Smashing The Mold Led by unique forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs are defying convention and dominating the NBA

Dec. 02, 2002
Dec. 02, 2002

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Dec. 2, 2002

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Smashing The Mold Led by unique forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs are defying convention and dominating the NBA

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.

This is an article from the Dec. 2, 2002 issue Original Layout

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

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

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [T of C] DRIVE-BY SHOOTER Dirk Nowitzki and the streaking Mavs will try toblow past the Bulls this weekend (page 60).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PA-NASH Point guard Nash typifies the Mavs' attack: acrobatic andentertaining, but also unselfish and fundamentally sound.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH GRAND TEUTON Nowitzki's better board work, along with his scoringinside and out, has him averaging a double double.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BIG D IN BIG D Thanks to the Mavs' myriad zone defenses, the 7'6", 265-pound Bradley has had an elevated role.COLOR PHOTO: NORBERT SCHMIDT (TOP) HOMESCHOOLED Geschwindner (with Nowitzki last summer) devised odd techniques to mold Dirk (left, at age 19) into an All-Star.COLOR PHOTO: ANDREAS-RENTZ/BONGARTS [See caption above]