Twenty years ago, Karl Malone was the NBA’s face of the power forward position. The league’s most valuable player in 1997 and 1999, Malone became the second-leading scorer in NBA history by using his burly frame to barrel through opponents in the paint and working the pick-and-roll with laserlike precision with Utah Jazz teammate John Stockton.
Malone had everything working on one particular night early in that lockout-shortened 1999 season, when the Jazz traveled to Dallas for a 90-79 win over the Mavericks. Malone had 31 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals in 41 minutes.
Little did he know that the man he was doing much of his damage against that night, a rookie named Dirk Nowitzki playing his first home game as an NBA player, would eventually render players with Malone’s profile obsolete.
As the NBA playoffs get rolling Saturday, with Nowitzki’s Mavericks sitting out, virtually every team in the postseason will owe at least some part of the way they play offense to the evolution of the modern NBA big man — a process that began when Nowitzki arrived in the NBA two decades ago.
“They have a list of players that changed the game,” Dwyane Wade said. “I know Steph [Curry] is on that list. I know LeBron [James] is on that list. I know [Michael] Jordan is on that list.
“I don’t know if Dirk is on that list. But he should be.”
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Don Nelson knew he had something special on his hands.
In the spring of 1998, Nelson had just finished up his first season coaching the Mavericks, having come down from the front office to take over for Jim Cleamons midway through the year. As Dallas was preparing for the NBA draft, his son, Donnie, had set up a workout in Dallas for a German prep star named Dirk Nowitzki, who was coming to the United States to play in the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio.
The elder Nelson got one look at Nowitzki — then 19 — and was smitten.
“He was the most incredible specimen I had ever seen,” Nelson said in a recent phone interview from his home in Hawaii. “I had never seen anything like him.
“He could dribble, rebound, shoot, pass. He could do everything. And I immediately just said, ‘Wow, we’ve got something special here.’ ”
The Mavericks spent the next few weeks plotting ways to land Nowitzki in the draft. Trades with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns not only netted them Nowitzki with the ninth pick, but brought Steve Nash to Dallas, as well.
While Nash eventually became a Hall of Famer and two-time MVP, it was Nowitzki, and his revolutionary skill set, that set the Mavericks apart.
When he entered the league, teams were looking for power forwards like Malone: big, burly, physical types who could bang in the paint. That was not Nowitzki. The gangly 7-footer grew up in Germany playing for a pair of coaches — first Pit Stahl, and later Holger Geschwindner, his current mentor — who built his game from the outside-in, rather than the inside-out. He also played tennis and handball, landing Nowitzki in the NBA with an diverse toolbox — and a coach who was eager to use them.
“I’ve always looked for people who can score and pass, and do things like that,” Nelson said. “Ever since I’ve been coaching, I look to put guys like that on my team because that’s the way I wanted to play if I could.
“He was just perfect. He did all of those kinds of things, and it was pretty simple for me.”
What was simple to Nelson was revolutionary to the rest of basketball. Just the threat of Nowitzki shooting from three-point range as a power forward meant Dallas had at least four shooters on the court, giving Nash more room to operate and creating yet another headache for opposing defenses.
If that description sounds familiar, it should — it is the basis for virtually every offense in today’s NBA. Only two of this season’s playoff teams — the Jazz (Derrick Favors) and Minnesota Timberwolves (Taj Gibson) — start “traditional” power forwards. All other squads deploy either a small forward masquerading as a power forward, or a big man capable of spacing the floor and burying threes.
In some cases, teams not only have a power forward like that, but a center, as well. Dominant big men such as Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol were forced to add long-range shooting to their repertoire.
“I guess I embraced it as being a change and being the evolution of the game,” Nowitzki said. “Everybody is going away from the ’90s when the fours and fives were packed with muscles and moving people under there and fouling.
“It was fun to watch, their style, but it’s a different style now. That’s where the game evolved. There’s just no big, meaty, no-movement centers anymore. Everybody nowadays can move. You’ve got to be able to almost switch one through five, if you want to play these days. Even the [centers] better be able to move on the perimeter a little bit. That’s the evolution of the game.”
One of the basketball-watchers to take note of Nowitzki’s success was former Baltimore Bullets forward Stan Love, who was living near Portland, Ore., and a raising a young player of his own. He wanted to use Nowitzki as the model for his son’s game.
“What my dad was preaching to me early,” said Kevin Love, “was, ‘Make sure you watch him, because you can really shoot the basketball, and that’s where the game is going.
“He really is the guy who revolutionized it, and was ahead of his time to be as big as he is and shoot threes like that and be away from the basket. It was paramount in my game.”
Dallas became one of the league’s best teams, and Nowitzki one of its top players. He led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006, before losing to Wade and the Miami Heat, and won the league’s MVP award the following year. As the accolades piled up, more teams began trying to find Dirk clones to improve their offensive outputs. Soon, the league was littered with “stretch-fours” — power forwards with the ability to shoot from beyond the three-point arc.
Any lingering questions about whether his style could result in winning at the highest level was put to rest when Nowitzki led Dallas to an NBA title in 2011 through a murderer’s row of opponents — Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, the Oklahoma City Thunder of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and of course, LeBron James and Wade’s Heat.
“He probably, as much as anybody, reinvented the look of that position,” said Erik Spoelstra, the Heat coach who beat the Mavericks as an assistant in the 2006 Finals and lost to them in 2011. “He reinvented it, took the stereotype and completely turned it on its side … There were guys before him, but he took it to a different level.”
While opponents universally referenced Nowitzki’s lethal jump shot — which he still has, shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range this year — he’s lauded for more.
Spoelstra marveled at the way Nowitzki could create separation off the dribble to get to whatever spot he wanted to on the court. Durant said he’s taken drills from Nowitzki to work on his balance and has learned Nowitzki’s patented one-legged fadeaway jumper. Nelson credited Nowitzki for learning how to do the one thing he has helped reduce around the league — effectively post-up defenders on the low block. Love and Bryant both cited Nowitzki’s proficiency at and around the free throw line.
It’s all part of the package of a first-ballot Hall of Famer — at least whenever Nowitzki decides he’s had enough of the sport; he announced this week he plans to return for what would be his 21st season.
“I’ve kind of carved my way in this league,” Nowitzki said. “Nobody ever thought that coming out of a small little town in Germany back in the day.
“It’s been a dream, for sure.”