Smashing The Mold

Led by unique forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs are defying convention and dominating the NBA
Led by unique forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs are defying convention and dominating the NBA
December 02, 2002

Dirk Nowitzki plays like a little guy in a 7-footer's body. In a league of musclebound physiques he has stubbornly maintained a lithe, unsculpted frame reminiscent of the gloriously free-flowing 1980s, when skill and creativity were valued over brawn and athleticism. Each time Nowitzki peaks while launching his unstoppable jumper, his heels kick out as if he were wearing Baryshnikov's slippers instead of size 15 1/2 Nikes.

It's a good thing the 24-year-old Nowitzki is comfortable ignoring stereotypes. Basketball tradition held that he was unlikely to become an NBA star because he had played to little notice for a second-division club in Germany. Conventional thinking also held that his team, the Dallas Mavericks, was a bunch of soft and undisciplined three-point shooters who would never amount to much. At week's end, however, Nowitzki's team-high 22.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game had helped carry Dallas to a 13--0 record. Traditionalists should take note: Only a trio of clubs has won more games out of the box, and all three--the 1957--58 Boston Celtics (14--0), 1948--49 Washington Capitols (15--0) and 1993--94 Houston Rockets (15--0)--advanced to the Finals.

After giving up 115 dunks or layups to the Sacramento Kings out of 207 field goals during a five-game loss in the Western Conference semifinals last May, the Mavericks decided to make defense a priority this season. But even when they try to follow convention, they do it unconventionally. They've relied more than half of the time on their zone defenses (nine variations and counting), anchored by 7'6" center Shawn Bradley. While there's no telling how far they can go without the customary emphasis on man-to-man--"Nobody's ever tried it this way before," says Dallas coach Don Nelson, who is taking advantage of rules changes put in place last year--through Sunday the Mavs had limited opponents to 89.1 points per game (10th best in the league) on 40.7% shooting (fourth). Last season Dallas allowed an average of 101.0 points (28th) on 45.2% shooting (19th).

The best way to beat a zone is to push the pace, and that plays into the Mavericks' strength. Although they may resemble no other team on D, they are unselfish and fundamentally sound on offense, which makes them deadly in the open court. "We play the game the way it was meant to be played, with a style that's entertaining and very hard to stop," says point guard Steve Nash. In fact, assistant coach Del Harris argues, by molding an offensively gifted unit into a defensive-minded one, Dallas is following the recent championship model of the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. "Had Nellie done it any other way, we wouldn't be where we are," Harris says. "If you draft the 12 best defensive players, your team will never win because what separates the winning teams from the others is that the teams at the bottom can't score."

As promising as the early returns have been, the Mavericks, in another departure from the norm, refuse to beat their chests. Nowitzki was fifth in the league in boards at week's end, yet he says, "I wouldn't call myself a great rebounder." Harris points out that Nowitzki was also averaging 1.46 steals--a high number for a 7-footer--and describes him as "a great zone defender on the wing and much improved in man-to-man." At that Nowitzki laughs, lowers his head as if he might blush and replies, "I wouldn't call myself a great defender."

Much of the credit for Nowitzki's development and humility--he's had the same two-bedroom apartment since his rookie year--can be traced to a vibrant 56-year-old from Bad Nauheim, Germany. Holger Geschwindner paid a visit last Saturday to Dallas, where he watched Nowitzki rain 29 points on the Seattle SuperSonics in the Mavericks' come-from-behind 115--105 victory. A former member of the German national team, the 6'4" Geschwindner has been coaching Nowitzki for eight years, and Geschwindner's idiosyncratic training methods have shaped his charge's career as surely as Richard Williams's have shaped Venus's and Serena's. "Without him I wouldn't be where I am," Nowitzki says. "He taught me how to shoot, how to move, how to play. I owe him everything. He is like a second dad."

When Dallas realized after last season's playoffs that its defense had to improve, Geschwindner had a white fencing uniform custom-made for Nowitzki and arranged for him to cross swords with a German champion. Explains Geschwindner, "Fencers always have to be 100 percent on the defensive before they can go on the offensive."

Several days a week during the off-season Geschwindner, who runs a project management company, skips lunch to meet his protege for a 90-minute session at a small gym in Rattelsdorf, an hour's drive for Nowitzki from his parents' home in Wurzburg. On command from Geschwindner, Nowitzki will repeatedly rise from one knee to full height for a sequence of foul-line jumpers. He will complete a pair of cheerleader-style splits, his joints crackling like exploding walnut shells. While standing on his hands, he will walk half the court while Geschwindner holds on to his ankles to keep him from falling. The drills may seem outlandish, but they are grounded in common sense and help develop Nowitzki's skills and balance. "Everything they do has a purpose," Nelson says of Nowitzki and Geschwindner.

