The Mavs dropped to 22-29 after a crazy, last-second loss to Atlanta on Monday in Dallas, and they are in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000 — Dirk Nowitzki’s second year in the league. Dallas has known nothing but success since then, most of it built around a jump-shooting big man who redefined the NBA and has solidified his place as one of the 25 greatest players ever with a memorable title run in 2011. Nowitzki sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland after that Monday loss to reflect on his career, his legacy, the current Dallas team, Shark Tank, and Shawn Marion’s shooting mechanics. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
You looked almost like your peak self tonight. There were some dribble-drives, some hard screens into post-ups. How difficult has it been coming back from knee surgery? How have you had to change your game? You seem to be dribbling less and posting up less, but I could be imagining that.
It has been tough. It didn’t help that we were losing, and so maybe I came back too early. I didn’t move well when I came back. I had no explosiveness at all. I mean, most of my game is not really based on explosiveness, but I’ve gotta have a little lift on my jumper. I pride myself on the fact that when I first got in the league, I was a spot-up shooter, and when they switched on pick-and-rolls, my game was just gone.
Like when they would put a little guy on you.
Exactly … Over the years I pride myself on being more than just a spot-up shooter. I’ve gotta put the ball on the floor. I’ve got to post up, and drive the ball from the perimeter, and get to the basket — all the stuff I was actually doing that helped us win the championship. But when I can’t move out there, I’m basically back to [being] a spot-up shooter, and a bad one at that, with no lift. It was a tough time. It took me a little longer than I expected, but now I’m starting to feel a lot better again. It’s fun again to move. When I first came back, every step was slow and hard. You have to push yourself to actually run. Now it’s fun again.
Are you in pain at all?
No. It’s just … I guess when you’re older, and after two months you start from scratch, it just took me a lot longer than I thought. That shows me how important my stuff is I do in the summer — running, lifting, shooting, and when I was younger, playing for Germany. I was always in tip-top shape, and I never had to start from scratch. It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I’m glad the worst is over.
Because you’re right, obviously, that you came into the league as a shooter, but when you really hit your prime, you had everything else figured out — how to slide into the right space, when to drive, what angle to take.
It just comes from experience. I wish I knew 10 years ago what I know now about the game. When you’re older and get more experience, the game slows down for you. I know exactly what spot to get to where I can always get my shot off no matter who’s guarding me. I know when the double-team comes, either swing it or get a quick shot off. And now, when you’re coming off injury, your brain is trying to do all that stuff, but your body just doesn’t respond quick enough. My mind is all, “Spin right here and split the double-team,” but nothing is coming. It has been frustrating. I was down a lot. I’m usually a fun guy.
Now it’s just obviously a frustrating situation — being seven or eight games under .500. I haven’t really been in this situation since my second year or my first year.
Rumor has it the team calls you the Big Mummy now. Because you’re so stiff, I guess. Who came up with that, if it’s true?
[Laughs] … I don’t know, I think it was [Mavs assistant] Darrell Armstrong. He’s one of the craziest guys ever in this league. But, honestly, that’s not only this year. In the mornings, even the year we won it all, if you watch me in shootaround, I just look so stiff. First of all, I’m not a morning guy, so I run all stiff-legged in shootaround. But “Mummy” is a really good one.
Tonight was a tough one for you guys, considering the hole you’ve dug. How do you approach the situation? Do you look at the schedule and think, We need to win 70 percent of our games from here on out? Do players think that way?
I think you really have to take it one game at a time, even though it’s so stupid. When you’re so far behind the eight ball, it doesn’t make sense to look 15 games ahead and say, “We gotta go 13-2.” Maybe the coach does that. But as a player, you have to go one game at a time. This game [against Atlanta] was a must-win. If you are going to have any chance at the playoffs, you can’t lose this one at home to, like you said, a decent team. It’s a game we had to have.
Your one-legged fadeaway bank shot is the best shot in the league — my favorite shot in the league.
Yes. Come on.
Man, this year it’s been really off.
Oh, I notice. Believe me.
I don’t really have the lift going away from the defender anymore. And teams play it a little more aggressively, and they know the last couple of weeks that I don’t have the counter move when they do overplay it. So they are sitting on it pretty good.
It looked like Josh Smith fouled you on one tonight.
I thought so.
You were mad. You may have dropped an S-bomb at one of the officials. I may have heard that.
No! No! Not me. I do get fired up sometimes during the game.
So as a shot artist, what other shots do you admire around the league? I’m not talking about something as general as Ray Allen’s jumper. I’m talking specific shots.
