Player Capsules 2012, #109-111: Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Jackson, Avery Bradley

Posted on Wed 22 August 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Jackson, and Avery Bradley.

• • •

Follow Dirk Nowitzki on Twitter at @swish41.

A few things before I link today's edition of Player Capsules (Plus), starring Dirk Nowitzki. First, I'll cop to it now. I dislike the Mavericks. Quite a lot, actually. As with most Spurs fans, I can't really stand them -- I find Mark Cuban a bit boorish, Jason Terry completely intolerable, and Jason Kidd one of the least-likeable players in the league. Luckily, Terry is gone and Kidd is too, so maybe I'll like the Mavs a bit more next season. Although, maybe I won't. There's the Mavericks-Spurs rivalry in the background, those annoying uniforms, et cetera. So many pressure points. Anyway. Despite the distaste, I have a reasonably large amount of respect for the Mavericks. This respect comes on two fronts, mainly. There's a lot of respect for Rick Carlisle, who I think is one of the better coaches in the league. Great feel for the game, great ability to maximize the talent his team gives him. Also: he's got a great amount of restraint for a coach, and knows when to defer to his trained assistants. And seems like a great guy outside of the game, as well. Fantastic coach.

Beyond that, and the main point? I have a huge amount of respect for Dirk Nowitzki, who I think takes his place among the best players ever. Certainly one of the best at his position to ever play the game, even with his odd and modern skillset. Relatively poor casts around him, for years, but Dirk's been a singular talent and a singular star in the dismal fog of the Dallas ensemble. He's incredible. In today's extended capsule on Dirk, I go heavily into Dirk as a generational offensive talent -- I examine what exactly makes his offensive game so potent, and (in extensive detail) cover why it's absurd to let LeBron's brilliant 2012 run eschew the incredible accomplishment of Dirk's 2011 run. In this excerpt from today's capsule (going up as a feature at SBNation Dallas, with great thanks to Jonathan Tjarks for offering to post it), I discuss one of the things that makes Dirk's offensive game so impossible to guard. Namely, the idea that Dirk plays possum.

There's this fish -- it's a cichlid of the "Haplochromis Livingstoni" sort, and many people actually have it in their homes as a pet. There's something special about it, though. Many animals in the world are adept at "playing dead" -- essentially acting as though they're dead or paralyzed in self defense. Sharks, lizards, and possums alike do it. There are thousands of animals that take the tactic on, using temporary paralysis as a strategy to end the hunt. But there's a single fish (the aforementioned cichlid) that actually uses it as an offensive tactic. The fish will play dead at the bottom of the ocean, lying in wait as smaller fish come to eat it. Then, as the others prepare to feast, the fish springs into action and devours any scavenger that doesn't flee immediately. That's how Dirk treats defenders -- he'll cup his dribble, let a defender push him slightly off his position, and allow the defense to set a strong contest. Then he'll simply spring from his position of supposed weakness and make the shot anyway. And he does this in a way that wears defenders down. By the end of the game, most defenders find themselves frustrated enough that they change their defensive strategy on Dirk, in ways that very rarely work. It's part of what contributes to Dirk's brilliant fourth quarter numbers -- in a war of attrition between a defense and Dirk's shot, more often than not, the defense loses miserably.


• • •

F__ollow Stephen Jackson on Twitter at @DaTrillStak5._____

There are two ways that Stephen Jackson's basketball talents can manifest on a team, to distill his game down to its essence -- he can come to a season, a game, or a possession as either Good Jax or Bad Jax. Usually in a single game, he'll oscillate between the two, but with a heavy focus on one or the other. You can usually tell which sphere he's going to be tilted towards after the end of training camp, after you've gotten a sense of how he's feeling out the pieces alongside him and how he's getting along with his coach. Up until the season, though, determining who exactly Jackson's going to be in the upcoming season is a fun little game. It's a cracker-jack mystery. There's a high level of variance in how Jackson's teams perform, and oftentimes, the gap between perception and the reality (either a good gap or a bad gap) can be attributed entirely to how Jackson chooses to play in any particular year.

