One of the biggest narratives over Dirk Nowtizki’s storied career is the lack of help he has had compared to other NBA superstars. The Spurs have had multiple all stars during their title runs, as did the Miami Heat, modern day Warriors and Cavaliers. Most Mavs fans will tell you that this is the only reason Dirk didn’t win more titles, and why he’s nationally perceived to be lower on the all-time player list than his individual stats would indicate. Is this assessment true?
To get a better understanding of the main supporting cast surrounding the Big German during his career, it will be broken down like this…
- Not including Dirk Nowitzki, the top 3 scorers, rebounders and passers will be looked at. We will call these players the “top supporting cast”.
- Their per game averages in that specific category will be added together to get a singular number.
- This will only be done for the post-season as those are the games that matter the most.(For example, in the 2000-2001 playoffs (outside of Dirk) the top 3 scorers were Michael Finley (19.7), Juwan Howard (13.4) and Steve Nash (13.4). When added together, they combined for 46.8 points per game. For rebounds, Juwan Howard, Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley were the top 3 rebounders (again, outside of Dirk), and combined to average 20.7 rebounds per game. Looking at assists, Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Howard Eisley combined to average 12.69 assists per game.)
- Relative Pace (RP) (estimated number of possessions per 48 minutes relative to the league average that year). Simply, the higher the RP, the higher the expected offensive numbers would be.
- Relative Defensive Rating (RDR) (An estimated number of points allowed per 100 possessions relative to the league average that year) will also be listed to provide a broader context for the numbers displayed. An RDR below “0” is better than league average, while an RDR above “0” is worse.
Combined averages of Dirk’s “top supporting cast”:
The “top supporting cast” for each one of those years looks like this:
When taking a look at those numbers, the most glaring year is the championship season in 2010-2011. Dirk had the second least amount of scoring help from his “top supporting cast” of any playoff run during his career at only 38.7 points per game. The Mavs were also slightly above league average in pace that year as well, which makes that number even worse. Compared to what you will see from the supporting casts of guys like Lebron James and Tim Duncan when they won titles, that number is notable.
A few other takeaways:
- Those early years with Nash, Finley and Van Exel provided him with the most scoring help, but their lack of perimeter and interior defense was the biggest pitfall of those teams.
- Once Steve Nash left after the 03-04 season, the Mavs’ assist totals went down by a large margin. In fact, Dirk was in the top 3 in assists for most of those years after his departure.
- Once Dirk officialy entered his “Prime Years”, he started to receive drastically less help.
- You can notice the Relative Pace (RP) changing as Avery Johnson took over for Don Nelson (and his fast paced offense) and slowed things down during his first full season in 2005-2006. Then again once Rick Carlisle took over a few years later, and allowed the Mavericks offense to become much more balanced.
- His “top supporting cast” combined to average over 50 points per game 3 times (2001-2002, 2002-2003 and 2006-2007). The first team lost in the semi finals against the Kings. The next lost in the Conference Finals after Nowitzki hurt his knee with the series tied at 2 games a piece. The other won 67 games and was eliminated by the Warriors.
- The best defensive team Dirk ever played on was the 2006-2007 team that won 67 games and lost in the first round. They had a RDR of -3.3 points allowed per 100 possessions relative to the league average. Of the 10 championship teams we are going to look at below, only the 2012-2013 heat (-2.2) and the 2015-2016 Cavs (-1.9) had a worse rating.
Compare those numbers to a few champions during that time span:
San Antonio Spurs (outside of Tim Duncan)
By comparison, the biggest two differences between what Tim Duncan had around him versus Dirk were defense and efficiency. Yes, it can be argued that Tim Duncan was a larger defensive presence than Nowitzki was during their careers, but that doesn’t account for how large the difference was. The last four teams that Tim Duncan won titles with averaged a RDR of -5.25 points. That was combined with an average of 45.37 points per game from the top 3 scorers outside of Duncan, and an average pace of one less possession per game than league average.
If you take the best four defensive postseason teams Dirk played on his entire career, they average out to a RDR of -2.32. Those four teams also had the three best scorers outside of Dirk average just 41.7 points per game. Not only were the Maverick teams never great defensively, they were never able to give Nowtizki offensive support in the years they were even simply a “good” defensive squad.