Last summer Nowitzki spent many of his workouts shooting, pivoting and leaping while wearing a 22-pound black vest. Over the next three years Geschwindner wants him to add 20 pounds of muscle to his 240-pound frame; the heavy vest is meant to prepare the ankles, knees and spine for the additional weight to come. "First he develops the technique he needs in order to carry the weight, and then he will add the weight," Geschwindner says. "In the States they do it the other way: They increase strength without the technique." He believes that the NBA's infatuation with muscles is responsible for many injuries. Nowitzki looks like a taller Larry Bird because Geschwindner has stubbornly fought coaches and trainers who have wanted him to bulk up in the weight room.

Nowitzki's rare hoops education came by accident. He was a 16-year-old, 6'10" small forward for the Wurzburg X-Rays when Geschwindner recognized his potential and offered to train him once a week. "The first thing Holger said was, 'You're going to finish high school,'" recalls Nowitzki, who was so uninterested in academics that he had thought about dropping out. Geschwindner arranged for tutors in math and chemistry. When Nowitzki didn't feel like practicing, Geschwindner would pull out a chess board and teach him how to think. "If you want to be a good player," he would tell Nowitzki, "you have to learn how to learn."

Geschwindner believed he would need five years to turn the teenage prospect into a player, but it took half that time, culminating in Nowitzki's being selected ninth in the 1998 NBA draft. In return for coaching him and negotiating Nowitzki's contracts and endorsements, Geschwindner would seem entitled to the agent's standard 4% of the $79 million, six-year deal Nowitzki signed in October 2001. But Nowitzki pays Geschwindner little more than expenses. "I want to give him something, but he doesn't want to take it," Nowitzki says.

Why does Geschwindner put in so much time and effort training Nowitzki? "I'm having fun," he says. "I get to work with a player who listens to me and learns from me. I'm doing what I want to do in a field I love."

Much as Nowitzki probably would have been typecast as a center had he come to play high school ball in the U.S.--a path the power forward almost chose before meeting Geschwindner--so might his development have been stunted had he joined any team other than the Nelson-coached Mavericks. During his five years in Dallas, Nowitzki has experienced little impatience from coaches or jealousy from teammates. On the contrary, 6'7" swingman and team captain Michael Finley encouraged Nowitzki to supplant him as the team's leading scorer. Accordingly, Nowitzki has grown into a constant double-double threat and a nightly mismatch regardless of the opponent. Double-team him, and he will whip a cross-court pass to one of his skilled teammates, who had helped Dallas pour in a league-high 103.9 points per game at week's end despite injuries to 6'11" Raef LaFrentz (sprained right ankle) and backup point guard Nick Van Exel (right knee surgery). Both LaFrentz and Van Exel are expected to return in early December.

The Mavericks' perfect start has the rest of the league wondering how far they can go. Scouts point out that teams playing against a zone tend to settle for jump shots during the regular season but are likely to attack with more urgency and effectiveness when the playoffs come. Zone teams generally have trouble switching back to a hard-nosed man-to-man, but Nelson, Finley and Nash argue that their zone is based on man principles, that every Mav is accountable for stopping the player in his area and that the discipline and switching involved will only enhance Dallas's man D. "Bradley has had a big effect, because the Mavs know if there's a breakdown, there's a seven-six guy back there," says Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen. "They've shown confidence in him, and he's responded. They have a nice marriage right now."

Another question is whether Nowitzki is ready to carry Dallas to the Finals, a demand placed on virtually every superstar. The truth is, the Mavericks could contend--could be the real thing--even if Nowitzki weren't their leader every night. That responsibility already is shared by Finley (20.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game at week's end) and Nash (18.5 points, 7.8 assists), who with Nowitzki form what team president Donn Nelson calls a "leadership triad" and what the rest of the league refers to as the Big Three.

The synergy of that group was apparent against Seattle. While Nowitzki missed his first eight shots, partly because of a stiff right Achilles tendon, which he had been icing all day, Finley (29 points), Nash (27) and veteran forward Walt Williams (18) each took a turn slowing down the Sonics, setting them up for Nowitzki to finish them off. He did just that, knocking down his last five attempts to conclude Dallas's comeback from a 16-point deficit. It marked only the third time this season that an opponent had scored 100 points against the Mavs.

Don Nelson had watched his 7-footer's closing flurry from his office after being ejected early in the fourth quarter. "Hey, Nowitzki," said Nelson as they passed each other in a hallway afterward, "can't you make a basket when I'm coaching?" Nowitzki responded with a smile. Consider it just another break from tradition.