So, there's Good Jax. When Jackson becomes Good Jax, he's one of the most valuable wings you can put on the floor. He's a confidence-dripping shooter who's as good off ball as he is on it, with a crafty talent at getting himself open and a fantastic shot whether it's off the dribble or off a pinpoint pass. Good Jax knows he has the size to post-up small guards, and more importantly, he actually does it. He's not the most excellent passer ever, but when he's Good Jax, he's a willing cog in a possession's passing machine, only taking a shot if he knows for sure that it's the best one available. Good Jax is a solid rebounder for his size, and a dirty-work player that knows exactly what the team needs from him on any particular possession. Good Jax is a brilliant defender, using his size and strength to bother scoring guards with the best of them, and staying stuck to his man without making silly fouls. Good Jax is just about the easiest player for a coach to integrate into a contending lineup that one could ask for. He's fantastic. Fans LOVE him.

Then, out of nowhere, there's Bad Jax. When Jackson becomes Bad Jax, he's one of the least valuable wings in the history of the human race. He's a confidence-excess shooter who despite being good off ball refuses to actually test out that whole "off ball" thing, dribbling into the infinite without a care in the world for the players around him. Bad Jax knows he has the size to post-up small guards, but more importantly, doesn't give a crap that he does. Not only does he rarely pass, but when he does, it turns into a horror show of passing-into-traffic or passing-into-a-triple-teamed-teammate, almost as though he's making explicitly bad passes just to reveal to everyone a reason as to why he should never pass again. Bad Jax eschews rebounding, considering it the work of a lesser man, and acts like he's Jordan for reasons unknown to all. Bad Jax is a good defender, at least in his fundamentals, but completely gives away every point he fought to guard by making silly overaggressive fouls and screaming at the referees in temper-fueled tirades that virtually always lead to technicals. Bad Jax is just about the hardest player for a coach to integrate into a contending lineup... well, ever. He'll haggle over his contract when he's playing like crap. Fans HATE him.

There's two sides to every coin, and as Jackson might say, he makes so much coin he's basically a coin himself. The thing with Jackson that makes him so incredibly endearing to his fans (me included) is that the off-court "Bad Jax" is a figure that's rarely evident in any public part of his personality. Tim Duncan once said that Jackson was "the ultimate teammate" in San Antonio, and Lang Whitaker once wrote that Jackson has always been one of the best players to talk to in the league. He's got a well-deserved reputation for taking young players under his wing, and during the lockout, an often-forgotten storyline was that Kevin Durant considered Stephen Jackson his closest confidant on figuring out whether or not he should go overseas. Everyone that knows Jackson personally says he's a great person, and despite all the technicals and the on-court fire, he's been awarded recognition multiple times for his extensive community outreach and wide-spanning charity work. What you see on the court -- in terms of his temper, his ballhogging, his "Bad Jax" side altogether -- doesn't at all reflect the great person Jackson is off the court. He's also the best rapper in the NBA, one of the funniest players in the NBA, and he's the most honest man in the NBA. It's true -- Jackson is getting old, and it's unlikely he's long for the league. But as with many with undeserved reps, there's a lot to like if you abandon the preconceived notions of Jack as a team-killing cancer. And all things considered? I'm really, really glad he got a chance to come back to San Antonio.

• • •

Follow Avery Bradley on Twitter at @Aabradley11.

There's a little trap that NBA writers, analysts, and fans often get suckered into when we're watching games. It's a manner of confirmation bias. You have a certain archetype in your head, a certain predisposition you assume every player that's good at something will embody. For post players, it's bulkiness -- if a post player isn't bulky, with heft to their step, we tend to assume they're bad at playing the post. For scoring guards, it's Jordan-imitation -- if a shoot-first guard isn't imitating Jordan in every step of his game and career, we tend to assume they're worse scorers. And finally, for wing defenders, it's size -- if a wing defender isn't a huge and muscular athletic freak, we tend to assume they aren't a very good defender. Because of the bias and our inherent assumptions about what these players should look like, we actively find it difficult to watch and understand when players break the mold -- the burden of proof ends up being on the mold-breaker to demonstrate they can dominate in a different way. And it works the other way around, too -- some players can survive on reputation alone, if they fit the mold of what a player of their type "should" look like. Just look at Ben Gordon.

