- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here’s a little secret about Dirk Nowitzki: He’s pretty proud of the defender that he’s developed into.
Nowitzki has made countless self-deprecating comments about his defense over the course of his career, but the truth is he’s a heck of a lot better on that end of the floor than his reputation.
“I like to think that I’m a decent team defender,” Nowitzki said.
The numbers indicate he’s being modest.
The Mavs are a much better defensive team with Nowitzki in the lineup. His defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 101.8 this season is the second lowest on the roster among players who average at least 15 minutes per game, well below the Mavs’ overall rating of 104.4. Dallas’ defensive rating soars to 109.2 when Nowitzki is on the bench.
Not a big enough sample size? Nowitzki had Dallas’ best defensive rating (100.2) during the 2010-11 title season and has been at least a point below the team average in four of the last five years, with last season the exception with him coming off of knee surgery.
“Over the last few years, he’s been one of the most influential plus-minus guys,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “People always assume it’s because of his offense, but it’s because of defense as well.”
Nowitzki has never had the athletic gifts required to be a defensive stopper, and he admits that he’s even a little slower at the age of 35. But he’s still 7 feet tall, has a masterful knowledge of the Mavs’ defensive schemes and prepares diligently for opponents.
“I was never the quickest, fastest,” Nowitzki said. “Lateral movement is not the best. I like to think that I’m smart, that I use my brain on defense.
“I like to think that I can play some tendencies. I just read my scouting report. If I know that a guy likes to go 80 percent right, then I try to play that. If he does score on me going left a couple of times, then I’ll live with the percentages. I just try to be a smart defender and help the best that I can.”
The numbers actually indicate that Nowitzki has been a very good individual defender this season.
According to Synergy Sports, Nowitzki has allowed 0.81 points per possession when his man attempts to score, ranking 92nd in the NBA in that category. Opponents are shooting only 38 percent against him. And those numbers dipped significantly after a rough outing in Saturday’s loss to the Phoenix Suns on the tail end of a back-to-back.
Synergy’s analytics ranks Nowitzki as the NBA’s sixth most successful defender on post-ups (0.53 points per possession, 33.3 field goal percentage) and four most successful isolation defender (0.44, 20.8). Granted, Nowitzki usually defends the lesser scoring threat of the opponent’s center and power forward, but those numbers are still impressive nonetheless.
“I like to think that I can hold my ground a little better now than when I first got in the league,” Nowitzki said. “When I first got in the league, I wasn’t strong enough in my upper body to hold my ground. But I feel like I can hold my ground better and stand in there and obviously use my length. I don’t need to jump for shots. I’m not going to block a lot of shots on the ball anyway, so I try to use my length. Sometimes if they present the ball to me, I try to swipe it and get some deflections.
“It is what it is.”
It's a lot better than you thought, right?
Nowitzki’s defense has been a punchline since he broke into the league. How many Irk jokes -- no D -- have you heard? That perception hasn’t been reality for several years.
3dMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon