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How Dirk Nowitzki Changed Basketball

How Dirk Nowitzki Changed Basketball


On the eve of his 21st season ending, Dirk
Nowitzki made it official that his impressive NBA career is finally over. In a year that
featured another legend, Dwyane Wade, embarking on a farewell tour of his own, the loss of
Nowitzki still looms large. While both are shoe-ins for the Hall of Fame, Nowitzki’s
annual dominance came in ways that quite literally changed the way NBA basketball is played. In some ways, Nowitzki was a one-man, evolutionary
force over his two decades in the league. Entering the NBA at just 20 years old in 1998,
Nowitzki was just a skinny teenager with a jumpshot. During those early years, NBA big
men were tasked with more laborious tasks — rebounding, blocking shots and both defending
and scoring on the block. In his rookie season, the only 14 players over 6’9” shot at
least 50 3-pointers. And most of them, at least in that stage of their career, were
fairly one-dimensional, long-range specialist like Clifford Robinson, Matt Bullard, Danny
Ferry and Donyell Marshall. By 2005, a year before his first Finals appearance,
Nowitzki had established himself as on the NBA’s preeminent stars and was earning annual
invites to the NBA All-Star game. Not coincidentally, Dallas had flipped from being one of the league’s
most pathetic franchises to a 50-win juggernaut. The league clearly noticed that skilled big
men like Nowitzki were quite helpful. That season, the number of players 6’9” or
taller shooting at least 50 3-pointers per season had nearly tripled from Nowitzki’s
first year — from 14 to 39. In part because of Nowitzki, the NBA entered
the era of the “stretch big.” During the mid 2000s to the middle of this current decade,
teams began phasing out unskilled big men for those who could spread the floor (diagram
1). While there were certainly other reasons for this shift, the fact that the Mavericks
were a fixture atop the Western Conference — including winning the title in 2011 — due
to the impact of Nowitzki was clearly not lost on the way NBA team’s shaped their
frontcourts. But while that impact was more broad, Nowitzki
also impacted the NBA in more acute, tactical ways that could be seen on a game-to-game
basis. Though Nowitzki will go down as one of the best shooting big men in the history
of the sport, to think of him as just a shooting specialist would be a mistake. Most “stretch
bigs” featured some type of Shakespearean fatal flaw. Players like Minnesota’s Anthony Tolliver
remained a specialist because he wasn’t a threat to post up. The Ryan Anderson’s
of the NBA never reached Nowitzki’s level because of their inability to get to good
shots when chased off the 3-point line. And the vast majority of stretch bigs simply could
never match Nowitzki’s level as a shooter. It’s mostly because of that last part that
Nowitzki created an entirely new tactic in the NBA — the nail iso (Diagram 2). When a shooter like Nowitzki comes to screen
for the ballhandler — known as a pick-and-pop — it typically creates a problem for opposing
defenses if they stick to a coverage that keeps both defenders guarding their own men.
But one coverage, “switching”, tends to be the most effectively nullifier of pick-and-pops
that NBA defenses turn to. By simply letting the smaller player switch onto the bigger
shooter and the bigger player swap onto the smaller ballhandler (Diagram 3), a defense
can avoid any tricky maneuvering and force the opposing offense to attack the switch
or run another action as the shot clock ticks down. Switches effectively shut down the ability
of player’s like Anderson and Tolliver to hurt a defense with their shooting. But part of Nowitzk’s greatness is that
he found a way to beat that too. Before Dirk, players posted switches in one of two areas:
on the block or slightly higher on the wing (diagram 4). Early in his career, Nowitzki
tried to beat switches in that same traditional way. The problem with attacking a switch that
way is the complications involved. If Nowitzki encounters a switch in a middle
pick-and-pop and tries to post up on the block, a lot can happen between the switch and the
Nowitzki getting the ball. Depending on alignments, defenses could “switch out”, swapping
defenders on Nowitzki yet again as he rolls his smaller defender toward the block (Diagram
5). They could also front and flood (diagram 6) or simply deny any reversal passes aimed
at creating a better angle to throw the ball to Nowitzki on the block (diagram 7). After a few seasons of this, Nowitzki’s
first head coach, Don Nelson, had an idea: instead of having Nowitzki try to post up
middle pick and pop switches on the block, he’d do it right at the nail — hoops lingo
for the middle of the free throw line (Diagram 8). That maneuver essentially eliminated all
the complications, allowing Nowitzki to walk his smaller defender down a few steps, get
a clean catch and go to work (Diagram 2). Before Nelson and Nowitzki joined forces to
do this, it hadn’t happened in the NBA. Nowitzki essentially created the nail iso.
Nowadays, seeing superstars post up at the nail is somewhat commonplace, especially when
it comes to switches in the middle of the floor. But without Nowitzki, we may have never
seen it. What’s even more incredible is that this
tactic also withstood the analytics revolution. Taking a shot around the nail falls into the
dreaded mid-range category — the area of the basketball court with the least efficient
return on shots (diagram 9). But Nowitzki has been so uncannily accurate from that distance
that he’s made those high-arcing jumpshots from around the nail and efficinent shot. Many Hall of Fame players like Nowitzki is
destined to be have used their signature style of play and impressive accomplishments to
leave their mark on the game. Nowitzki, however, has quite literally left his mark — all over
the whiteboards of NBA coaches for two decades.