I’m such a dork, still. This is my 15th year and I still sit, when my wife’s asleep, I sit there and watch League Pass. I do it from sometimes 9 p.m. till 12:30 a.m., until the West Coast games are over. I was always a huge fan of Kobe. Obviously, he’s now on the declining end, like most of us older guys, but the stuff he does … They are never out of a game. When I get home, at like 11 p.m., I know the fourth quarter will just be starting in L.A., and I’ll sit down and watch him basically will his team to win with some incredible shots.
So you don’t buy the idea that Kobe and other stars are playing hero ball there at the end of games? That they are taking really bad shots with two or three guys guarding them?
Yeah, sometimes it’s a thin line. You need a mixture [of plays] to find the open guy, but some nights you just gotta take the team home.
Kobe’s footwork in the post is obviously legendary.
Oh yeah. The athleticism, the balance in the air, the lefty shots. He made a 3 on us one year in the corner. The shot clock was winding down, and he had to spin around and just shoot it lefty. To me, he’s the no. 1 player over the 15 years I’ve been in this league.
No. 1 over Tim Duncan?
Duncan to me is obviously so solid, but to watch him play …
Oh, you mean, just in terms of style.
Yeah. Duncan is probably the best power forward ever to play this game.
You don’t feel like you have a place in that discussion?
Oh, no, no. I’m not. He’s got four rings.
People write all the time about how your emergence as a jump-shooting big man — and your team’s success — literally changed the NBA. Do you ever think about your career in terms like that?
I don’t really think that way. Honestly, when I first got in the league, it was a lot of back-to-the-basket pounding. Charles [Barkley] would back the ball in for 15 seconds. Over the years, the game has changed, with me spreading the floor, and now almost every team has to have a spread [power forward]. Almost no one plays with two bigs anymore. And obviously they changed the rules — they put in the five-second back-down rule, and you can play zone. The game changed. There’s more movement and teams playing together instead of just one-on-one pounding. There is still some of that, but the game has become European again. More five guys, more movement.
Good shooters have an impact on floor spacing and strategy that isn’t always obvious. Like: J.J. Barea is earning almost $5 million this season partly because when he ran pick-and-roll with you, your guy couldn’t slide over to help on him, since that would leave you open for a pick-and-pop jumper. Do you ever feel that kind of X’s-and-O’s benefit your shooting brings is underappreciated? That maybe J.J. Barea should split his salary with you?
[Laughs] Oh, J.J.’s my man. I gotta give it to him. He was undrafted, and he just wanted it. He was working hard, so tough-nosed. He was a huge part here for us winning.
Starting him mid-series in the Finals was huge.
It changed the whole thing around.
Did you come close to giving up in Game 2, when the Heat were ahead by 15 fairly deep into the fourth quarter? Do players ever slip into thought patterns like, Man, if we go down 0-2, and we’re about to, it’s going to be really hard to win this thing?
It was really ugly. Dwyane Wade made that 3 in front of our bench, and we were like, “Oof.” We dropped our heads a little bit. But we talked about it in that timeout, how we came back on the Thunder in Game 4 that we stole up there, when we were down 10 or whatever with two minutes to go. [Editor’s note: Dallas was down 101-91 with 2:32 to go in regulation.] Still, to this day, [Game 2 of the Finals] is one of the all-time best comebacks. What really turned it around was our defense. It got us some easy opportunities, because the Miami defense is good — they are so athletic on the perimeter, we never got a clean shot up. They were all over us. So us actually getting some stops — we had two or three run-outs, Jet [Editor’s note: Jason Terry] had an easy layup and another easy 2 on the break. That changed the game. It made us believe we could fight back in it.
When Shawn Marion makes one of his crazy shots, you immediately scream, “OF COURSE!” I’ve heard you do it even before the shot goes in. Are you being ironic?
Oh, yeah, it’s ironic. Sometimes I’m thinking, I spend millions of hours in the gym working on my jumper, and he just runs in there, sometimes from 15 feet, and he’s barely looking at the basket. I really like his runner, though. That’s money. I’m talking about the one where he dribbles and doesn’t even look, spins halfway around in the air, and throws that half-floater, half-jump hook up, and somehow it goes in. I’ve been watching him for four years, and I’m still in awe on the bench sometimes, like, “How does he make those?” He’s fun to watch. He’s a special, unique player. I’ve never seen the shots he takes and makes.
It’s funny — there are certain plays that teach me more about the game, as an observer just watching, than the typical NBA players — about spacing and movement and how the game really works. Marion is one of them, because teams don’t really guard him on the perimeter, and that screws up your spacing. But he’s found a way to make it work for him. Like, when teams start ignoring him in the corner while you’re on the pick-and-roll, he has that cut where he’ll loop up to the foul line, make a catch, and shoot a little push shot.
