Why Dirk Nowitzki's legacy will never fade away

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 24, 2018.

DALLAS -- It's the iconic image instantly associated with Dirk Nowitzki.

The silhouette of a lanky shooter lifting his right leg, leaning back and launching a one-footed fadeaway is the big German's version of Michael Jordan's Jumpman logo.

The image featured prominently in the logo the Dallas Mavericks used to market the face of their franchise's 20th season, just as it was in the promotional materials when Nowitzki became the sixth member of the NBA's 30,000-point club last season.

Thousands of T-shirts, some produced by fans and some available in the Mavs' official shop, have been sold with that silhouette front and center. Once Nowitzki finally retires, it's a safe bet that pose will be used for the statue that will be put up outside the American Airlines Center.

But Nowitzki, at the ripe old age of 39, rarely uses his former signature shot anymore, a concession to Father Time and the toll of all those minutes logged over the past two decades.

"Off of one leg, I don't have really that lift anymore that I need to kind of get that one off, so I like to go more off of two legs these days," Nowitzki said. "That left leg, it's just not as explosive as it used to be."

The one-legged fade, however, will probably live forever. It has been adopted by stars throughout the league, part of the arsenal of almost every premier post-up scorer, an essentially unblockable shot if executed properly.

"It's a great way to get a good look up," Nowitzki said. "When you have touch and you're tall, you can always get it up. It doesn't really matter who's on you. When you step back and have the length to shoot it over them, it's a good shot.

"I think that a lot of these guys have just seen that, 'Hey, this is a shot that works. This is a shot that you can get off,' and they've added it to their repertoire. I mean, some of the guys shoot it so easy, a lot smoother than I ever did. It's been fun to watch."

It's also a tribute to the long-lasting impact of Nowitzki. "A show of respect," as LeBron James put it in 2013, when he first implemented the one-footed fade to his game. "You can't contest it. You can't guard it," James said a few years later.

It's essentially paying homage to Nowitzki -- he changed the game by being at the forefront of the revolution of 7-footers firing away from beyond the 3-point arc before creating a go-to midrange move copied by many -- every time a star creates space by lifting his right leg and leaning back to shoot over a helpless foe.

"Dirk's the creator of that. Everybody knows that," New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins said. "That's Dirk all day. The Dirk fade."

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant caught the ball just below his right elbow with Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. on his back and Nowitzki watching from the bench 20 feet away. Durant exploited the mismatch by taking one dribble to get his rhythm and bump Smith before putting up a vintage Dirk fade, a shot Smith and help defender Harrison Barnes had no chance of challenging.

As the ball swished through the net, giving Golden State an 11-point lead with less than four minutes remaining, Durant glanced toward Nowitzki, hoping for an instant of eye contact.

"He had his head down in his towel," Durant said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I stole that one.'"

"I like to go more off of two legs these days. That left leg, it's just not as explosive as it used to be."
Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki

It's not something Nowitzki hasn't seen before. He's witnessed Durant knocking down that shot dozens of times over the past several years.

"It's pretty deadly," Nowitzki said.

Of all the stars who have made Dirk's patented move their own, perhaps none have used it as prolifically and effectively as Durant, a 7-footer (never mind his listed height of 6-foot-9) with arguably the deepest scoring arsenal of all time.

"The Dirk one-legger is something I got the most comfortable with over time," Durant said. "It just started to become my go-to bailout shot."

Durant made stealing the Dirk fade a priority during the long lockout-assisted 2011 offseason. He was fresh off watching with admiration and frustration as Nowitzki torched Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, averaging 32.2 points in the five-game speed bump during Dallas' title run, doing much of his damage with his signature shot.

Durant, 22 years old at the time, became determined to master the move. It was a focal point of his daily sessions with skills trainer Justin Zormelo that offseason.

"It was the lockout season, so I had a lot of time," Durant said. "For four or five months, I was shooting 100, 200 a day of just those shots, just trying to perfect it, get the touch right.

"By the time the season came, which was around Christmas that year, I felt like I was ready to go because I had such extra time to work on it. ... To get it right and for that shot to become part of my repertoire, I was proud of myself."

For years, Nowitzki tortured opponents by going to the one-footed fade off of post-ups and isolation plays, often launching off one leg and leaning back after he used a dribble or two to get his defender off balance. And what a weapon it has been in half-court sets.

The frightening evolution of the shot has seen Durant, as well as James and Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, use it when access to the rim is cut off on fast breaks. It seems ridiculously unfair to see such skilled, athletic freaks push the ball full speed up the court and basically shoot reverse runners with supreme confidence.

"That's something probably Dirk didn't do as much -- grab the ball off the glass, race up and shoot the fade," Durant said, smiling. "That's always a shot I can go to, knowing it's still a good shot, no matter if it's a fadeaway off one foot. It's basically wide open when I get that much space."

None of his NBA peers have ever asked Nowitzki for tips on how to shoot the one-footed fade. Not even the New York Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis or the Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid during their shooting sessions together in a South Africa gym before last summer's Basketball Without Borders event.

"We competed and stuff and had fun, but it wasn't really where we stopped and said, 'OK, let's do this,'" Nowitzki said. "It wasn't a teaching session. We just worked out."

Maybe Nowitzki would have offered Embiid a pointer about how to protect the ball when going up for the shot. Nowitzki stripped Embiid when the big man tried to use the one-footed fade during the 76ers' visit to Dallas this season.

"I wanted to use his move against him," Embiid said after the game.

It took San Antonio Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge two summers of tinkering with the shot before he felt confident enough to use it in games. He said he had guarded Nowitzki enough to be familiar with the shot, but Aldridge says he needed time to figure out how "to make it my own."

"You learn how much you can fade on the shot," Aldridge said. "You tweak your balance, how much you want to fade, how much you want to lean back on the shot. You take time to learn your actual balance and your angle. That's what I did for that year, and then I started using it more and more."

Others cited balance, or lack thereof, as the biggest challenge in borrowing Nowitzki's signature shot.

"You just have to understand you're going to be off-balance," Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns said. "To me, that's common. I'm a herky-jerky player. I've never played conventional or the way you're supposed to be taught how to score. I'm kind of everywhere.

"When you use that move and you're already kind of herky-jerky and unorthodox when it comes to scoring the ball, it makes it even more effective."

Durant had to train himself not to use his toes or the balls of his feet to take off for the one-legger, unlike every other type of jumper.

"I had to make sure I was on my heels when I shot that one," Durant said. "Try to stand on your tippy toes on one leg -- that's impossible. Imagine trying to shoot a jump shot like that. So I just tried to make sure my heel was on the ground and follow through. My heel had to be the last thing to come off the ground when I was shooting that.

"Once that became constant every time I shot it, the touch came around a little easier."

It's not as if Nowitzki has any real secrets to share anyway.

"If you have the touch and you have the balance, I don't think it's that hard of a shot to shoot," Nowitzki said. "It's not like Kareem's skyhook or something that's never been done again. That shot is probably the hardest shot there is in basketball. But that [one-footed fade] is just a shot -- people have a runner, you kind of jump forward. That one, you kind of lean back, but it's still just a one-foot shot. Other than that, everything else with the arms, it's the same."

That's part of the shot's appeal: It's actually pretty simple despite being unorthodox.

"Of course, people look at it and think it's so awkward," Cousins said. "But it's actually easy to do, when it comes to being square and having your shoulders square and being able to get the arch.

"I think it's the perfect shot."