Last night I had the distinct pleasure of watching my Dallas Mavericks polish off the San Antonio Spurs in Round One of the Western Conference playoffs. The Mavs won the best-of-seven series pretty decisively, this last game on the strength of the performance of their star player, Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki is a 7-foot-tall, 245-pound jump-shooting German. In that, he is both an anomaly and a harbinger of things to come for the NBA. Seven footers aren't supposed to be jump shooters. For the past several decades, the seven footers in the league have had only a handful of jobs:
1) Hang out very close to the basket.
2) Catch the ball when it is passed to you down there (if you can, you big oaf!).
3) Dunk the ball.
5) Block shots.
Big men were never supposed to do the following:
1) Dribble the ball, unless as part of a post up move.
2) Shoot the ball from more than, say, two feet outside the bucket (Shoot a three? What, are you crazy?!).
3) Shoot free throws well.
Shaquille O'Neal, although surprisingly nimble and coordinated for such a giant man (you just can't tell because relative to normal people he is still a mountain of flesh), is a prototypical big man. Tim Duncan is as well. Both men are center/forwards who use power and post moves to score. They engage in all the activities on that first list above, and none of the second. That's what they're supposed to do.
But Dirk has goofed all that up. Dirk is coordinated and can dribble and shoot free throws, but most of all his forte is the opposite of the usual big man's—he hardly ever traverses the paint, dunks even more rarely, but he nails jump shots from all over the floor. Dirk's shots from the elbow, top of the key, baseline, or three-point line are equivalent to another man's layup. The touch on his jumper is as feathery as the layers in his hair. Dirk ain't a dunker. The rare occasions when he approaches the paint, he shoots layups and works hard to get fouled in the process—and he usually does. He shoots his free throws well, too. All of this adds up to the fact that, well, he kind of plays like a girl.
Now, in the common vernacular, "playing like a girl" is meant as an insult, but I don't mean it that way. All I mean is, many of the dominant characteristics of Dirk's game are also characteristics of a female approach to basketball, which is to say, a combination of fundamentals and creativity, but not a lot of power.
Which is not to say girls don't also follow the philosophy of throwing the ball in low to a big post-up player; it's just, as in Dirk's game, there's little dunking, a lot of shots from the floor, and more brain over brawn.
And it works: Dirk's got an MVP trophy and a 2006 Western Conference title under his belt. He averages about a double-double a game. He shoots about 50% from the field, close to 90% from the free throw line. He had a great, underappreciated season this year, including a stretch of 24 games in a row in which he scored 20 points or more. He was the fourth best scorer in the NBA during this season, behind only Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant.
Dirk is the cream of a new type of NBA crop, culled not from Midwestern gyms nor from inner city hardtop, but from Europe, where they play a more girlish game, where shooting touch, free throws, and arcing three-pointers comprise the hallmarks of skill. Although Dirk is the best of the bunch, several of these types of players have made their mark in the NBA of late: Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic, and Pau Gasol, to name a few.
It's notable that the teams these Euros play for have had great success with a less traditional approach to the game. Many of them have all but thrown out the half-court strategy. The Mavs, for instance, have built their franchise around Dirk, and because he is more agile and speedy than the usual big man prototype, their transition-oriented, run-and-gun offense kicks ass. And even when they settle into a half-court set, most of the set plays involve pick-and-rolls near the top of the key, designed to get Dirk a jump shot. Similarly, even though he is 6'10", Stojakovic isn't feared for his dunking prowess but for his deft, soft three-pointers. At the same height, Turkoglu also works the three. Gasol is more traditional, playing in the paint, but he is nimble and his game is refined rather than brawny. None of these guys dunk with any particular brutishness.
Which to me means they play a different game, one that we haven't seen before in the NBA, at least not quite like this. But we have seen it before—in the women's game.
So my point is this: As more teams discover Euro-talent, and as more teams gear their strategy to play to the strength of their Euro players, does this mean that the NBA actually is listing toward a girl-game paradigm? Maybe just a little? It's just a theory—I'm curious to see what y'all think.