In Avery Bradley's case, he's the very definition of a mold-breaker. Bradley is diminutive, weighing in at a lighter-than-me 180 and a shorter-than-me 6'2". Generally, with size like that, you'd expect teams to force Bradley to the point guard position. You'd expect coaches to look at his size and go "okay, look, there's absolutely no way you're guarding bigger players, so we're going to hide you on the point guard." This would've probably signaled the end of Bradley's career, as he's no offensive dynamo -- he's developed a solid three point stroke, but he's got no 3-15 foot jump shot to speak of and his only notable offensive talent beyond his three and his finishing ability is a suspect long two. He's also a relatively poor passing talent -- he's yet to register 100 assists in his career (though, to be fair, he's at 99) and he's simply not been blessed with notable court vision. No, if Bradley was playing point guard, he'd be an unrepentant failure to this point of his career. He isn't a point guard at all, despite being a highly undersized player at the two. Given our expectations for defenders at the two, he'd be expected to be a terrible, quasi-useless player.

The thing is? He isn't. He REALLY isn't. Bradley is among the best defenders in the game, despite having only been in the league two seasons and barely playing at all in 2011. His size should, theoretically, harm his defense -- in practice, it absolutely hasn't. With Bradley on the court, the 2012 Celtics defense was 4.5 points better. Which is actually pretty incredible, given how stingy the Celtics defense was at all times -- the raw defensive rating the Celtics posted with Bradley on the court (96) was better than that of any other guard in that top 50, and better than all but 2 big men (Omer Asik and Taj Gibson). No player on the Celtics that played over 500 minutes improved the Celtics' defense more than Bradley did. He uses his size to his advantage in a way that reminds me somewhat of Gary Payton -- he gets under point guards, and uses his small frame to (in a way) get under their dribble and into their skin. He moves fluidly, never quite shading enough to let the opposing offensive player get room to put up a shot or the daylight to drive all the way past him. He's always a threat to steal, but virtually never a threat to lose his position. He's simply an amazing defender, and for Kobe Bryant's mail-it-in 2012 defensive season to get an all-defensive nod over the brilliance Bradley put forth is not only laughable, it's actively insane.

The only worry I have with Bradley's career at this point is in his injury. In last year's playoffs, Bradley suffered an injury to his left shoulder -- a tear, not a full separation -- but an injury that figured to have him out for a few games to start the year. Unfortunately, a little over a month ago, Bradley had to go back under the knife -- he had to go through a second surgery, on his right shoulder this time -- yes, the opposite shoulder to his first surgery. I don't think I need to tell you this, but that's really bad news. Shoulder rehab takes a while, and it's unlikely Bradley will be back to full-form until the end of the season, if at all -- I had a roommate who suffered a minor shoulder tear during his time as a javelin thrower, and the rehab took him almost a year. If Bradley's rehab takes a year, he may be able to play this season, but he certainly won't be the player he's been up to now. So that's a concern. Given the Celtics' addition of Courtney Lee, Bradley's absence may not absolutely destroy them, but it is a definite concern given how underrated and important Bradley is to this Celtics team. He's their best perimeter defender, their best option at the two, and an incredibly good fit with Rajon Rondo as a cohesive backcourt unit. Still. Bradley's shoulder injuries weren't structural problems, so it's likely that he'll be back to full-form by 2014. The question is whether the Celtics will still be a title contender at that point, and if not, whether he'll still be as valuable on a middling-tier playoff team as a member of the core. I suppose we'll see. Until then, I entreat you to let Bradley's example be a constant reminder -- not every player fits the molds we've got entrenched in our heads.

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Alright, riddles were harder than I intended them to be yesterday, as nobody did better than 1/3. My bad. Will try to make them at least slightly more comprehensible today.

  • While Player #112 will be under dimmer lights this season, more than the lessened exposure, I think his injury will be what saps his game.
  • I've never been very impressed with this young Raptor's game, but I can't deny Player #113's quasi-insane confidence.
  • Player #114 always seemed like a good guy to me, and that's BEFORE he worked with Tim Duncan for a summer!
See you tomorrow.