Assessing Player Value – The Case of Dirk Nowitzki

(this is cross-posted at Wages of Wins).

Bill Simmons is out with his MVP picks. Like everyone else, he’s got Durant-James one and two. No one is really going to argue with that. At number three, he’s got Blake Griffin who, as I’ve said before is a very good but increasingly overrated player. He hasn’t declined. It’s just that the hype about him is now far exceeding his actual contributions on the floor. Fourth is Joakim Noah, who is a terrific player. And No. 5 is Dirk.

That’s who I want to talk about. According to Wins Produced, Nowitzki is about the 50th best player in the league. Lots of people don’t like WP. It squares poorly, in some cases, with people’s perceptions of who is a good basketball player. And we love us our perceptions. By wins produced, Terrence Jones and Kenneth Faried were substantially better players than Nowitzki, to name two fellow power forwards. And well, that just can’t be, because Dirk is great, a unique blend of size and scoring touch.

A common criticism of Wins Produced is that it fails to account for the ways in which high scoring players attract attention from defenses, thus opening up teammates for easier shots. Efforts at identifying the “Kobe assist” exemplify this tendency to value scorers even when they are low percentage shooters. They must, the thinking goes, be helping their teammates, even when they are missing. How else to explain the Philadelphia 76ers improbable run to the NBA finals behind the low efficiency but nevertheless highly valuable Allen Iverson?

Simmons credited Nowitzki with helping an underrated team overachieve, with clutch shooting, and with great “intangibles.” Nowitzki is certainly an excellent shooter. No argument here. The other parts of his game are not great, however. He is a good passer for a big man. He’s also a below average rebounder for his position. There’s no evidence that he’s a particularly good defender. He’s a good, though not great player, primarily because he’s a good shooter, much better than the average power forward from distance and from the line. But taken as a whole, there is no compelling statistical case that he’s anything like a top five player. Implicit in the case for Nowitzki being one of the best players in the league – one of the most valuable – is that he has to be making his teammates better. His game must be opening up possibilities for them that they would not have were they playing alongside a lesser go-to player.

How do we evaluate that? One way is to look at the performance of players who were elsewhere last year and joined the Mavs in the off-season. Dallas had three major contributors in 2013-14 who played for other teams in 2012-13 – Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and Monta Ellis.

Two of those three players – Calderon and Dalembert – are really good and definitely helped Dallas win games this year. The third, Ellis, is an overrated player, but I include him here because he’s getting a lot of credit for the team’s success and he played the most minutes on the team by a wide margin.

So, how did the three key transplants do? Is Nowitzki’s value evident in their play, as critics of WP have often suggested must be the case about players to which WP ascribes less value than does conventional wisdom?

In turn:

Jose Calderon. He was a plus point guard this year. There is no doubt he made the Mavs better than they were a year ago. But did they make him better? There’s scant evidence of that. Calderon played at an extremely high level in 2012-13, while splitting time with the Pistons and Raptors. In fact, no measurable part of his game improved this season and his assist totals notably plummeted. He was a fantastic shooter from three-point range this year – over 45% – but it’s hard to chalk that up to Nowitzki, since he was slightly better last year from downtown (46%).

Monta Ellis. As I said, Monta Ellis is an overrated player. His scoring totals are good because he takes a lot shots, not because he shoots efficiently. In 2012-13, with Milwaukee, he shot especially poorly. This year, he shot like an average shooting guard. But don’t get excited about a Nowitzki effect. He was just returning to his career norms as an average shooting shooting guard (yes, I meant to write shooting twice there). One thing Ellis does better than the typical shooting guard is dish out dimes. He did that at an almost identical rate in 13-14 as he did in 12-13. He also turns the ball over more than is normal for shooting guards and this year he was worse than ever in that department. He doesn’t rebound well either. All in all, Ellis produced this year at almost exactly the same level he did a year ago.

Samuel Dalembert was a very productive player for the Mavs this year. But guess what? On a per minute basis, he was more or less as productive in 2012-13, when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks? Should we give Brandon Jennings credit for his 12-13 play? The big difference between this season’s version of Dalembert and last season’s was that he played double the minutes. Unless Dirk is doubling as the team’s trainer, it would be hard to credit too much of Dalembert’s increased productivity to the big German.

Brandan Wright and Shawn Marion were two other very valuable players for the Mavs this year. Wright, plagued by injuries throughout his career, managed to stay on the floor more than usual this season. And Marion was really good just like he’s always really good.

In sum, I don’t know how you get from how Nowitzki actually performed and how his supporting cast performed to fifth in the MVP balloting As is often the case, when evaluating players, pundits take a guy who performs very well in one statistical category, pretend they’re ignoring that category, and then conjure up a bunch reasons why that guy is really so valuable and why anyone disagrees is spending too much time focusing on stats. Of the guys on the team who got substantial minutes, Nowitzki led his team in two categories – free throw percentage and scoring average.

If he improved his teammates dramatically from a year ago, it’s not obvious from any available data. Yeah, yeah, but you have to watch him every night. Guess what? If you’re making that argument, you’re disqualifying yourself as a voter, unless you watched every other player every night, too.

Dirk’s a good player. He’s nowhere close to top five.



  1. I’m a Dirk fan, so I’ll start by saying that.

    I don’t believe Dirk is an MVP candidate this year. While I do think he was the Mavericks’ most valuable player, that’s not saying a whole lot because every team has a most valuable player. Still, it says something that at 35 he can lead a playoff team in scoring. That counts for something, but not league MVP.

    The fact is, Dirk is old. He was never a great rebounder so he’s definitely not going to be one now. But I do want to establish that this (mine and yours) assessment is based on his production this year. Dirk is a top 5 power forward all time. He’s not in his prime anymore so yeah, he’s not elite. I don’t know where the Mavericks would be right now without him though.

    1. Sydney,
      All fair points. Bill James once wrote about Ozzie Guillen (back when he was shortstop for the Chisox) that they ain’t parting with him. Maybe Ozzie didn’t profile as great according to the best available stats, but he was the heart and soul of some good White Sox teams. Likewise, the Mavs ain’t parting with Dirk.

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