Let’s go back 15 or so years to when Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were best-bud Dallas Mavericks teammates establishing their excellence in the NBA and always hanging out to shoot in the gym together at night.
For lunches, they would swing through Eatzi’s Market & Bakery, the ahead-of-its-time semi-supermarket that, at the turn of the century, gave Dallas cultured, ready-made, healthy eating—and even cultured classical or opera music playing inside its glass doors.
Not exactly the stereotypical NBA hotspot.
But Nash and Nowitzki have long since proved how they transcend stereotypes.
Nash reluctantly retired in 2015. He didn’t go kicking and screaming, if only because it’s not his style—and his broken-down body wouldn’t allow such gyrations anyway.
Nowitzki, 38, is at that doorstep now.
And while he’s still playing, it’s time to appreciate how—same as Nash—Nowitzki has changed us and our game more than we and our game changed him.
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What it boils down to is this: People called Nowitzki soft at the start of his career and for a long time after.
No one does anymore.
And that reflects the greater understanding we have in valuing his fundamental game, not just his historic accomplishments.
To see the way he habitually adjusts the collar of his jersey like a nervous tic, settles for all those fadeaway jumpers and closes out on shooters as if he were dragging a concert piano, hefty opera singer or even a supermarket behind him…it still seems soft in a sense.
Except we know there’s a lot more to it.
We better understand the more powerful impact of the three-point shot, no matter that it’s so much “softer” than a dunk. And we better understand Nowitzki’s diligent training and competitive fire that happen to be teamed with a self-deprecating humor rather than self-aggrandizing personality.
This is how Nowitzki, in at least one way, has made a greater mark than either Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan, both of whom retired in 2016.
Bryant and Duncan mostly had skills we could easily comprehend and we knew winners should possess. Nowitzki was unconventional enough as a shooting 7-footer that we didn’t get him right away.
We needed time to digest how he affected the game in new ways—and for the sport to evolve and showcase that.
At some point soon, the term “stretch 4” for a power forward with shooting range will cease to exist because the game will have changed that much. Nowitzki led that charge, won both an MVP award and a championship, and he did it his way.
That’s how you become the ultra-rare player to overcome the “soft” label.
And he didn’t overcome it as much as we changed the definition based on what he taught us.
More than any other subcategory of player, big men are the ones we still call “soft”—but it’s not whether they can or can’t shoot the ball. Yes, it’s still a four-letter word, but it’s a better-researched definition and rooted in someone not being assertive or competitive enough. Dwight Howard? Blake Griffin? LaMarcus Aldridge? Brook Lopez?
There was an inherent presumption Kristaps Porzingis would be soft. That just goes to show our bias still exists in some form, except the fashion has changed.
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It is acceptable and downright stylish to be a finesse scorer in Stephen Curry’s era as opposed to Michael Jordan’s. It requires special people such as Curry to shift paradigms, and Nowitzki has been one of them.
The main thing that has changed about Nowitzki over the years, those close to him say, is a better work-life balance since he met his wife. (No offense, Nash!) Nowitzki doesn’t hunker down and study NBA games with his free time as much now. (He does still head to the gym in his free time, though.)
Nowitzki goes into the Mavericks’ TNT showcase game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday a vastly diminished version of himself. He would like to play another season after this one to reach 20, but Nash wanted a lot of things he just couldn’t get, too.
It’s the third game of Dallas’ only four-in-five-nights stretch, and Nowitzki is only recently back from a right Achilles strain that has cost him much of the season. So temper expectations:
- Thus far, 30.2 percent of his shots this season have been three-point attempts—the third-highest rate of his career, which is indicative of how often he’s out behind the arc these days.
- His free-throw rate (measure of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) is not just a career-low 12.5 percent, but it is also a far cry from his career 36.2 percent, showing how little contact he’s drawing. He’s seventh in NBA history in free throws, by the way, a testament to how willing he has been to seek contact.
- He’s averaging just 0.3 drives per game this season (dribbling from 20 feet to 10 feet out). He hardly ever drove toward the lane last season (0.3) or the two seasons before (0.4, 0.4). For comparison, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 7.0 drives and Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 3.6 drives this season.
Does any of that stuff make Dirk soft?
Fortunately, we already know the answer to that.
Nowitzki has played through pain to be a remarkably durable force, no matter the hairstyle of the day. He has put up numbers and led so many winning teams—16 consecutive seasons at or above .500 since his first two in the league—that his will to win is inarguable.
The only players with more career victories than Nowitzki are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, Tim Duncan, John Stockton and Karl Malone.
The sway of Nowitzki’s loyalty to his only NBA home and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can be seen in the Mavs’ league-best streak of 678 consecutive home sellouts, dating back to 2001 and still going. Nowitzki is not just the top foreign-born scorer of all time, but he is the overall No. 6 scorer of all time. If all goes well, we can celebrate that late this season when he reaches 30,000 points.
Jordan even listed Nowitzki with Bryant, Duncan and LeBron James as the only players who could’ve done it in his era—before you had a Whole Foods Market superstore down the street in which to grab the sort of healthy, tasty eating Nowitzki was getting a decade and a half ago.
Dirk was ahead of his time.
Because he was, we have the game we have now—and we know to cherish the playing time he has left.
All advanced statistics provided by B/R Insights, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.