When Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki finally retires, his signature move will live on

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Given his druthers, Dirk Nowitzki is going to be more Tim Duncan than Kobe Bryant when it’s time to say goodbye. Even if everyone knows the end date – he’s already circled it, old bones willing, to be the Dallas Mavericks’ final game of the 2018 postseason – he hopes to exit more like the San Antonio Spurs’ ghost than the Los Angeles Lakers’ marquee guy.

As Nowitzki makes his way through the league’s 29 road arenas for the final time, though, here’s something fans in the stands could give the Mavericks’ star that would be way better than the respectful standing ovation he doesn’t crave anyway: They could rise from their seats during introductions and turn their backs. Then spin quickly around, square their shoulders, lean back, kick up their right legs and pantomime shooting a basketball through a hoop.

There’ll be no better way to honor this future Hall of Famer, the greatest Mavericks player, the NBA’s top Euro import and arguably the deadliest-shooting 7-footer ever than to pay tribute to the signature shot that will remain long after Nowitzki is gone, not just from the league’s hardwood but from this mortal coil.

Nowitzki’s one-legged, lean-back jump shot, launched so high as to be virtually uncontestable, already is being featured on NBA TV’s Fan Night Tuesdays in their #BestGoTo tournament. It is his signature, as much a fingerprint of Nowitzki’s game as certain other great moves were to other great players: Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream shake, Allen Iverson’s crossover, Kevin McHale’s up-and-under, George Gervin’s finger roll, Jack Sikma’s reverse-pivot, Bernard King’s quick-up or Tim Duncan’s bank shot.

Unlike some of those – and especially, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s near-unstoppable sky hook – Nowitzki won’t take his special toy with him when he exits. It will stay behind, imitation as flattery, in the arsenals of many current and undoubtedly future players.

That lifts Nowitzki’s deadly Dirk shot beyond something about which we’ll merely reminisce or enjoy in classic video, elevating it to a real legacy.

“It’s a great nod of respect,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said Tuesday before his team’s game against the Bulls at United Center. “You’re seeing a lot of the young guys do it, which is really cool to me. Now I see [Russell] Westbrook shooting it. [Kevin] Durant’s been shooting it. I’ve seen LeBron James shoot it. And there are many, many guys throughout the league that have done it. Not only because of how they feel about Dirk but it’s an effective shot.”

There was a game in New York in November when the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis unleashed the shot with an inactive Nowitzki sitting right there.

“He looked at the bench – Dirk was in a suit,” teammate Harrison Barnes said. “Like ‘Nice, huh?’ It’s pretty cool to see guys pay homage to him. I told him, before he retires, I need that entire package.”

Some have smiled, some have smirked. A few imitators probably have been shy about flashing the move in front of its originator. The Wall Street Journal, after all, did a story last spring on Nowitzki’s shot and how it had gotten appropriated in a copycat league, with the headline “The Most Stolen Move in the NBA.”

So how does Nowitzki feel about having his signature shot used against him and the Mavs: Ripped off? Amused? Proud? Teased?

“It’s been an honor to watch some of the guys adopt that shot,” Nowitzki said after scoring 10 points with 10 rebounds in Dallas’ last-minute 99-98 victory. I’ve always said, it’s not that hard of a shot to shoot. If you have good balance, if you have good touch, anybody can shoot it. To see some of these guys put it in their repertoire and really make it a household shot, it’s been fun to watch.”

We can’t ask Edison or Tesla about electricity and the Wright brothers aren’t around to gripe at about that middle seat, but we can get the lowdown on Nowitzki’s lean-back.

“What happened was, I was getting older,” said Nowitzki, who was about 30, so some time in 2008 or 2009. “I couldn’t drive as much as I wanted or get to the foul line. Really I was just looking for a way to create a little separation and get the shot off. I’m obviously 7-feet so just one little step back gives me a little separation to get the ball over the defender.

“That’s it, really. I never practiced it much – it just kind of happened in a game and it worked, and I was like ‘Let’s try that again.’ At some point I kept shooting and shooting it. It’s nothing really I worked on with Holger [Geschwindner, Nowitzki’s widely known mentor]. I don’t think Holger was actually a big fan in the beginning, because sometimes the balance isn’t great. But if you have good touch and the length to shoot it over the defender, it’s a good shot.”

Good enough, certainly, to help Nowitzki to his current 29,703 points, just 297 shy of becoming the third player to score 30,000 points with one franchise (Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant are the others).

He ranks 12th all time in field-goals made (10,470), ninth in minutes played (47,648), seventh in free throws made (7,037), 16th in 3-pointers made (1,726), 30th in rebounds (10,632, including 10 at Chicago Tuesday) and 11th in games played (1,356). At 19 seasons, he reigns as the longest-tenured, one-team active player.

Another one you might not have expected: Nowitzki ranks sixth all-time in NBA regular-season victories. His 857 is 21 more than Bryant, and has him trailing only Abdul-Jabbar (1,074), Robert Parish (1,014), Duncan (1,001), John Stockton (953) and Malone (952).

Of all the numbers Nowitzki leaves behind in the digital ledgers, that rates high with Carlisle.

“As the years go on … people will realize this guy’s not just a guy who can put the ball in the basket. This guy is one of the best winners in history,” the Mavericks coach said. “In this age of analytics and metrics, it’s becoming more and more clear how great he has been.”

Carlisle mentioned raw plus-minus numbers in which Nowitzki, over the past 15 years or so, rank second only to Shaquille O’Neal. In win shares as computed by basketball-reference.com, he ranks seventh all-time at 199.21. So any of the more specific plaudits tossed Nowitzki’s way – best Euro, top-shooting big man and so on – don’t do him justice as an impact player.

Said Carlisle: “You’ve got to play so close to him on offense that it opens up space for teammates. He’s hit so many big shots and wants the responsibility for winning the games. And he’s performed amazingly well in those situations. And he’s underrated defensively – he’s an excellent defensive rebounder and a really good system defender.”

That’s the guy who’ll be nearly irreplaceable when the Mavericks finally are forced to try. Nowitzki’s plan to fulfill the two-year, $50 million contract he signed in July is back on track now that he’s active again. Nowitzki missed 25 of Dallas’ first 41 games, 22 with strain pain in his right Achilles. But the Mavs are 4-4 in the eight consecutive games he has played since Dec. 30.

His minutes are being watched closely – he’s essentially a half-time player at 24.8 mpg – but his work on the court looks familiar. Per 36 minutes, Nowitzki is averaging 19.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, almost identical to his production four years ago (19.9, 7.9 and 2.9), although his current field-goal percentage (.400) is down to his rookie level.

“At this point in my career, obviously, I want to play in the playoffs and I want to compete,” Nowitzki said. “I’ve always said that. It’s been a rough year for me – the first year when my body hasn’t healed as quickly as I hoped.

“So that’s a little frustrating, but I feel better now. And hopefully … make a push for the playoffs the second half of the season.”

That suggests Nowitzki will pass through all of the league’s arenas at least one more team. Pay attention when he does. And notice the shot, even after he goes.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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