Is Dirk Nowitzki Just a Fantasy Basketball Relic?

Once a no-doubt first-round pick in fantasy, where should we be drafting Nowitzki in 2015-16?

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Just over a year ago, Dirk Nowitzki finished the 2013-14 season as the ninth best fantasy player, according to Last year, he was 44th. Entering his 18th season in the league, Nowitzki simply is not the player he used to be. Obviously not an elite option anymore, what can we expect from the 37-year-old this season?

A real superstar in all meanings of the word, the Mavericks' power forward not only led Dallas to the Finals twice in the past 10 years, but has also been a consistent first-round fantasy choice. Since 2006, Nowitzki has finished in the top 10 of fantasy 8 times with the only exceptions being an injury plagued 2012-13 and last season.

A regular on the NBA scoring leaderboard, Nowitzki was always the safe pick in fantasy. He could be counted on as a reliable source of points, and as one of only six players in the exclusive  50-40-90 club, Nowitzki has always provided a notable boost to your percentages as well. Last year, however, was a different story.

2014-15 Decline

If we discount 2012-13, when Nowitzki started only 47 games due to a knee injury, 2014-15 was by far the power forward's worst statistical season since 98-99, his rookie year. 

Season Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks 3-Pointers TO FG% FT%
Avg. Season, 2009-14 22.1 6.9 2.6 0.7 0.7 1.1 1.7 .487 .898
2014-15 17.3 5.9 1.9 0.5 0.4 1.4 1.1 .459 .882

His points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks were the lowest in a season since he was a 20-year-old fresh off the boat from Germany. The 4.4 point per game drop from 2013-14 to 2014-15 represented a 20 percent decrease in points scored. As he got older, a downturn in production was expected, but what was the reason for the substantial fall in fantasy value last year?

There are two main reasons for his sharp decline, one obvious and another a little more subtle. First up, the most noticeable one, decrease in minutes.

Per-36 Averages Minutes/Game Points Rebounds Assists FG Att
Avg. Season, 2009-14 34.1 23.3 7.3 2.7 17.3
2014-15 29.6 21.0 7.2 2.3 16.8

For the first time in 16 years, Nowitzki played fewer than 30 minutes per game. From 2000-14, the big German averaged over 36 minutes per game. Even in 2014, at the age of 35, Nowitzki was playing nearly 33 minutes per game. The sudden reduction in play, by over 10 percent, understandably caused a drop in counting stats even if his per 36 averages stayed on par.

The other reason for a fall in Nowitzki's fantasy stock is the shift in the 37-year-old's offensive game to compensate for his deteriorating athletic ability.

Once one of the more dangerous players on the low block, Nowitzki has slowly shied away from posting up and playing with his back to the basket. He now spends the majority of his time as a spot-up shooter and facing the basket, becoming primarily a perimeter player. Throughout his career, 15 percent of his shot attempts have come from 3 feet or closer. During last season, that number was cut by more than half as it fell to 6.6 percent.

Relying on his jump shot and staying away from the basket has had many reverberations. First, by not attacking the rim and avoiding contact, Nowitzki has gone to the line less frequently, in turn under-utilizing his amazing free throw shooting ability. Last season he attempted only 3.8 free throws per game, compared to 5.6 the previous 5 years. The impact of Nowitzki shooting 89 percent from the line has been significantly diminished for fantasy teams.

Second, Nowitzki has been taking and missing more threes. While his total makes went up last year, 1.1 to 1.4, his overall field goal shooting percentage fell off substantially due to the increased difficulty in shot selection. From 2005 to 2013, arguably his prime years, 15 percent of Nowitzki's shots came from behind the arc. The last two seasons that number has jumped to 26 percent.

By not taking as many high percentage shots near the rim and swapping them out for long distance tries, his overall field goal percentage dropped considerably. The reduction in field goal percentage by far outweighs the minimal gain in three-pointers made, damaging his fantasy stock overall.

2015-16 Outlook

Entering his 18th year in the league, Nowitzki can expect to see a continued decline in stats. Especially after the organization put forward 26 minutes per game as the ideal limit the 37-year-old would play this year. The question is, will Dallas be able to keep Dirk's minutes down?

As young guns Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews are being eased back in from offseason surgeries, Dallas may need the power forward to take on a heavier load for the first month or two of the season, since there is real doubt that the two potential leading scorers will not be ready for opening day. Who else would Dallas turn to pick up the slack? Nowitzki of course.

With Parsons and Matthews out of the lineup, Deron Williams and Devin Harris would take on more prominent roles in the offense. Do we believe Nowitzki, even as he winds down his career, is not a bigger offensive threat than these two? His fierce competitive nature will not let him sit back and let the Mavs lose. If Dallas is to stay relevant, Nowitzki will have to take charge of the offense much like he did in the playoffs last season.

With Parsons missing their series against the Rockets, Nowitzki had to step up for the franchise. He showed he could still get to the line, 5.6 attempts per game. He also showed there was still some life left in his legs, as he averaged a double-double with 21.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in over 36 minutes per game. Albeit a small sample size, Nowitzki showed he is capable of providing flashes of his former self.

So will the added early season pressures boost Nowitzki's fantasy value or will it wear down his 37-year-old body to the point of a complete breakdown later in the season? Hopefully, coach Rick Carlisle can find the right balance that will keep Nowitzki rested and a reliable contributor to the Mavericks this season. 

With all that said, what do we expect from Nowitzki in fantasy leagues? And where should we draft him?

Fantasy Expectations

Clearly not a top 10 fantasy option anymore, Nowitzki still has his place in fantasy in 2015-16, although admittedly not a prominent one. If Nowitzki were able to reach 14.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.5 threes per game in his 18th year, he would make a great third forward on a fantasy squad. Preferably no more than a sixth or seventh round pick would be spent on the future Hall of Famer. Unfortunately, his current ADP or average draft position does not reflect his realistic projections.

Just like with Kobe Bryant, some people can not resist spending an early pick on the greats from the past. Yahoo has Nowitzki being drafted on average in the fourth round of fantasy drafts, 37th overall. The best way to win at fantasy sports is finding the most value in your picks.

Using that high of a choice on the Maverick would be a significant overpayment for the declining skills of Nowitzki. While I expect his draft stock to fall as we get closer to the regular season, Nowitzki will not slip far enough in drafts for him to find his way onto most, if any, of my squads.