“You know, it’s crazy that 16 years are in the books. It’s actually a little sad but also exciting. It’s been a crazy ride, and I was excited this year that I played 80 games, which nobody really saw coming after last season. So, I’m happy about that, that I could compete every night and try to be out there for the team every night. So, yeah, if I feel like that, I still think I can play a couple more years at a high level. And we’ve just got to wait and see. … The year before I was a little worried with the knee injury and not getting going for a long, long time. But this year I felt a lot better about my body and my health, so I still think that I can play at high level for a couple of years.”
Nowitzki became a free agent on July 1, and he’s just agreed to play three more years with the Dallas Mavericks. As he enters his 17th season in the NBA, let’s find out if Nowitzki can still be the elite player that we know he is:
The Word According to Mark
The 2012-13 season was perhaps the lowest point of Dirk’s career. He missed the first 27 games of the season with a knee injury, and his scoring average was the lowest since his rookie year. On March 19, 2013, team owner Mark Cuban told ESPN.com:
“‘What we’re seeing now with Dirk is what we can expect to see next year and the year after, if he stays healthy,’ Cuban said. ‘And the year after that.’
‘Three more years of All-Star caliber play from a power forward who turns 35 this summer?’
‘At least,’ Cuban said.”
That was last season, when Nowitzki played just 47 games after recovering from an arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Nowitzki exceeded Cuban’s expectations, because Dirk was better the following year (2013-14). In fact, he had his best season since the 2011 championship season. Look at how Dirk’s stats rebounded:
Nowitzki’s stats showed no ill-effects from the knee injury. On top of that, he played 80 games during the 2013-14 season, the most since 2009-10. Mark Cuban was correct because Dirk did regain his All-Star form. Cuban could also be right about the “year after and the year after that,” because the key to Nowitzki’s longevity as an elite player will be his health.
Wear and Tear
Before missing 29 games in the 2012-13 season, Nowitzki had a very healthy career, missing just a handful of games. That being said, the knee problem that Nowitzki had was one that typically comes towards the end of a basketball career that has played heavy minutes. In Dirk’s case, it was 36.1 minutes per game going into the 2013-14 season. Not only that, Nowitzki has been the go-to-guy of the Dallas Mavericks since his second season way back in 1999. So he’s basically carried the Mavs on his broad shoulders all of his career.
Face of the Franchise
Dirk Nowitzki has been the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise. He has come a long way from the lanky 20-year old German cager who tried his luck in the NBA. Nowitzki has led Dallas to 12 playoff appearances in his first 15 NBA seasons. In those 12 postseason appearances, the Mavs have made two Finals appearances, winning their only title in 2011.
However, after 15 hard fought NBA seasons, the wear and tear finally took its toll on his knees. That being said, his recovery and return in the 2013-14 NBA season was impressive. Even though the Mavericks lost to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs this past season, they took the eventual champions to the seven game limit and personally, Nowitzki returned to the All-Star game and later passed Oscar Robertson for 10th place onn the NBA’s All-time scoring list.
Yet, despite a successful 2013-14 campaign, Dirk Nowitzki is now 36-years old and is facing an opponent nobody has ever beaten, Father Time.
Fighting Father Time
All great athletes have faced and conquered great challenges in their careers, but even the greatest of them all have never beaten father time. The physical demands of the sport make it impossible to continuously compete at a high level at an advanced age. However, while you can’t beat father time, you can slow it down.
Nowitzki knows that, and it’s what he’s been working on in the offseason. As reported by ESPN.com on June 18, 2014:
“The offseason started the first full week of May, but Nowitzki’s time for rest is essentially over, meaning his work toward next season already has begun. He’s using the past as a learning experience in regard to his offseason conditioning regimen.”
“‘I learned pretty much the hard way that after we won the championship that when you’re older that you can’t do anything for a month or two months and then just start up, because then it takes you a good two or three months to fully get back to 100 percent in shape,’ Nowitzki said. ‘I learned that the hard way. Now, what I do is go in about three or four times a week, just get a little workout in, cardio in, some lifting in. I haven’t shot the ball since Game 7. You just have to keep a certain level of fitness in so by the time I do start working out with [mentor Holger Geschwindner] in Germany, probably July or August, that the entry won’t be hard at all.’”
Advances in sports science, nutrition, strength and conditioning have increased the productivity and longevity of NBA players. Dirk is doing his share to get his body there, but fighting Father Time is not just about being healthy.
Getting better last season was the key to Nowitzki’s renaissance. The Mavs signed Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Samuel Dalembert and Dejuan Blair in the 2013 offseason. Also, Brandan Wright had his best NBA season, while reliable veterans Vince Carter and Shawn Marion contributed consistently all throughout the season.
Having Ellis around gave the Mavericks a second scoring option that was just as deadly as the primary one. Ellis took a lot of the offensive pressure off Dirk Nowitzki. Perhaps for the first time in his career, Dirk was able to sit comfortably on the bench without worrying about the offense. Take a look at these statistics from basketballreference.com:
|FIve Man Combination||Total Minutes||FG||3FG|
|Calderon, Ellis, Dalembert, Marion, Nowitzki||844:11||+0.3||+0.4|
|Calderon, Carter, Dalembert, Ellis, Marion||257:21||+0.1||+0.4|
|Blair, Calderon, Carter, Ellis, Marion||182:14||+2.0||+2.0|
As you can see, these were three of the four most used combinations by the Mavs last season. With Nowitzki on the bench, the Mavs still hit more field goals than their opponents. Take note that Ellis is on all three combinations. That was the Monta Ellis effect last season.
Nowitzki averaged just 32.9 minutes per game last season, the third lowest of his career, yet the Mavs finished the season at 49-33. We all know what preserving the minutes can do for aging stars, just look at the San Antonio Spurs.
The key to preserving Nowitzki’s residency as an elite player will be Monta Ellis and having a better line-up. However, it doesn’t end there for Dirk, because the Mavs also have an ambitious plan for this offseason.
Chasing Another Title
The Mavericks honestly believe they still have a shot at another title during the final years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career. Why is that? In their first big move of the offseason, the Mavs traded Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two draft picks. Aside from Dalembert, Dallas gave away pieces of their future to get back Tyson Chandler, who was a vital piece of their team back in 2011 when they won the NBA championship. The deal did not benefit them financially, nor did it do anything for the future. So they must be thinking about the “now,” because Chandler brings back the fire of 2011, and the line-up, to get them there once again next season.
Nowitzki has never been known for defense, and that’s where Chandler comes in. He gives Dallas the defensive invincibility that will compliment the double barreled offense of Dirk and Ellis. If Cuban can give those three enough support, this is a serious basketball team.
With Nowitzki’s discount deal, worth around $10 million per year , the Mavericks have around $16 million to woo Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. Even if both sign elsewhere, there is still Luol Deng, Chandler Parsons and the other top free agents to go after and make for great additions to their current core. Of course, still hanging in the balance are the fates of free agents Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Devin Harris. Also, there is the loss of Calderon, who was a steady force in their backcourt. All of these factors will lead Mark Cuban to a busy war room in the next few weeks. But with Dirk’s selfless act, the Mavs have made a serious case for the NBA title next season.
That being said, the discount contract doesn’t just give the Mavs an opportunity for another run at the title, it also ensures that Father Time will have to wait three more years to beat Dirk Nowitzki.