74 thoughts on “How Dirk Nowitzki Changed Basketball”

  1. Destroyed the first superteam a fcuking legend and the fact that he stood with the mavs makes it icying on the cake

  2. As a football fan who is just getting into basketball,this channel has been useful to understand the sport,you have gained a new subscriber.

  3. That jumper, especially the flamingo fadeaway, was Nowitzki's signature shot. Made him one of the most versatile scorers in the NBA. He was also a good rebounder. Not as good as other great bigmen, but 8 rebounds a game ain't bad when you're in the perimeter a whole lot.

    All-Star appearances are gained through votes, whether by fans (who vote for starters) or by coaches (who vote for reserves). Not exactly as invitational as it seems.

  4. Please do a video about Klay Thompson's points record in a quarter (37) AND most 3s in a single game (14). How he is such a devastating catch-and-shoot sharpshooter and how he makes runs of screens and plays without the ball. He's also great defensively, most of the time guarding the best player of the opponent.

  5. Iso in the nail. I remember how Dirk left Chris Bosh in the dust during the Mavs championship run.

  6. disagree with nail iso being common nowadays.yes we see it more often but its really still not common.dirk did it almost exclusively.most iso are behind the line or few feet away from low post.

  7. Oh TiFo! Youre a bball fan too didmt know til I saw this, i just watch the soccer videos. Keep em coming homie love it🖖

  8. When Nowitzki first started that weird fade away, i thought it was luck but I was just getting into bball. Then I saw a video of 1 of his practices and realized how skilled he was in a completely different way for his size

  9. Great assessment of tactics! I would also add that his impact stretches to opening doors to more overseas players emulating his skillset. And you cannot forget his patented one legged fadeaway shot as copied by a host of other top NBA players, e.g., Kevin Durant, LeBron, Lamarcus Aldridge, etc.

  10. As a Tifo Football fan, I'm loving the crossover to basketball on this channel. And this video is indeed awesome, and a very revealing look at a player I didn't really know about because I stopped watching basketball really after Jordan left in '98.

    And that's what I'd like you to do some videos on next. I'd love to see how the game changed from Jordan's last title to today. 1999 to 2019, a tactical breakdown over a 3-4 season period, like you did with the World Cup Tactics breakdown videos. I'd love for fans like me who may have checked out of the game, and particularly on the great San Antonio teams, to see how change came over the game since the Jordan era.

  11. Dallas native here, and although we have Luca, NO ONE will ever have an impact on Dallas like Dirk has. At this point we're waiting for his statue, and an arena named after him!

  12. Sweet video 🙂
    When we talk about all time greats we talk about the playoffs, Dirk is one of two players in NBA history to average at least 25-10 in the playoffs. The other is kareem abdul jabbar, that's how dominant Dirty was.

  13. To me Wade is a shooting guard who can’t shoot and never won anything unless there was a Shaq or Lebron on his team. He played in a time where people just watched highlights on YouTube or Twitter and never actually watched a game. Wade can put together highlights like a dunk or a block but that doesn’t mean he’s a great player. Dirk didn’t have those type of plays. He is a legend though.

  14. No idea how I managed to miss this for so long. Just the other day, I was thinking "man, I'd love a channel to do basketball content, the same way Tifo does football"…then up pops a recommended video about Dirk.
    "That thumbnail looks like a Tifo football video…oh wait"

  15. A different way of narrating things, something new and fresh. Not just another YouTube with heart beating background music but instead soft and ease for ears. Clicking subscribe button!

  16. his real greatness will show in a few years when young talents will be compared with him and plays are called Dirk-Iso. btw i´m almost certain that nba2k´s "post scorer-build" is modeled after Dirk

  17. High-quality video! Persevere with creating excellent content and you'll build up quick! Subscribe to our channel and we are going to subscribe to your channel!

  18. The most underated player in history. Before Dirk came along we would watch Bird, Sikma or Laimbeer hit 3s and say, "Man, can you imagine a true 7 footer able to knock down 3s like Craig Hodges or Mark Price? Then came Dirk.

  19. He utterly slayed all of the best players of his time in the 2011 playoff run to the title. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Kevin Durant, Russel Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Bosh, D-Wade and LeBron James. I'd say very few players in NBA history have been as dominant as he was against such a stacked opposing field. It wasn't only shooting from the nail, the man didn't miss from the freethrow line, he'd either shoot over you or put the ball down for a layup, any attempt to foul him would end up with him scoring two from the line.

  20. The greatest upside to Dirk's play – which was implied in this video more so than directly stated – was that he could score efficiently from pretty much any spot, be it the perimeter, the nail, the high or low post. This, alongside his extremely deadly fade-away made it extremely difficult to guard him.

  21. It's so weird how Dirk's Mavericks were able to overcome Miami's super team but couldn't even beat a crap Warriors team in 2007

  22. 1:06, that doesn’t make any sense “the only 14 players over 6’9 shot at least 50 3 pointers.” There were way more than 14 players over 6’9, and no way all of them shot at least 50 3s.

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