The phrase "pure shooter" has always struck me as slightly damning, suggesting a player who can whip anyone's butt in H-O-R-S-E might not be a complete player, and, further, might not be the guy you want to have the ball in crunch time. A pure shooter needs space and time, and you usually don't get much of either in the Finals, where, by Game 3, defenses not only have their opponent's play calls down but also most variations of them.
Therefore, I would never refer to Dirk Nowitzki as a "pure shooter," which is something that has been bandied about over the last six weeks of the Dallas Mavericks forward's remarkably productive postseason. His teammate, Jason Terry, is closer to being a pure shooter than Nowitzki since Terry's role is pretty much defined as coming into the game and purely shooting ... along with a generous output of self-celebration.
In fact, I use the term "pure shooter" very carefully. Ray Allen's shot is surely pure, but the Boston Celtics veteran will also get you a tough rebound, play hard-nosed defense and give up the ball when someone else should get it. Of modern players, I suppose that Orlando's J.J. Redick might accurately be called a pure shooter. In the past, several other names come to mind, such as Dale Ellis, Glen Rice and Dell Curry. Was Mark Price a pure shooter? Well, he had a sweet stroke but he was also a playmaker who averaged double figures in assists one season, so I hesitate to define him as such. I suppose that Craig Hodges, John Paxson and Steve Kerr all qualify as pure shooters, but what other role could they play on a team with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, where there was almost always space and time.
With the possible exception of Allen, Nowitzki towers above all the previously mentioned players. And as he prepares to do battle with the Miami Heat (and, apparently, the linebacker defense of LeBron James, who has volunteered to check the seven-foot German), Nowitzki must be branded as a
Larry Bird, for example, was a shooter, too, something I mention because the Bird-Nowitzki comparison has become obligatory, sitting there all bright and shiny, ready to be supported or debunked. Consider me a debunker. Bird was, first and most obviously, one of the greatest passers of all-time, perhaps the best ever at the one-touch re-direct whereby he found an open teammate so quickly that the teammate didn't even know he was open. Nowitzki is only an average passer. Bird was also a much better rebounder than Nowitzki, a much better defender (not a lockdown guy but a gifted passing-lane thief) and, needless to say, a much better clutch player since he was mostly terrific in five NBA Finals, three of which his Celtics won. Dirk has had only one previous attempt at a ring and shot just 39 percent from the field in the Mavs' six-game loss to the Heat in 2006 Finals.
But since Bird and Nowitzki are both outstanding perimeter players made extraordinary by their size, and they are both Caucasian with pasty complexions ... well, there you are.
At any rate, Nowitzki has all the characteristics that great shooters must have. To wit:
Could it get any more obvious? Shooters are not good because of volume, they are good because they make shots. Nowitzki is a .476 lifetime shooter (Bird finished his career at .496 in the obligatory-mention department) and Dirk has made almost 52 percent of his shots in this notable postseason.
Whereas pure shooters get to spots and earn their pay with open looks, great shooters draw so much attention that they have to move, catch on the move and then shoot in traffic. Nowitzki is at a distinct advantage since his height enables him to post up almost every defender in the league (usually just north of the free-throw line), and he's not a catch-me-if-you-can jitterbug around screens as was, say, Reggie Miller.
But so what? Dirk catches it in congestion and does something with it, backing down his defender (in the obligatory-mention department, he resembles Bird in this respect) and releasing a shot that is virtually unblockable.
Any shooter has to take it deep to be truly dangerous. Nowitzki is hitting an absurd percentage (.516) of his threes in this postseason and his .381 lifetime mark is terrific, better even than the .376 posted by you-know-who in the obligatory-mention department.
There's no use being a great shooter if the defense will put you on the line late in the game. Nobody wants to foul Nowitzki, a career .877 shooter from the line who, going into the Miami series, has nice round-number stats for this postseason -- he has made 130 of 140 for a percentage of .929. In other words, Miami, do not foul this guy. (Obligatory mention: Bird was a .886 career free-throw shooter and never seemed to miss when it mattered.)
Just as a golfer has a better chance of succeeding on the 72nd hole of a tournament if his swing is grooved, so does a shooter increase his chances of thriving when his technique is consistent. Nowitzki looks like he's going to make everything every time, the squared-up body, the perfect alignment between elbow and wrist, the high release. (Obligatory mention: Bird's shot always looked good, too, but not as good as Dirk's.)
This is what Nowitzki still has to prove, obviously, unlike the obligatory-mention guy who did it time after time. If Nowitzki was nothing more than a pure shooter, I wouldn't give Dallas a chance against Miami, but he has taken his game to a different level in this postseason and shown the ability to win games almost by himself.
In the end, though, I see the Heat prevailing over the Mavs. Nowitzki will have a productive Finals, even with LeBron heavy-breathing all over him, but it won't be enough. And if that turns out to be true, don't consider the Mavs' defeat purely the fault of this guy, who is so much more than a pure shooter.