Ankle surgery has kept Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki out of action since April 2018, but the future Hall of Famer could make his long-awaited season debut as soon as Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
Nowitzki is the greatest player in Mavericks history because of his skill on the court, but the countless sacrifices he’s made for the organization have also made him the most beloved. This season he may be asked to make another sacrifice – accepting a lesser role.
With the off-season additions of rookie forward Luka Doncic and veteran center Deandre Jordan, Nowitzki acknowledged prior to the season that it may be time for him to shift to a bench role. The thought of a J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki pick and roll off the bench had Mavericks fans salivating.
In the meantime, Barea and the rest of the bench have propelled Dallas to a 14-11 record, and the team is currently in the playoff mix in the tough Western Conference. Nowitzki’s return would likely take away minutes from either Maxi Kleber or Dwight Powell. Those two receive virtually all of the reserve minutes at the power forward and center positions. However, both Powell and Kleber can make a case that Nowitzki’s minutes shouldn’t come at their expense as they have been two of the most effective players in the league when they are on the floor.
Barea is at his best running the pick and roll with an athletic big man who can finish at the rim. This happens to be Powell’s strength. He was one of the most efficient rim-runners in the NBA last season, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down through the early portion of the 2018-19 season. Catching alley-oops has never been a strength of Nowitzki’s. Just look how surprised everyone was when he threw down an oop from Steph Curry in the 2015 All-Star Game.
As analytics continue to grow in popularity, so does the value of players who excel in popular analytical statistics.
Powell is one of those players that the analytics love. He has a +8.9 net rating, meaning the Mavericks are outscoring their opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions with Powell on the court. Some value analytics more than others, but the numbers show the Mavericks are winning with Powell on the court.
Maxi Kleber is the other player who could cede minutes to Nowitzki. He’s a completely different player than Powell, but he’s been equally important to the Mavericks success this season. Kleber’s net rating is +14.2. The Mavericks are essentially blowing teams out during the 18.5 minutes per game that he’s on the court.
While Powell’s presence is felt more on the offensive end, Kleber makes a bigger impact defensively. Even in a limited role, Kleber is leading the team in blocks, averaging 1.3 per game. He’s also proven to be a capable switch defender, which is extremely valuable for a big man in the modern NBA. Nowitzki does more harm than good defensively at this point in his career.
The team is winning, and Nowitzki can’t finish at the rim like Powell or defend like Kleber. So, why should he take minutes away from those two? It’s simple. He still offers something those two don’t, one of the best jump shots in the NBA.
Even at 40-years-old there are few people who can shoot a basketball better than the 7-foot tall German.
Nowitzki shot 41 percent from three-point range last season, which was the fourth best mark of his stellar career. He shot 90 percent from the free throw line, which was 2 percent higher than his career average. His field goal percentage was only 2 percent lower than his career average, despite an increase in three-point shot attempts.
With all the good Powell and Kleber bring to the table, three-point shooting is one area both could stand to improve. Kleber is shooting 30 percent from beyond the arc this season. Powell is sitting at a meager 23 percent.
That begs the question, if all three bring something different to the table, why can’t all three play?
It is unlikely that they play at the same time, because all three play either power forward or center but we have known Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle to sport some wacky lineups. Powell and Kleber play around 36 minutes per game combined. If you take six minutes away from each and give them to Nowitzki, they would all be playing around 12 minutes per game.
This likely wouldn’t have a negative effect on the 27-year-old Powell and the 26-year-old Kleber, but it’s hard to see this benefiting Nowitzki. He’s spent the majority of his 20 year career as a starter, taking the court minutes after pregame warm-ups. A bench role means he will be sitting out for the majority of the first quarter. At his age, it may take his body a few minutes to get going.
Nowitzki acknowledged this prior to the season when asked about the possibility of a bench role by Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. “I have no problem with that,” Nowitzki said. “I already told [the training staff] if that’s the case, they better keep me loose. We better get a [stationary] bike ready somewhere because if I warm up and sit for 15, 20 minutes, that’s going to be an issue.”
The best way to utilize all three may be to use a situation-based approach.
Powell is the most well-rounded of the trio. He’s a good offensive player, and he can hold his own defensively. He likely won’t see a big drop in minutes on most nights. Being the worst shooter of the three, he’s most likely to lose minutes during games in which the Mavericks fall behind quickly and need Nowitzki’s shooting to help spark a comeback.
Nowitzki’s shooting could also have him playing with the starters in late game situations. Starting center Deandre Jordan is even less of a shooting threat than Powell and Kleber. Nowitzki has been known as a clutch performer throughout his career, and his presence at the end of games will help draw attention away from other Mavericks players.
Kleber is the best defensive option. If the Mavericks starters get out to an early lead, Kleber could help thwart a comeback attempt by the opposition. He’s likely to play more minutes when the opponent has a big man that can score off the bench (e.g. Jabari Parker in Chicago and Montrezl Harrell with the L.A. Clippers). Those players would likely give Nowitzki trouble.
Rick Carlisle is widely considered to be one of the leagues best coaches. Figuring out how to integrate the best player in Mavericks history into a role on what has been one of leagues best benches this season is a good problem to have, and it’s a problem he will welcome.