Years of playoff misery have given rise to Dirk Nowitzki as we see him today. As recently as one year ago he was being bottled up by a Spurs defense that forced the ball out of his hands while clamping off the deep shooting of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. That opening-round loss was Nowitzki's third in four years, as his Mavs had gone 10-21 in the playoffs since taking a flimsy 2-0 lead over Miami in the 2006 NBA Finals.
Now he stands one round away from returning to the Finals, and a potential rematch with the Heat. But his Game 2 loss at home Thursday vacated home-court advantage to the Thunder, whose star forward Kevin Durant is a younger and more athletic version of Nowitzki -- an exceptional shooter whose length creates mismatches.
The reason Nowitzki may yet prevail -- the reason he is more effective than ever -- is because he has flouted NBA gravity. Most big men move further away from the basket as they grow older, preferring to settle for jump shots rather than to fight for position inside. Nowitzki, at 32, has made a Hall of Fame career of betraying such conventions. He entered the league as a 7-footer with unprecedented range out to the three-point line, and as he has aged he has improved his game around the paint. He is now one of the best back-to-the-basket scorers in the league, able to back his way in, drive and scoop with either hand or hit fall-away, mid-range jumpers that recall the devastating step-back game of Larry Bird.
There was always the question of whether Nowitzki could lead a team to the championship while playing from the perimeter. It was the issue he faced for much of his career, and his style was condemned -- fairly or not -- when the Mavs lost four straight to Miami to surrender the Finals five years ago. But no one can accuse him of being a finesse "4" anymore. In an era when too many big men aren't much interested in a stodgy education in footwork and up-and-under moves, Nowitzki has steadily improved in the least attractive and most important fundamentals offensively.
It's an emphatic demonstration of his passion for the game. Now, many are commenting on how Nowitzki is suddenly showing fiery leadership of the Mavs, when in truth he's been expressing himself in this way for years. It has been a long time since he worried about confronting a teammate on the court after a mistake has been made. He isn't above arguing vehemently with referees or provoking altercations with opponents (an ongoing rivalry with the Hornets' David West is one example), and for a number of years now he has been celebrating big baskets to fire up himself and his teammates.
Few All-Stars are positioning themselves to be knocked down more often toward the end of their careers than at the beginning. Nowitzki has always had this fire in him. He and best friend Steve Nash would play and compete for hours after practice when each was trying to make his way with the Mavs more than a decade ago. When Nash left Dallas as a free agent to sign with Phoenix in 2004, Nowitzki was obviously frustrated. To this day he calls it a mistake, while wondering how many championships might have been won by a duo that owns the three MVPs awarded from 2005 to '07.
But Nash's departure also forced Nowitzki to explore his leadership skills as he continued to add depth to his game. The Mavs are now realizing his full potential. His love for the game is affirmed by his inclination to play for Germany in the Olympics or other summer championships -- something he may choose to do again after this postseason.
In this Year Of LeBron, Nowitzki may yet prove to be the most successful free agent for this season. Credit the Mavs for continuing to invest in him and a system that has evolved around his unique set of talents. Now the mission is to win at least one game in Oklahoma City, which is not beyond the range of an experienced Mavs team that led the league (alongside Miami) with 28 wins on the road this season.
NBA coaches like to say that players aren't likely to change fundamentally after a few years in the league. But that view doesn't apply to Nowitzki, who is trying to turn his 13th season into his best. He hasn't stopped improving because he hasn't been afraid to explore the hardest assignments. The game's least conventional star has complemented his three-point shooting with a post-up game that is as good as any in the world -- and that hunger to improve may be the most surprising and important of all Nowitzki's attributes.
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
"Why does everyone assume we screwed up? The only way we were going to get out from under Baron Davis' contract was to include our No. 1 pick without lottery protection."-- N.O., Los Angeles
Neil Olshey, as GM of the Clippers you probably aren't going to win this argument. Many of your rival executives are convinced you could have held out to demand some minimal level of protection that would have enabled you to hold onto a pick that turned out to be No. 1 overall in the lottery this week. Imagine adding point guard Kyrie Irving to a young team already led by Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon.
The reason you can't win the argument is because the story fits so neatly into the deplorable history of your franchise. It's part of the self-fulfilling Clippers trend, the latest in a long list of mishaps. The more you protest, the more you'll be accused of protesting too much. I guarantee that if Irving turns into a star years from now, the boiled-down story will be that the Clippers messed up once again. I'm certain it's far more complicated and nuanced than that, but you're fighting a legend of misfortune that just this week grew more legendary. In the market of public opinion, this is one that you can't win.
