In this series, I’ll take a look at modern superstars and examine how their clubs’ wins and losses rose and fell over time with the presence and absence of their aces. As much as I love comparing and discussing players’ individual statistics and their advanced impact stats, the only reason I do so is to try to figure out which players affect their teams’ fortunes in the most significant and positive ways.
What I’ve decided to do with It’s All About The W’s is stop looking too closely at superstars’ stats and start looking closely at their teams’ records with and without them in the lineups. Michael Jordan won 6 titles in the 90’s, but in the middle two seasons during his first retirement the Bulls never reached 57 wins (their least amount during his 6 title runs) or even the third round of the playoffs; that’s significant. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, yet the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs the year before or after his career, plus he was injured during one of those two non-title playoffs; that’s significant.
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I’ll be using that same logic to examine today’s stars and how their clubs improved (or didn’t) with their presence. The stats are great, but if they don’t correspond with more wins, then what’s their value? Obviously I’ll have to consider how many games someone is missing when making these comparisons; if a player has missed only 4 games in his career, not much information can be gleaned from how his team did without him. Another important consideration is injuries to fellow teammates and the context of the games; if someone is out at the same time as another important starter while they club is sleepwalking through April games because playoff position has already been locked up, that will be noted and considered.
Without further ado, here’s It’s All About The W’s: Dirk Nowitzki.
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First two years (98-99 to 99-00)
Nowitzki was drafted by Milwaukee in 1998 before being traded to Dallas later that night for the late Robert Traylor (the Bucks had to include another first rounder, Pat Garrity, to get the Mavericks to bite). It’s important to look at the situation Dirk was walking into at that point. The Mavericks were just coming off of a 20-62 (.244) season, the latest of a string of 7 seasons out of 8 in which the team won less than 29 games (94-95’s record of 36-46 was the lone outlier).
Nowitizki’s rookie season was also Don Nelson’s first full year coaching Dallas after he took over from Jim Cleamons 17 contests into the year before, plus the squad added a young-and-still-a-few-years-away-from-being-known Steve Nash and fourth year forward Gary Trent, who had a career year in Dirk’s rookie campaign averaging 16 ppg and 8 rpg. Nowitzki appeared in 47 of the team’s 50 games in that lockout-shortened season, playing 20 minutes per game. He started 24 of those contests, but his overall impact wasn’t very significant, although the team did improve overall, going 19-31 (.380) and a similar 9-15 mark (.375) in Dirk’s starts.
The progress of the big German took off the next year when he played in all 82 games, starting 81, and he logged the second-most minutes on the team (36 per game). His stats started to look good, finishing the year with 18 ppg, 7 rpg, and shooting 38% from distance on a club that improved significantly to 40-42 (.488), their most amount of wins in a decade. It was during the middle of this season that billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban purchased the team from Ross Perot Jr., which helped facilitate the ascent the team made during the 00’s behind Cuban’s willingness to pay good money for talent and the amenities to keep it.
Dirk’s impact on W-L’s: I’m going to say it was already noticeable, bordering on significant. Although you can’t credit any team improvements during his rookie season to him since he wasn’t playing too much, the fact the team took off the next year when the only real change to the roster was Dirk’s development and larger role shows a lot.
Next ten years (00-01 to 09-10)
The next ten years were bittersweet ones for the franchise. On the one hand, they won at least 50 games every season and were consistently in title contention. On the other hand, their post-season exploits were disappointing to the say the least, culminating in a crushing 2006 Finals loss to the Heat after leading the series 2-0 and then bowing out in the first round just ten months later after posting the league’s best record during the regular season (67-15).
Dirk has never missed a playoff game, so any examination of his team’s W-L records with and without him needs to be made using regular season data. Superficially, his stats exploded to the superstar level we now expect of him in this 10-year stretch, allowing him to play in 9 All-Star games, win the 2007 MVP award, plus he was named to one of the three All-NBA teams every season. Cuban’s money kept Dirk beside a variety of name players during this time, including an emerging Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison, Antoine Walker, Josh Howard, Juwan Howard, Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, etc.
So how did the club react when Nowitzki missed time and left the franchise in the hands of numerous other legit and fringe All-Stars? Not well. During those ten seasons, the team went 493-216 (.695) with Dirk in the lineup regardless of who else was shuffled in and out due to Dallas’ patchwork free agency plan or injuries to other players. Without big Dirk, the Mavs were 17-12 (.586). A .586 season will net you 48 wins, a total the club never sank to during that decade. Not only that, he missed at least 4 consecutive games three times in that stretch, and the team lost an inordinate amount of games right before or after two of those stretches, indicating Dallas probably couldn’t perform as well without Nowitzki at full-strength.
For the record, I checked the team’s lineup during all of those multi-game stretches without Dirk, and he was indeed the only significant player on the team who was out, so that 100-plus point drop in winning percentage is all him.
Dirk’s impact on W-L’s: I know 29 missed games isn’t a very large sample size, but his impact is still obviously significant. Not only did he improve the club from playoff to contender status with his presence, the fact they also underperformed in games he may not have been 100 percent for further proves his positively strong impact on the club’s win totals.
The Championship season (10-11)
What we saw this past year from Nowitzki and the Mavs is its own category for two very important reasons. First, he missed 9 games, easily the most in his career, and they were consecutive so we can see more clearly what his absence did to the team. Second, Dallas won the Championship, so we know how good the club was.
On December 27 against the Thunder, Dirk rolled his ankle and had to leave the win early; it was their 17th victory in 18 games, and overall the team was a blistering 24-5 at that point. With Nowitzki sidelined, however, they were a totally different club. They went 2-7, losing to good teams (Spurs, Magic), bad teams (Raptors, Bucks), and only picked up two wins by beating the hapless Cavaliers and the injured Trail Blazers at home by three. In addition, Dirk was obviously not himself right away when he returned on January 15, as Dallas went 1-3 over their next four games while he worked his way back into shape, but once he was, they won 10 in a row and 18 of 19. The Mavericks finished 57-25 and, as you already know, went on to win the franchise’s first Championship.
To clear up all these numbers, Dallas was 2-7 (.222) without Dirk, 1-3 (.250) with a getting-into-shape Dirk, and 54-15 (.783) and were Champs with a healthy Dirk. Somehow he only finished 6th in MVP voting despite that rather clear and definitive show of value.
Dirk’s impact on W-L’s: Even moreso than any other point in his career, Dirk showed his presence was extremely significant to the Mavericks’ fortunes.
Nowitzki joined a terribly run club in 1998 that didn’t know the first thing about winning. As he improved, the club improved to the point of consistently winning over 60% of their games every season, plus now they can call themselves World Champions. Cuban’s involvement obviously helped this club a lot, but keep in mind that Dirk was the only consistent piece during their 11 years of near-.700 ball.
Only one Maverick during that entire stretch played in even half as many games as Dirk’s 993; that would be Jason Terry’s distant 556. The team has consistently played worse without Dirk throughout his career, so it’s safe to say that the highlights and stats we are in awe of truly are as valuable and within the context of helping his club win as you’d hope.