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Dirk Nowitzki and the Corner Three

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

This weekend Dirk Nowitzki hit his first corner three-pointer of the season. That sentence would not be newsworthy if it wasn’t March, and if Nowitzki hadn’t played in 62 games thus far.

The corner is considered the second-most efficient place to shoot from on the floor, and Nowitzki, perhaps the most efficient non-center/non-LeBron player of the last 15 years, is 1-of-8 from both corners combined in 2013-14. In fact, of the 14 “zones” on NBA.com’s shot charts, Nowitzki is only red (below-average) in three of them: either corner and the left wing three. It’s not as if Nowitzki is a poor three-point shooter — he’s hitting threes at a 39 percent rate this season on exactly four attempts per game. We all know by now Dirk is perhaps as valuable for his effect on floor spacing as he is for his ability to hit one-legged fades, but his complete disregard for all things corner is so freaking weird that it’s worth talking about, because it wasn’t always like this.

The easy conclusion is that star players don’t go to the corner, no matter how many threes they take. James Harden has only made 10 corner threes this season, and Kevin Durant has only sank seven. But those guys also handle the ball infinitely more than Nowitzki and therefore aren’t going to find themselves in the corners too often. Nowitzki plays in a pick-and-roll-heavy system with, now, two healthy ball-handlers (Devin Harris and Monta Ellis). The forward has spent plenty of time drifting toward the baseline this year, but never in spot-up situations. He’s exclusively being used as a screener and roller, receiving his passes on the move.

Watch the Mavericks and you’ll usually find Nowitzki either perched up atop the key (where he pops) or hanging around the baseline somewhere between 10-18 feet from the rim (where he rolls). If he’s not setting picks, he’s usually coming off reverse pin-downs set by the off-guard, where he flashes to the top of the key. There isn’t enough room in the Dallas offense to stow him in the corner — literally, as it relies so heavily on court spacing — and there isn’t enough time in the game to waste using Nowitzki there, and “waste” might not even be the correct word to use. But it wasn’t always this way. Each coach Nowitzki has played for has deployed the Blonde Bomber (this nickname really needs to come back) in unique ways, and his reliance on the corner three has depended on who surrounds him.Dirk CornerQuick stroll through time, now. Each of these seasons are significant because they represent the strategic differences of Nowitzki’s coaches at the time, and during each season the talent around him was significantly different from years past. 2000, for example, was Nowitzki’s first 82-game season as a pro. At that point in his career, he was primarily a three-point shooter — more than 30 percent of his total field goal attempts between 1999-2001 came from behind the arc — and the Mavericks still played mostly through Michael Finley, meaning Nowitzki was frequently used as a spot-up threat.

Fast forward to 2003, when Dirk started becoming the man in Dallas. That 60-win Mavericks team played through Steve Nash, running tons of pick-and-rolls on the right side of the floor (nearly half of Nowitzki’s field goal attempts that season came from the right side of the rim, corner included). But Finley was still a focal point, if still no longer the focal point, of the team, meaning Nowitzki occasionally spent ample time as a spot-up guy. The immortal Nick Van Exel was a key member of the ’03 Mavericks, and when he was on the floor Nowitzki was typically relegated to spotting up, as well. (This is something we’ll see far in the future, too.) That Mavericks team might have been the funkiest of the ’00s. Just look at this set they ran against Portland in Game 7 of the 2003 playoffs. Nowitzki was the center!

Now we move to 2004-05, the first year Dirk was without his buddy Nash. It was also the year during which Don Nelson resigned and Avery Johnson took over, bringing along with him an entirely different offensive strategy. Excluding his rookie season, Nowitzki shot worse on two-pointers in ’04-05 than in anyone other in his career, but he flourished behind the arc… except for in the right corner, where he found himself far less often. Jason Terry was the starting point guard on that team, and it was the first year in which Nowitzki moved his game inside the three-point line. Johnson turned Nowitzki into a post player, and while it turned out being the right move long-term, it very briefly skewed his shooting numbers.

Nowitzki’s 2007 season saw him earn the MVP trophy and put up a 50/40/90 line, though he did it away from the corners. His shot chart that season, you could say, is good; it was Nowitzki’s mid-range opus. His inside-the-arc tendencies continued into 2009, when Avery Johnson made way for Rick Carlisle at the helm, and Jason Kidd took over point guard duties from Devin Harris. He didn’t make a single corner three that season. That Mavericks team was still far different from the title-winning group — Josh Howard was still on the team, two of the club’s three most common lineups included Antoine Wright — and Nowitzki’s usage rate was a career-high 30.3. Dallas relentlessly played through its star at either elbow. But it isn’t like Carlisle is vehemently against those shots.

That takes us to 2010-11, when Nowitzki sank a career-high 15 threes from the left corner. The secret? JJ Barea. The Puerto Rican basketball hero enjoyed more freedom within Dallas’s offense that year than he did in any other with the team. It also marked the first season in which Dirk’s minutes began to significantly decline, and even while Nowitzki was on the floor, he wasn’t always part of the offense. Barea would run pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood, and meanwhile Nowitzki would essentially “take the play off” and chill in the left corner. It’s not as if he isn’t a good shooter from the left baseline, but for whatever reason Nowitzki has avoided that corner every year of his career except for 2011 — even the year before, when he took zero attempts from that same spot, although Barea was still a rotation player. It isn’t like he spent entire games in the corner (he only attempted 38 total from there that season) but the threat alone was enough to open up driving lines for the already small, shifty Barea. It made everyone’s job easier. But that was then, and since Nowitzki hoisted the Larry O’Brien, he’s made only seven corner threes.

It will be interesting to see, now that Dallas has committed to playing Harris and Ellis together more, if Nowitzki ever finds himself in the corner again this season. What’s more interesting, though, is what will become of his corner threes as he ages even more. He can’t slip screens forever, after all. Eventually he’ll be used exclusively as a spot-up shooter, and data have shown that there’s no better place to spot up than in the corner. We’ve seen him do it a few times throughout his career, and I believe it’s a matter of time until we see him do it again. While star players generally never go to the corner, Nowitzki has shown at various points in his career that he can be an exception.

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