"Why can't people understand a joke? There's no room for irony anymore?"-- D.K., Minneapolis
David Kahn, as GM of the Timberwolves you watched Dan Gilbert's 14-year-old son, Nick, represent Cleveland as it moved ahead of Minnesota to win the lottery. With a smile you said, "This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible storylines. Last year it was Abe Pollin's widow and this year it was a 14-year-old boy and the only thing we have in common is we have both been bar mitzvahed. We were done. I told [Utah GM] Kevin [O'Connor, who finished No. 3 behind Minnesota]: 'We're toast.' This is not happening for us, and I was right."
I didn't think you were purporting that the lottery was fixed. You were making a sardonic crack about how your franchise lost out yet again on the No. 1 pick in its 14th lottery appearance. But this will help fuel suspicions that the lottery is somehow rigged by the league office to place certain players with certain teams or to reward specific franchises -- in this case to compensate Cleveland with the No. 1 pick after it lost LeBron James as a free agent to Miami last summer.
Here's the part of the conspiracy I don't understand. Am I supposed to believe that the NBA would risk destroying its reputation over something of such little importance as the draft lottery? This makes no sense to me. In order to rig the lottery, at least a few people would have to be in on it. It stands to reason that someday somebody may have reason to tell the story, which in turn would lead to lawsuits, congressional investigations and the ruination of David Stern and the $4 billion global industry he has been growing for three decades. All of that so one team can have the rights to Kyrie Irving? It makes no sense -- especially since it would anger other franchises, including the Toronto Raptors, who can claim similar (though not as expensive as Cleveland's) grievances after losing Chris Bosh.
"How do we manage expectations after winning the lottery? LeBron isn't walking through that door." -- D.G., Cleveland
Dan Gilbert, as owner of the Cavaliers this No. 1 pick provides you with an opportunity to rebuild your team to a different model. When you initially took over the Cavs, the main goal was to hold onto LeBron in order to win championships around him, and that strategy fell short. Now you have a chance to add a potential star, though he won't be as talented as the one who went away. The silver lining is your newfound commitment to a long-term approach that will revolve around several players, which goes in line with your stated goal of rebuilding the team in a healthier way that is less dependent on one player.
By the way, Irving should be your default choice. Investing in a point guard is the surest thing these days.
Via Zelimir Obradvovic. The Serbian coach of Panathinaikos is the Phil Jackson of Europe. His victory in the recent Final Four was his eighth Euroleague title in 19 seasons. He is only 51, which means he should win more championships in future.
Obradovic has often said he has no interest in moving to the NBA, and to watch him on the sideline is to believe that his vitriol wouldn't play well over here. Yet he has much in common with the best NBA coaches.
His teams are known for executing to the highest standard, which is no surprise considering Obradovic's demanding presence on the sideline. And yet his players appear to have enormous faith in him. He has a way of squeezing the best performances out of them while at the same time expressing a care for them.
He also plays to a style that is not unfamiliar to North America. Gregg Popovich has credited Obradovic's system with providing lessons for the Spurs' half-court offense. "Pick-and-roll/pop situations are as much or more prominent as in the NBA," wrote current Mavs assistant Terry Stotts after he had spent three weeks visiting with Obradovic, Ettore Messina and David Blatt, widely regarded as the top three coaches in Europe. "Coach Obradovic's team probably runs more of these than anyone."
Obradovic was a former point guard who became a head coach at age 31. In his first five years he won three Euroleague championships with Partizan Belgrade, Joventut Badalona of Spain and Real Madrid. In 1996 he coached Yugoslavia to the silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics, wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt in the final game and driving his surprisingly effective team to stay within reach of the U.S. until the final minutes of the gold medal game -- four years after the original Dream Team had trounced all comers.
Obradovic has spent the last 11 seasons with Panathinaikos of Athens, winning four European championships along the way. A long-term tenure with a single club is highly unusual in Europe, and it says a lot about the stable leadership of both Obradovic and Panathinaikos that they have remained married for such a long and successful time. But now there are rumors that the Greek owners may be willing to sell off their controlling interest, which in turn could convince Obradovic to leave. Which would mean both he and Messina, along with Blatt (who is currently coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv, which lost in the Euroleague final to Panathinaikos) -- would be on the market.
Point guards who have been drafted No. 1. If Kyrie Irving goes to Cleveland, as expected, it will be the third time in four years that the top pick was a point guard. It makes sense today, given the changes in rules that have liberated explosive athletes on the perimeter. But it used to be the rarest of all choices, as this review of the last half-century indicates.
2010 -- John Wall, 6-4, Washington Wizards
2008 -- Derrick Rose, 6-3, Chicago Bulls
1996 -- Allen Iverson, 6-0, Philadelphia 76ers
1979 -- Magic Johnson, 6-9, Los Angeles Lakers
1976 -- John Lucas, 6-3, Houston Rockets
1960 -- Oscar Robertson, 6-5, Cincinnati Royals