LA Lakers (Outside of Kobe)
Comparing Dirk against the “top supporting cast” around Kobe Bryant when the Lakers won back to back titles in ’08-’09 and ’09-’10 seasons, rebounds and defense were the biggest differences. The top three rebounders outside of Kobe averaged 25.35 rebounds per game over those two title runs. Those teams also had an average RDR of -3.75. If you take the best two seasons Dirk’s “top supporting cast” rebounded for him for his entire career, that number is 21.65. The combined RDR of those two years is an abysmal 2.23.
Offensively, those Lakers teams averaged 1.35 more possessions per game than league average and the top three supporting scorers averaged 41.5 points per game. While during the two best supported rebounding seasons for Dirk, those teams played at an average Relative Pace (RP) of 2.5 and the top 3 scorers gave Nowitzki 44.6 points per game. So, even when the mavs rebounded well around the Big German, they were terrible defensively and still did not provide much offensive support.
Miami Heat (Outside of Lebron)
Cleveland Cavaliers (Outside of Lebron)
Comparing the help Dirk had versus Lebron, let’s take the three best overall years from Nowitzki’s “top supporting cast” and compare them to Lebron’s three championship teams. This will be the ’02-’03, ’06-’07 and ’10-’11 seasons for Dirk. Here’s what that looks like:
Dirk’s guys: 47.8 ppg, 18.1 rpg, 13.2 apg (RP .27, RDR -2.3)
Lebron’s guys: 45.9 ppg, 18.8 rpg, 9.6 apg (RP -1.3, RDR -2.8)
Dirk gets the slight edge in points when RP is accounted for. Lebron’s guys rebounded a little more. Surprisingly, Dirk’s teams passed the ball better. Finally, Lebron has played on better defensive teams overall. So, how does this break down? The odd outlier is the 2012-2013 season for Lebron. Outside of a RDR of -2.2, he received very little help from his “top supporting cast.” Those guys supported James with an astounding low number of points and rebounds per game. If you remove that season, the numbers look like this:
49.75 ppg, 20.35 rpg, 9.5 apg (RP -1.3, RDR -3.15)
Dirk has had just one season with numbers lined up similar to this and that was the failed 2006-2007 campaign.
Golden State Warriors (outside of Curry in 14-15, and outside of Durant in 16-17)
The 2014-2015 season for the “top supporting cast” outside of Curry doesn’t really stand out until you look at the RP and RDR. That is the biggest differential of any team we have looked at in this article. Again, Nowitzki has never come close to being on a team that good defensively.
The “top supporting cast” around Kevin Durant in the 2016-2017 postseason was simply incredible. The highest points per game, assists per game and 3rd highest RDR of any team we have looked at.
While Dirk Nowitzki was provided with some help at various times, he never had the subsequent help after he entered the prime years of his career. Starting with his age 29 season in 2007-2008 through his age 35 season in 2013-2014, his “top supporting cast” averaged only 40.4 ppg. His most abundant amount of help occurred when he was just entering his prime and growing as a player, but lasted only 3 seasons (’04-’05, ’05-’06, ’06-’07).
The failure of the Mavs front office and coaches to never provide Nowitzki with help defensively may have been what stands out the most. (Dirk’s teams only had a better RDR than -2.0 a total of four times, and only higher than -2.3 once). A problem that Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry didn’t have to deal with.
Dirk had various playoff runs where his “top supporting cast” scored for him, rebounded for him and/or passed the ball well. There were also some above average (but not great) defensive years mixed in, but the problem is that these things never all aligned at the same time. The 2006-2007 “top supporting cast” was the one outlier and by far the best he ever had. Getting knocked out in the first round that year is the biggest failure of his entire career.
When looking at the help that Dirk Nowitzki received versus the other superstars of his generation, there is a very noticeable gap. The stars never aligned completely for Dirk in the form of a complete team. Which is why him carrying that 2010-2011 group to an NBA title, despite getting only 38.7 ppg from his “top supporting cast” during that playoff run, was so special.