We call that the Corey Maggette, when we run a pick-and-roll and he slices from the corner over the top.
The Corey Maggette, huh?
Yeah, because Corey Maggette used to get to the foul line on that all the time back in his days with the Clippers. But, yeah, we talk about it all the time — about spacing, and how defenses don’t guard him much out to the 3-point line, and how we still have to make defenses pay. Sometimes when he’s just standing, he gets in trouble, but when he’s on the move, he’s one of the best in the league.
It seems like you guys really enjoy playing the Thunder.
Well, last week they blew us out. But other than that, it has been fun games all the way around. Before they really, really got good, we used to have their number. We used to always beat them, here or there. In the championship year, those close games, we knew we were going to pull it out and win in the end. And these last two years, we just can’t get a win.
But it seems like you almost want to play them. Some teams would fear them, but it seems like you guys view yourselves as the old dogs who can still take these guys on.
Well, we haven’t in the last two years, but I do feel we match up decently with them, honestly. I think Trix [Editor’s note: That’s Marion, the Matrix] usually does a good job on Durant. Obviously he gave us 52 [on January 18] but I think we guarded him as well as we could for someone who had 52. And Westbrook, when we had [Jason Kidd], I thought we matched up decent there, too, because J-Kidd just uses his brain.
Did you talk to Deron Williams up to and during the free-agency thing?
Yeah, I did. Deron and I have actually known each other for a little bit. We met at an All-Star Game a couple of years ago. I was out partying one night, and here he comes into the club with a whole crew of guys. It was a Nike party in L.A. two years ago, and so he comes with his crew, and there’s no room in the entire thing. We had a little room, and so his whole crew starts talking to us and shoves their way into our table. We had an awesome night that night. We had a blast. Kanye West was onstage — Kanyeezy!
Was that the same party where your old friend Steve Nash got a lap dance from Nicki Minaj?
[Laughs] Nah, that was at a different party. So I’ve had Deron’s number since then, and we were texting sometimes. And he knew I wanted him to come here. We talked when it was all in the process. I didn’t fly up on July 1. I wanted him to come. Cubes had to film freaking Shark Tank.
I just watched that for the first time the other night.
I still didn’t. I still refuse to watch it.
It was actually not bad.
I haven’t seen one episode and I probably won’t ever see one.
But you get Mark’s thought process on letting Tyson Chandler go and sort of breaking up the team, right?
Yeah, honestly, I understand the business side of it, and if you look at the new [collective bargaining agreement], the luxury tax is brutal. If you look at teams now trying to find the mix of right players, they are trying to find a couple of stars, and the rest might be minimum [salary] guys.
And Tyson — I think he’s one of the 15 or so best players in the league now. But at that point, his résumé had a lot of injuries on it.
I love Tyson. I love Tyson. But it was the same thing when we let Steve go back in the day. We were always saying how he’d be breaking down at the end of the year, and the next thing you know, we didn’t give him a five-, six-year deal, and he’s a two-time MVP. It’s tough. Sometimes you make decisions you regret, sometimes you make a business decision. But like I said, I fully supported it last year. We had to make a tough decision, we went for it, and I don’t think we can fully judge yet if it was a good move or not.
And, I mean, it’s not like Deron and Dwight Howard are lighting the league on fire this season.
Fine, you can let that one go. I remember, I think it was as the last game of the Finals was happening and it was clear you were going to win, Jeff Van Gundy unleashing an epic rant about how ridiculous it was that people had suggested for so many years that you were “soft” or not tough. He seemed happy you were about to blow up that story line forever. I was, too, and I think a lot of hard-core NBA people were. Did you care at all — both about that reputation, and about kind of killing it? For the sake of your legacy, whatever that means?
Honestly, if you come into this league, and you’re a jump-shooter first, you’re automatically going to be labeled soft. I was never an athlete where I could go in there and just dunk on three people.
Well, there are some pretty great dunks from your first two years. You could throw it down.
Yeah — yeah, a little bit. A little bit. But if you’re a 7-foot jump-shooter, and that’s something that hasn’t happened much, you’re labeled soft. But I didn’t worry about it. To me, there’s different kinds of soft. Yeah, maybe you can get pushed around a bit. But are you mentally tough? Are you playing through injuries? When the game’s on the line, do you want to kill somebody? I always thought I was tough that way. I wasn’t tough in a rah-rah, elbow you in the face kind of way. But I always thought that when the game comes down to the wire, I always wanted to be there for my team and make the big play. To me, that’s a different kind of toughness.