lead the Mavericks to tighten the grasp on the seventh seed in the West.
The West, though, won't make that easy.
The scrappy Phoenix Suns, who currently trail the Mavs by half of a game in the standings but currently own the eight seed, come to Dallas on Saturday in what should be a playoff atmosphere as both teams try not only to eke into the postseason, but also avoid a first-round matchup against the Spurs. Dallas concludes the season four days later in Memphis against the Grizzlies. Memphis currently is one-and-a-half games behind Dallas. The teams Dallas needs to fend off are the teams it closes the season against.
The playoffs for Dallas have lasted all season, but the Mavs are still not in the clear.
When looking back on Dirk's career years from now, this season will likely be remembered as the one in which Dirk cracked the top 10 all-time in scoring. However, in the moment, Dirk's performance deserves to be admired for what it is: a 35 year old who helped revolutionize the game still competing with the league's elite.
We're all anxious to see how this playoff finally unfolds, but just don't forget to watch one of the league's future Hall of Famers continue to excel while it does.