Dirk Nowitzki's path to 30,000 and the coaches who paved the way

DALLAS -- It's safe to assume the statue that will one day stand outside the American Airlines Center will feature Dirk Nowitzki shooting a one-legged fadeaway.

It's Dirk's iconic pose, the one displayed on the freebie T-shirts and the commemorative cups being sold during this Dallas Mavericks homestand to celebrate the living legend's entrance into the exclusive 30,000-point club. It's a shot imitated on playgrounds around the world and duplicated by several fellow NBA superstars.

"The Dirk," is the label the one-legger gets from LeBron James, the ultimate sign of respect from the guy who's got next in the 30K club.

But Nowitzki was well on his way to joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only men in NBA history to hit the 30,000-point milestone before the one-legged fade became a featured attraction in his arsenal.

The unconventional shooting and balance drills with longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner probably helped the flamingo-esque fadeaway feel natural to Nowitzki, but it's not a shot they worked on in that dimly lit gym in Germany during Dirk's teen years. He was an All-Star regular by the time it became part of his repertoire.

That's a testament to just how much Nowitzki's game has evolved over his 19 years in the NBA. The following is a look at that evolution through the lens of the three head coaches Nowitzki has had with the Mavericks:

Nelson discovers a hidden gem

Donnie Nelson told his dad that he had to go see this German kid, a 7-footer with a shooting guard's game, who happened to be practicing at a Dallas YMCA with the world team in preparation for the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit. Don Nelson, a mismatch-creating mastermind who inherited a miserable roster as the Mavericks' coach and general manager, spent the next week with his mouth wide open, stunned at what he was watching.

"He was the most talented [teenager] that I'd ever seen besides being about 7-foot-1," Nellie says after spending a recent day on a golf course near his home in Hawaii. "The guy was incredible, so I fell in love with him and figured if he ever played a game in [the Hoop Summit] I'd never be able to draft him. He got MVP. He had like 14 rebounds, 30-something points, amazing, and enough people still didn't see him.

"We were lucky we got him."

Nowitzki, whom the Mavs acquired after trading down with Milwaukee for the No. 9 pick that summer, feels just as fortunate to have landed in the care of a coach who was such an open-minded offensive genius.

A lot of coaches at the time would have cringed at the thought of a 7-footer launching from long range. Not Nellie, who saw Nowitzki's potential to revolutionize the power forward position and gave him the green light, figuring other 4s would be like fish out of water trying to guard such a skilled shooter on the perimeter.

"Most coaches didn't want their big guys out there shooting 3s. They wanted them inside, where they usually were more effective, but Dirk was just such an exception," Nellie says. "He was a way better outside player than he was inside. He had to learn to post up and score inside as well once he got to the pros. But it was just clear to me that the guy was going to be open all the time and be a terrific player if 4s were going to guard him.

"That's the best thing he did when he was young, was shoot it, so any time he was open, we wanted him to take the shot."

It certainly wasn't always smooth sailing for Nowitzki, who Nellie probably didn't do any favors with his preseason prediction that the floppy-haired foreigner would win Rookie of the Year. After an abbreviated training camp on the heels of a lockout, Nowitzki struggled as a 20-year-old who wasn't physically or mentally prepared for the NBA grind after making the jump from a lower-division team in Germany.

Nowitzki made huge strides in his second season, more than doubling his scoring average to 17.5 points per game -- aided greatly by point guard Steve Nash's progress as a playmaker. They morphed into one of the NBA's premier pick-and-pop duos -- "a different version of Stockton and Malone," says Donnie Nelson, an assistant coach under his dad before transitioning into the front office.

"Nellie embraced the things that [Nowitzki] could do and worked on the weaknesses," Donnie Nelson says. "Maybe some other coaches would not have put up with his defensive learning curve and would have probably sat him on the bench for his first two or three years. You had a creative coach that saw his potential and certainly understood that he was the future of this basketball team and put him in position to fail in order to succeed."

In Nowitzki's third season, he averaged 21.8 points and the Mavs started a streak of 11 consecutive 50-win campaigns. He made his first of 13 All-Star appearances the following year, putting up 23.4 points per game as a 23-year-old.

Critics found plenty of fodder with Nowitzki's defensive deficiencies during the Nellie days, but his effectiveness as a scorer hushed talk that a 7-footer should make his living down low.

"I think Nellie started the whole thing," Nowitzki says. "He played me at the 4 when honestly my body wasn't quite ready for all the big 4s, but he was a big mismatch guy. He found a way to use me there as a 3-point shooter, and he just gave me all the confidence in the world.

"I don't think there were a lot of coaches back then in the '90s who would let a 7-foot guy dribble the ball up and shoot. For me, he was perfect at the beginning. He was perfect for me to kind of get going and get my feet wet and let me play my game."

'The Little General' takes Dirk to a new level

It wasn't necessarily a warm, fuzzy coach-player relationship with former teammate Avery Johnson. "The Little General" didn't share the care-free approach of Nellie. Johnson was demanding of Nowitzki, harping on him about defense and pushing him to rely less on that sweet jump shot on the offensive end.

"Avery came in with a little bit more conventional approach," Donnie Nelson says. "Whereas Nellie allowed Dirk offensive freedom to pick-and-pop and shoot 3s and wreak havoc with Nash out there, we didn't have the advantage of a Steve Nash. So Dirk had to learn how to be a more prototypical low-post threat.

