Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Requiem for Dirk

Weekend losses to China and the U.S. ended the Olympic dream for Dirk Nowitzki, but before we forget about the German team completely I wanted say a few words about Dirk Nowitzki, who has been remarkable over the last couple of months in dragging the overmatched German team into the Olympics and trying to keep them competitive.

As mostly an NBA fan, I'm conditioned to think of international basketball as an inconsequential summer diversion, so I don't always fully appreciate the enthusiasm with which international players such as Nowtzki, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Yao Ming, Jorge Garbajosa, etc. approach international competitions. But watching Dirk Nowitzki recently, it's obvious how important these games are to him, and seeing him struggle through double and triple-teams and still perform admirably was both wonderful and frustrating -- the frustrating part was seeing his mostly overmatched teammates bumble away easy opportunities created by Dirk's presence (Chris Kaman had some nice games, but also some completely boneheaded stretches. Meanwhile, Demond Greene mostly played quite well but his influence is limited).

I'm not really into "who's the best player in the world" conversations, but I do find it disappointing that Dirk Nowizki's name is never even mentioned -- not only is he not considered for that particular title, but instead every tall European player with a jumpshot who comes along is compared, prematurely, to Dirk (I'm looking at you, Bargnani and Gallinari). The truth is, finding the next Nowitzki is just as futile as finding the next Kevin Garnett, and we really ought to enjoy his prime without trying to compare him to anyone who's come before (he's not Larry Bird, he's not Glenn Robinson) or compare young players to him (the probability that Kevin Durant or Bargnani or Gallinari will do what Dirk's done are slim). Despite the fact that he's a European player, we need to be able to just enjoy that he's utterly unique, both in the NBA and internationally, and appreciate what he brings to the game.

Because of the whole Euro thing and the back-to-back playoff losses to Miami and Golden State, it's been easy recently to criticize Nowitzki as being soft or unable to come through in big moments. I don't want to comment on those particular criticisms, they might well be valid, but it's worth pointing out how well Nowitzki's performed in these international competitions that are extremely important to him, even as the team he's played on has been unable and unequipped to play at the level necessary to win.

Nowitzki's signature shot has been the mid-range fade-away, and, metaphorically and aesthetically, this seems damning -- is there anything less agressive than a 7-footer fading away from the basket? In fact, over the last three years Dirk has taken almost twice as many fade-aways as any other player in the league (he has taken 454, no one else has taken more than 250). However, in that same time period, he's made almost 59% of those fade-away shots, which is about what Dwight Howard, a very agressive offensive player, makes of all of his shot attempts. The fade-away may look less agressive, but in terms of efficiency Nowitzki is not losing anything by taking that shot, and his slightly mechanical herky-jerky approach to it has its own beauty if we care to pay attention.

Other Olympic notes:

There's a two part preview of the men's quarterfinals at The Painted Area. Link to Part I and Part II.

I just noticed these diaries by Lisa Leslie. I found them to be entertaining reads. For instance, you find out there that Diana Taurasi is a great badminton player, and then there's this:

(Carlos) Boozer doesn't get in the game a lot, but I like him, he's cool. I just met his wife yesterday, you know we're all staying at the same hotel. She had to use my hot curlers because hers blew because she didn't have the right adapter. So I let her use mine, she brought them back and mine were blown. But I'm not going to tell anybody - though she does owe me another set of hot curlers.

Also, I've been noticing that when watching international basketball, I find myself rooting for my favorite league more than I do any particular country. So I found this post to be pretty well put together. Here's a taste:

Seeing Dwyane Wade throw off-balance alley-oops to Kobe, or watching LeBron conquer a gauntlet of defenders for a layup, or looking on as Chris Paul has made it impossible to put the ball on the floor near him has exclusively appealed to my pride as an NBA citizen. Unlike my national ambivalence, I experience no pangs of loathing or deep resentment when I consider the NBA. Instead, I have affectionately looked on as the only team comprised solely of NBA personnel has dominated by playing the NBA brand of basketball, our brand. For a league that has often endured reputational punishments that exceed the severity of its crimes—with international basketball often serving as a catalyst for the excessive consternation—this has, thus far, been sweet vindication.

I don't completely agree with the fully formed NBA-ism espoused there, but I think it's fair to say that any problems I might have with the league from time to time are internal and not external (ie, they do not come from a comparison to another league that seems to be better), and arise from an investment in the league that I'm not willing to let go. In this interview, Jim Lampley tells Lebron James and Kobe Bryant that the style of play of Team USA is "greatly at odds with the one-on-one isolations or the constant pick-and-roll that we see in the NBA." He goes on to ask, "Is there a lesson here for what could happen [in the NBA]?" Mostly, this sounds like it's coming from someone who hasn't paid attention to the NBA in several years and also hasn't been watching the other national teams in the international competitions (Greece, for instance, is a pick-and-roll team). I think, though, that the comment is also the opposite of what I've described -- it's a clinging to the ideology that the NBA has become an inferior brand of basketball, an ideology that has reached a widespread enough status that it has its own momentum and (apparently) need not be backed up with any evidence.

Finally, I was out of town for the last few days, but I'm back now, and I'll do my best to post regularly now that I'm around.

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