Records were made to be broken — but some are tougher than others to top. This one might be impossible to beat.
Dirk Nowitzki signed with the Mavericks on Monday for an NBA-record 21st season with the same team, topping the previous record he shared with Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. Kobe, who retired following the 2015-16 season, once admitted he tried recruiting Dirk to join him in Los Angeles. Nowitzki obviously turned him down, and now the record is his.
The German’s loyalty does not stop at merely the number of years he’s spent wearing a Mavericks uniform. He has famously taken a series of paycuts, first in an effort to help the team compete, and then to aid the team in its quest to return to annual 50-win seasons. Dallas rattled off 11 of them in a row from 2001-11, including three years of winning at least 60 games. Since Dirk entered the league ahead of the 1998-99 season, the Mavericks have won 954 games, more than any other team except the Spurs.
Nowitzki has never complained as his playing time has gradually decreased from 32.9 minutes per game in 2013-14 to just 24.7 per contest in 2017-18. Rather than sulk, he actually put together one of the most efficient seasons of his career despite battling an ankle issue which would eventually require season-ending surgery; Nowitzki’s 54.7 effective field goal percentage in 2017-18 was the second-best mark of his career, and it was his fifth season shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc. He’s said he’s even willing to come off the bench if it helps the team.
In short, there haven’t been many players like him. In fact, now, we can safely say there has never been one. Once Dirk takes the floor for the first time this fall, this will officially be the case: No player in NBA history has played more seasons for the same team.
Much has been made of today’s era of player agency and constant major roster shuffling every summer. The list of superstars to change teams in the last two seasons alone is not short. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Players should be able to go where they want. In Nowitzki’s case, he’s never really wanted to go anywhere else. Dallas was his first home in America, and at this point it’s more than safe to say it’ll be his only one, at least during his NBA days.
But with so many players changing teams so often, it goes a long way in eliminating most of Nowitzki’s prospective competitors for his new record. The longest-tenured player in the league not named Dirk is the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, who turns 41 years old later this week and is entering his 17th season. In order to break Dirk’s record, Nowitzki will have to retire after this season while Ginobili will have to play until he’s 46. Miami’s Udonis Haslem, who has 15 years of service for the Heat, would need to play until he’s 44. Russell Westbrook, who’s about to enter his 11th season with the Thunder and is now shockingly the fourth longest-tenured player in the league, would need to remain in Oklahoma City through the 2029-30 season to break Dirk’s record. He’ll turn 41 that season. (This is all under the idea that this would be Nowitzki’s last season, which might not be true. He hasn’t closed the door on playing beyond this year.)
And Luka Doncic, who’s about to begin his rookie season in Dallas, would need to remain a Maverick until 2040 in order to log 22 seasons for one team and pass Nowitzki.
Could one of these players pass him? Sure, I guess. Other players could do it, too — Mike Conley made his pro debut in Memphis the year before Westbrook, and Steph Curry is about to launch his 10th season with Golden State — but it’s impossible to even project that far into the future. Players routinely come into the league at 19 years old, and medical advances make longer careers slightly easier to attain than in the old days. But 22 seasons for one team? That’s no easy feat.
It’s just a tad disappointing that LeBron James has a legitimate chance to pass Wilt Chamberlain for fifth place on the all-time scoring list before Nowitzki does, which would leave the German in sixth place. Dirk is 232 behind Chamberlain, while LeBron trails Wilt by only 381. Nowitzki could be passed by one legend before passing another, but that’s OK, especially if Dirk balls out this season. The Mavs legend is currently just 1,105 points away from Michael Jordan — yep, MJ — on the all-time scoring list. Nowitzki scored 927 points last season, so he’d need to boost his production a bit this year in order to pass Jordan. Anything’s possible, though. And hey, there could always be next year.
Now that LeBron went to L.A., Dirk’s actually now part of a very exclusive club, joining Michael Jordan as the only player with 30,000 career points who never played for the Lakers. (He’s also the only Maverick in that group.) So while James might leap above Nowitzki on the scoring list, he will still be able to stand safely atop the mountain as the only player ever to play 21 seasons with one team.
And I hope he finds a way to entertain himself, because he could be waiting a long, long time for someone to join him.
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