"I think Avery demanded a toughness. ... Avery, let's say, force fed him a little bit more developing on the low post, the low block like Tim Duncan did back in the day. I think there was a window there that some of the best basketball that Dirk ever played was kind of the in-between. Nellie gave him the freedom for him to become the player he is today. Avery kind of put the vice grip on him."

Nudging Nowitzki into the low post got a lot of attention, due to the stark contrast of the big German gunning from deep during the Nellie days. But Johnson deserves credit for helping to develop Nowitzki's lethal midrange isolation game, which was necessary without Nash -- the All-Star guard joined the Phoenix Suns after the 2003-04 season -- to create good looks for him.

"When I got traded to the Mavs from Denver, I saw a guy that loved, loved, loved, loved to play one-on-one," Johnson says from the head coach's office at the University of Alabama. "In Nellie's system, it was basically come down and just get him the ball immediately. I thought maybe if I could just run some misdirection, keep the defense off balance a little bit, we could get the same things accomplished after four or five passes and get him on the move a little bit more. ...

"I wouldn't say we wanted to just play isoball. I think it was more of trying to get the defense to move so that when we got Dirk in an iso situation he had proper spacing to use all of his God-given talent."

Nowitzki's highest-scoring season (26.6 points per game) came in 2005-06, Johnson's first full campaign as a head coach, when the Mavs made their first trip to the Finals. Nowitzki won the MVP the following season, when the Mavs set a franchise record with 67 wins.

The relationship between Johnson and Nowitzki soured soon thereafter for a variety of reasons, including Johnson butting heads with Geschwindner. Johnson, fired the day after Dallas was dismissed in the first round of the 2008 playoffs having the best winning percentage by a head coach in NBA history at the time, goes out of his way now to lavish praise on Geschwindner for his work preparing Dirk for greatness.

And years later, Nowitzki appreciates Johnson's hard-nosed approach with him.

"Avery took my game to another level," Nowitzki says. "He was very hard on me. He was very hard on me but pushed me to do other things. What I regret a little bit is that I went away a little bit from my 3 ball all those years, but it also helped me to be better on my post-ups, to be better when the opposing team switched. We put in that free throw line iso -- that really started with Avery -- and just developed that game more and more to be able to move down there, shoot over the little guys, get to the basket, get fouled more. His thing was not shooting that much jumpers. Get to the foul line some and just play winning basketball.

"I think as hard as he was, he forced me to be an all-around player."

With Carlisle's help, 'The Dirk' is born

Even before he was hired as the Mavs' head coach, Rick Carlisle got the face of the franchise on his feet in the middle of owner Mark Cuban's living room.

It was the first time the player and coach really talked, and Carlisle immediately started demonstrating some of the tricks his former Boston Celtics teammate Larry Bird used to create space for his shot.

Once Carlisle got the gig, he quickly booked a trip to Germany, a DVD featuring Bird highlights in hand.

"Conceptually, there was something that Bird did that I thought would be really good for Dirk," Carlisle says in his office after a recent shootaround. "That was to have a spot on the floor where when he got the ball, he had one or two moves that would be unstoppable. That would be kind of the long post area on the right side of the floor.

"What I wanted Dirk and Holger to do was work on that concept, and he came back after the summer and that's really when the one-legged fade kind of got established."

Donnie Nelson calls Carlisle "the perfect balance between Dirk's two former coaches." Carlisle had Nellie's kind of offensive creativity and Johnson's discipline and structure.

Carlisle also borrowed a lot from what worked for Dirk under the previous coaches. Carlisle admits he made a mistake by getting away from calling free throw iso plays for Nowitzki early in their first season together, but you'll find a bunch of those plays among the highlights of the Mavs' 2011 title run. They were bread-and-butter sets until Father Time recently robbed Nowitzki of his ability to beat defenders off the dribble. With Jason Kidd running point, Carlisle often went long stretches without calling plays at all in his flow offense, which featured plenty of Nellie-style pick-and-pops for Nowitzki.

"I always think that Rick kind of combined all of it," says Nowitzki, who has transitioned to being primarily a floor-spacing center at the age of 38 this season. "He kept in the isos, the post-ups, the switches to smaller guys but also freed me up for 3s again, for shots. He never really complained about any shots. Obviously, every once in a while when I'd shoot a bad stepback, he'd say, 'I think you could have worked for a little better shot here.' But other than that, he gives me all the freedom in the world to use [all the] weapons -- the long balls, the post-ups, the penetration.

"Obviously, we'll always remember him being the coach to win it all with that crew."

Nowitzki will be remembered as one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, a 7-footer who revolutionized the game with his perimeter shooting and kept adding to his skill set over the course of his career.

The 10,587 buckets of Dirk Nowitzki

"I think the thing that will be lost a little bit in Dirk's greatness is how great a one-on-one player he is," Carlisle says. "This is a bold statement, but in my mind, he's one of the top eight or 10 one-on-one players of all-time. You get him the ball and he will manufacture a shot, and he will score the majority of the time. His free throw line isolation game has become legendary. It's virtually impossible to stop and has been for the better part of two decades.

"The ways that he gets the ball in the basket -- drives, stepbacks, midrange, long 2s, 3s, fake 3s and pull-ups -- it is really as diverse an arsenal as anybody in the history of this game has had."