Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Metrics, and You


If you pay attention to NBA news, you’re probably aware that, following Dirk’s mammoth game 1 against the Thunder, Bill Simmons recently put forth the notion that Dirk Nowitzki might in fact belong higher on his Pantheon of Basketball Godhood than Larry Bird, or, failing that, may wind up ranked there posthumously by stat-geeks because the metrics syndicate loves Dirk.  Following Bill’s podcast about the subject Dave Berri and Neil Payne each blogged a stat-heavy post about the subject.

This brings up all kinds of interesting issues for you and I as basketball fans.  Racially motivated player comparisons, inter-generational ranking conundrums, the strengths and weaknesses of various metrics, and the mythos of player history vs. the reality of what he does or did.

Here’s how we break it down:

1. Racially motivated player comparisons – Dirk has had to bear the brunt of Larry Bird comparisons since his entrance into the NBA for two reasons – they are both great shooters from all ranges who have that perfect form with the really high release, and they are both white.  Other than that, their games aren’t really that similar.

Nowitski is a 7 foot power forward who can’t really play any other positions.  He’s too slow and stiff to play the small forward, and he’s too weak and high-waisted to play center.  Bird was a 6′ 9″ forward who was equally adept working for rebounds against power forwards or running around screens with small forwards, but being something of a tweener he also had no natural matchup defensively and spent a lot of time roaming in passing lanes instead of defending a man.

Dirk is a hugely efficient jump shooter with a nice mid-post game and the ability to drive right against just about any big.  Bird was a playmaker who could also work the post, come off screens, or step out and shoot from deep.  Bird’s scoring skillset in a lot of ways is more like a Paul Pierce or Kevin Durant than a Dirk Nowitski.  No, he didn’t have the same level of ball-handling or explosiveness, but like those two small forwards, he was very creative and versatile in the ways he would get his shots.

Overall the comparison feels a little forced.

2. Inter-generational ranking conundrums – I could go on for thousands of words about how different the game is in terms of the level of physicality (there was no flagrant, no handcheck foul, no automatic tech for the headshot, no must stay on bench in altercation rule, etc.), the overall athleticism (WAY better now), the number of players, the average skill level, etc. and we’ll touch on some of those things in the stats, but the biggest thing to me in generational gap is the conditioning and technology changes.  In Bird’s day they were athletic basketball players.  They are now professional athletes who play basketball.  The understanding of proper nutrition and rest, the weight training, the pain medications and injury treatments, all of it leads to much higher levels of fitness.  On top of that there’s superior shoe technology, team planes instead of coach flights, pressure sleeves, mouth guards, flexible braces, padded undershirts, awesome headbands, and sweet sunglasses style goggles… we’ve come a long way from canvas Converse and mustaches.  So the question becomes: what would Dirk be with nothing but Converse and a mustache OR what would Bird be with a pair of Jordans on his feet, a sculpted physique, and non-mangled fingers?  We don’t know, but it’s worth wondering.

3. Metrics – I’m only going to look at 3 metrics here:

PER loves a guy who shoots a lot when he has the ball, especially when he makes a high percentage of those shots.  Advantage Dirk.  There is a generational component to this as well as a team component.  Superstars have a higher usage now, particularly perimeter scorers, than they used to.  It’s a strategic dynamic as well as an issue of expansion sucking up total team talent and causing a certain amount of parity (until Danny Ainge and LeBron James undo it).  But mostly it’s just that Bird passed a lot more than Dirk.  (Hint – that’s going to be a common theme here).

Win Share loves efficient scoring and lack of turnovers, and it is especially enamored of guys who get points from three point land and the foul line.  That’s Dirk.  He is not a big passer or dribbler, so he’s rarely in a position to produce turnovers.  He makes plenty of three pointers, something that virtually no one in the ’80s did simply because the shot wasn’t seen as the weapon it is today.  He gets to the line plenty for a guy who doesn’t play low post or drive a lot.  Players who operated at the elbow extended in the ’80s, like Bird, did not get to the line very much.  As we’ve discussed before, Bird shot better than LeBron James in every percentage category, FG%, 3PT%, and FT%, but because LeBron gets to the line SO much more, most metrics consider him the more efficient scorer.  That’s tough on Larry for two reasons.  It’s easier for perimeter scorers to get to the line now because of rules changes, and the pass that sets up a teammate going to the line isn’t counted in assists (unless it’s an and 1 opportunity), so even though he might have impacted team free throws heavily, he gets no statistical credit for that.

Statistical Plus / Minus loves versatility and defensive stats.  Bird dominates in these factors.  Larry’s one of the few guys ever who could get 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 6+ assists every game for multiple seasons and wrack up steals at the same time.  But of course Dirk plays in a slower tempo age where teams don’t make as many risky passes, so fewer steals per possession are available, and as a big man rather than a rover, he doesn’t really have the opportunity to jump passing lanes as often anyway.

