Modern Moves: Dirk's one-legged fadeaway

by Andrew Tobolowsky

If the year began with 20 and ended with any number between say 02 and 11, and Dirk Werner Nowitzki had his back on you — No. 41 in your program book, No. 1 in our hearts — he was scoring a bucket. He didn’t always do it…the way. But the existence of the way was a key unlocking the door to an arsenal nobody else had.

You knew he might do it, and that’s what also allowed him to lunge past you for a scoop lay-up, as he memorably did to Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem to win Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals. He could lean back, then suddenly dribble forwards and pull up, as he did in front of the Heat bench in the closing minutes of Game 6. He could even roll past you for a dunk, as he did, you know… sometimes. I think.

He could do all kinds of things, and he did them so well that he’s now 6th in NBA history in scoring, despite averaging only 16 shots a game over the course of his career. That’s two fewer than the Mailman and Kareem, three and a half fewer than Kobe, six fewer than Wilt and seven fewer than Michael. And that’s because Kareem played with Magic for a while (and Worthy and so on), and Kobe with Shaq while Dirk, for the most part, didn’t play with anybody. He did everything.

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But, of course, he would also do the thing. You would be on his back. You would have everything else sealed off – you thought. Maybe your coach would even have someone on the outside waiting to reach in when Dirk started to move. But then he would turn left, or right, and then he would plant his feet, and then he would launch himself backwards like a diver, and the ball would come out, already higher than your arm, higher than a building a second later, and it would splash through the basket without making a sound, a German commentary on the extraneous nature of nets with all their fabric. Such was, and is, the patented one-legged fade.

The secret of the fade isn’t what everyone thinks it is. Or rather, I should say, the simplest explanation is also very much the worst one. People say, well he’s seven feet tall and he fades away, who’s blocking that? But listen – somebody is. I once saw Dwight Howard run the 100 meter hurdles using basketball goals instead of the typical equipment. I once saw Serge Ibaka block one of those giveaway blimps that comes out at halftime.

You think the difference between Dirk and, say, Zaza Pachulia is Pachulia never learned how to fade back? Of course not. It’s not how far from the defender’s hand it gets out, or how much separation he can get in a hurry. It’s where the extra move means the shot can come from. That’s what you need to understand. Dirk Nowitzki’s geometry is not a problem of maps or math, and that should be obvious, because the pantheon of NBA defenders includes a lot of calculators and cartographers. The one-legged fade is about music, improvisation, the genius of the sound you’ve never heard before. It’s a new world, and only one man ever really explored it.

How can I put it? Imagine, say, a mortar. You know how it works. You set it up, the shot is coming out the top. You can move the mechanism, if you want, forwards or back, or side to side, but it’s still a straight-up framework for a calculable outcome. This is a typical NBA shot. Some mortars have more range, some are better tuned, and some are smarter about knowing when to light the fuse. Some can fire from cover, some can’t. But it’s still just variations on a theme. The Peach Basket two-step has become a sonata. So what? It’s still the same old song.

Now imagine, instead, a pitcher on the mound. Imagine, not just the movement, but that level of command over the field. The pitcher chooses. The arm can come from anywhere, straight-back, side-arm, or a thousand other angles, and it can do a full rear-back, or move out of the stretch. But that’s only part of it. The other part is the pitcher’s mind, knowing when to throw the curve, the slider, or the change-up to set up the fastball. The fade, Dirk’s fastball, benefited immeasurably from the fact nobody his size ever had the quality stuff he’s got on every other shot. But just like the best pitchers in the game, even if you know the change-up is setting up the fastball, if you’re that smart and that good, it still doesn’t mean you can touch the fastball.

I remember the day Dirk scored 48 points on 15 shots against OKC in Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. They threw everything they had at him, your Nick Collisons, Serge Ibakas and Kevin Durants. All of ‘em went back to the dugout with no advice to give. Everybody always knew what Mariano Rivera was throwing, too.

Stephen Curry, like Chuck Person and Chuck Connors before him, is the Rifleman, firing straight from farther away than anybody else could manage. Russell Westbrook is the Juggernaut, barreling through the lane no matter what you put in his way. But Dirk Nowitzki is Beau Geste, a man behind a wall, sneaking around to fire from post to post ‘til you think there’s a whole army back there. He built the wall, himself, by how he moved his body, and the space he found that nobody else knew was there. Other people have found it, since he drew the map. But nobody else will ever really live there.

And one more thing. Dirk’s entire career has been, in its own way, a dissertation on the nature of clutch play. Nobody’s been as clutch as Dirk has been, but not everybody knows it. That’s because when you think of clutch, you think of somebody hitting a shot with three guys in their face. The dirty little secret? Nobody’s good at hitting a shot with three guys in their face. It’s memorable when they do, but whatever confirmation bias tells you, you can look up the numbers whenever you feel like it. It’s never a good shot, it’s never a good idea, it’s always a sign of breakdown and desperation.

Instead, the art of clutch is about finding the right shot even though no one else wants you to, and even when they know you’re looking for it. Dirk found it, all the time, behind the wall he built that nobody could climb. Not because it was so high but because of the defenses he built himself. Because he’s not sitting behind it, he’s ducking under, going left or right, or running through the gates just to pull up and launch. Because there’s nothing you can do that won’t give up all the other options, as easy shots, to one of the greatest shot-makers of all-time. It’s the hardest one to block – but you also better not try too hard or something else will get you. When he finally won his ring, he averaged 9.9 points in the fourth quarter, on .510/.534/.940 shooting, for the entire playoffs. Do you think, on that team, people didn’t know who was going to shoot?

This is a melancholy post for me to write. For as long as I have watched basketball seriously, more or less, I have watched Dirk. For as long as I will watch basketball, which is for as long as I can, though life intrudes, I know I will never have that feeling again – that feeling of peace that came when Dirk was singled in the paint with his back to the basket. But that’s the joy of it, too. Records are made to be broken, styles of play meant to be duplicated. To have been part of something unique is rarer here than almost anywhere else, and to be treasured all the more.

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