Dirk Nowitzki was a poor defender early in his career. After gaining some strength and experience in the NBA, Nowitzki improved into an average or slightly below-average defender. In his prime, Dirk used his length and instincts to avoid being a liability on the defensive end and to help his Mavericks teams win games.
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Dirk Nowitzki on Defense: Stats
Instead of relying on hazy memories, we can use advanced stats to look back on how good players from the past really were. Advanced stats have their limits. They are strong at measuring offense but less so at measuring defense. Even still, advanced statistics can give us an unbiased and clear look at players from the past.
When you look into what advanced stats say about Dirk Nowitzki, it is pretty clear that he was not a great defensive player. Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.
Despite having an incredibly successful 21 year career, Dirk only ranks highly in one defensive category. Even that, defensive win shares, is likely impacted by the length of Nowitzki’s career. Dirk ranks at the bottom of the top 250 in most categories and out of the list in one.
Individual Skill Defensive Stats
A general belief in using statistics to scout players’ defensive abilities is that good players will get their share of blocks and steals. Sometimes an outlier great defensive player, like John Stockton, will get one but not the other. But DIrk did not get many of either.
Nowitski finished out of the all-time top 250 in steal percentage at 1.2%.
He did make the top 250 in block % at 1.9% but his ranking, 150th, was much lower than one would expect of a 7-foot forward if that player was great, or even good, on defense. John Stockton could not block NBA shots, but great 7-foot defenders should be able to.
Another thing great 7-foot defenders do is grab rebounds. Dirk was okay at this, but, again, not great. His rebound percentage of 21.90% left him 85th on the all- time list. Again, for a player whose unique characteristic was length, this is not outstanding.Embed from Getty Images
Overall Advanced Defensive Statistics
Nowitski’s best advanced defensive statistic is defensive win shares, a complicated stat that tries to measure how much a player contributed to his team while on the floor. Dirk’s high ranking, 25th all time with 62.6 DWS, is influenced in part by his long playing career.
The other big-picture advanced defensive stats are not as kind to Dirk. Defensive box plus/minus is an attempt to gauge how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to league averages.
Dirk finished with a .35 rating barely sneaking into the top 250 all time. This stat essentially says he was a league average defender, which seems about right for him – at least once he gained some experience.
In defensive rating, DIrk ended his career with a 104 rating ranked 186th all time in the category. Interestingly, Dirk finished with a near-identical career defensive rating to a player who is a pretty good comp for him in terms of their career styles: Magic Johnson.
Both Dirk and Magic were offensive wizards with outlier size for their positions. But both struggled with defense early in their careers before becoming better defenders as their careers progressed. Magic became the better defender while Dirk simply became passable.
Ultimately, Dirk’s career defensive stats are not horrible by any means but they are not great either. Dirk didn’t get too many steals nor could he block shots too well for a big man, but he got some rebounds on D and his overall stats say ended up being close to average.
Dirk Nowitzki on Defense: The Eye Test
Dirk Nowitzki never had a reputation for good defense. He never made a single All-NBA Defensive team and was seemingly never considered for one.
Dirk entered the league as the 9th pick in the 1998 draft from Germany. Like most teenagers entering the NBA, his early years were marked by struggle. In Dirk’s case, defense was his biggest struggle. He got the nickname Irk – as in no D – during these early years.
As his career progressed Irk, I mean Dirk, identified and worked on the weaknesses that held him back. First among the things holding Nowitzki back on defense was a lack of lateral quickness.
Dirk never had the quickness to deal with elite NBA athletes. While he worked at improving this, there is only so much one can do to improve lateral quickness. This never got too much better.
But a big area of improvement for Nowitzki was strength. Given his 7-foot height, one would think he’d be able to shut down smaller forwards. But in his early years, many of those grown men forwards were able to bully him. As Dirk got stronger he was better able to use his length to shut down smaller forwards.
In addition to getting stronger, Dirk’s experience in the league made him a better defender as well. As he became a veteran, Nowitzki used his anticipation and smarts to improve his defense.
Dirk paired these qualities with a better reliance on scouting reports to improve his positional defense. When he was better positioned, Dirk was better able to use his one big advantage on defense: length.
Dirk was always a decent defensive rebounder. He was not amazing at crashing the defensive boards but it was always one of his better skills. He finished in the top 20 in the league in defensive rebounds ten times in his career.
By the end of his career Dirk believed he had improved a ton saying, “I like to think that I’m a decent team defender,”. In that same article, Dirk’s coach Rick Carlisle defends Dirk’s defense saying people were assigning way too much credit for his strong plus/minus numbers to his offense when his team defense was a part of the story as well.
Was Dirk Nowitzski better than Larry Bird on defense?Embed from Getty Images
Dirk and Larry were of different eras but a superficial look at the players might see them as similar: tall, white forwards known as amazing shooters. But a look deeper at their games shows real differences.
One area where this shows up is on defense. Larry Bird was a much better defender than Dirk Nowitzski. Unlike Dirk, Bird has a strong statistical defensive profile. In every category discussed in this article except defensive win shares, Bird has the better statistics. And even win shares is close to tied.
Bird was voted all-NBA second team defense 3 times in his career and was widely viewed as a strong defender in his younger years. While it may seem they shared a lack of lateral quickness, Larry Legend was quicker in his early years than many remember.
While Dirk was considered a very poor defender early in his career and progressed into decent, Bird was considered a really good defender early in his career whose injuries left him less able to defend as well later in his career. Bird was clearly the better defensive player.
Dirk Nowitzki on Defense: Summary
Dirk Nowitzki was labeled Irk early in his career for his lack of defense. But he improved as his career progressed and eventually Dirk was better able to use his length to contribute on defense by being in better position more often. Nowitzki peaked as an adequate defender who was no longer a defensive liability for his teams.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.