The point is that every metric has its particular strong suits and weak points, and the real separation point between the two players stands out in which metrics favor each player.  Metrics that are pro-free throw and anti-turnover are going to favor Dirk, whose game and circumstances put him in position to get to the line with regularity and rarely give the ball away.  Metrics that prefer a player who creates points for others with the assist and gobbles up extra possessions with steals are going to favor Bird, whose game and circumstances positioned him to wrack up big assist numbers and take away plenty of steals.

This reminds me somewhat of our discussion about efficiency vs. versatility where we highlighted Reggie Miller against Clyde Drexler… except of course Bird’s both efficient and versatile while Dirk is merely impossibly efficient.

4. Myths vs. reality is as true of current players as it is of retired legends.

The myth of Bird is that he was an unathletic small forward who willed the ball into the basket in every big game with nothing but heart and brains and had eyes in the back of his head.  The reality is that he was a highly coordinated athlete with decent quickness for a 6′ 9″ forward.  Bird got his shots in a variety of ways, using screens, posting up, off the dribble, as both the handler and screener in the pick and roll, but he was probably more valuable on his team as the offensive coordinator who kept everyone in position in their plays – the type of player coordination that allowed him to make blind passes to areas of the court where he knew his teammates would be.

The myth of Dirk is that he’s a soft Euro forward who plays like a 7 foot guard.  Dirk is a player whose whole game revolves around drawing contact at the elbow.  He’s a physical rebounder as well.  Defensively, he ALWAYS matches up against big men and is not afraid to lay wood.  His scoring is about the jab step, the one foot fadeaway, catch shoot from deep and on the pick and pop, and driving right against slow defenders.  His passing is simple but effective, and what assists he gets tend to come on kick outs when an extra defender jumps him on the pick and pop or drop off passes to cutters when he sets a brush screen from the high post.  He’s genuinely more like an older Karl Malone than Toni Kukoc.

So what’s our conclusion?  Mostly that these two players aren’t nearly as comparable as they may superficially appear (I’ll talk about how that’s true of Jordan and Kobe too someday).  But also that Bird is still the better player.  The difference is scoring efficiency that favors Dirk just doesn’t offset the huge edge that Bird has in playmaking.  Passing was always a point of separation between Bird and the other great scorers of his generation like King, Dantley, Aguire, and English, and it is the gap between him and Dirk as well.  However, going back to the Karl Malone comparison for Dirk, the big German definitely has the edge in longevity.  Because he’s been relatively healthy (did you know Bird messed his backup pouring a concrete driveway… multi-millionaire GOAT candidate cuts his career short laying concrete… you can’t make this stuff up), and his 7 foot frame makes his jumper unguardable whether he loses a step or not, Dirk’s had a very productive career for a long time and looks like he could keep going without much let up.  So those who value extended greatness of nearly unmatched peak years, may actually favor Dirk.  But those people are wrong.

7 Responses to “Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Metrics, and You”

  1. High Above Courtside Says:

    #1 Pour 1 to 1.5 ounces of tequila into a shot glass. I prefer at least 2 oz in a water galss

    #2 Cut a lemon or lime into quarters. Lime is the most popular citrus fruit to be used with a shot of tequila, however I prefer lemons.

    #3 Lick the skin where your thumb and forefinger connect. Sprinkle salt where you licked. Some people will lick the skin where their forearm meets their hand by the thumb, and sprinkle the salt there. It’s a personal choice. Certain individuals have a natural pocket in that area, which makes for a convenient place to pour the salt.

    #4 Lick the salt.

    #5 Drink the shot or amount of tequila in the water glass

    #6 Suck on the lemon or lime wedge. This process is known as “lick it, slam it, suck it,” and is widely popular. It seems to be designed to take away from the horrible taste and aftertaste of many of the inexpensive tequilas, hence the nickname “training wheels” for this type of shot.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      I never liked salt and tequila. I guess that’s just me.

      Jason Palumbo

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. High Above Courtside Says:

    Actually I’m with you—I just assumed that you did. Straight out of a water glass—-or better yet straight out of the bottle is my preferred method when imbibing.

    I continue to get

    High Above Courtside

  3. High Above Courtside Says:

    Part of Celtic folklore is that Pitino really wanted to draft Dirk, but the Mav’s grabbed him just before the Celt’s pick. Rick drafted Pierce—and I got no complaints—

    The skills comparison in some repects can be argued. But Basketball IQ–it is Larry hands down.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      What’s sad is how many teams could, probably, have traded for Dirk. I mean, if the Bucks were willing to dump him for Tractor Trailer (RIP), then how about a proven player or a serious young up and comer? Couldn’t we have drafted Pierce and traded Toine for Dirk?

  4. High Above Courtside Says:

    I’m not sure the money would have matched up. Antoine was in a $100mm contract at the time and Dirk was on rookie contracts. Intetresting thought though

  5. dr.dirk Says:

    Go Dirk, i love you and Dalas


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