Rick Carlisle sent a warning only minutes after the Mavs’ season-ending loss in Game 5 at Oklahoma City: Don’t take Dirk Nowitzki for granted. Days later, Nowitzki announced he’ll opt out of the final year of his contract. It was a message meant for the front office, that Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson can’t just automatically assume the 18-year veteran will sign with the Mavericks once again.
Fans should take the message to heart, as well.
What Nowitzki accomplished this season should not go unnoticed, and it did not in some circles. The 37-year-old averaged 18.3 points per game in 75 appearances in the regular season. Only three other players in the history of the game have scored as many points and appeared in as many contests in a season past their 37th birthday: Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only Abdul-Jabbar had a higher effective field goal percentage than Nowitzki’s 50.4 in those seasons.
These are titans of the game, some of the greatest players ever to take the floor, and Nowitzki has not only matched their accomplishments; in some cases, he’s surpassed them.
“I think we’ve got to respect his career here and what it’s been about,” Carlisle said after Game 5. “We just can’t go in with the assumption that we can take this guy for granted. I don’t. He’s too great. He’s too great a person, he’s been too great for too long, and I’m ready to recruit him.”
At this stage of his career, Nowitzki isn’t used in the same ways he used to be. He rarely posts up at the elbow; his iconic one-legged fades grow fewer and farther between. He doesn’t move fast. He doesn’t play as many minutes as he once did. The burden of carrying the offense has been lifted off his shoulders, if only slightly, and is now shared among more and more of his teammates. We know all these things because Nowitzki himself has confessed them openly, and our eyes have confirmed it.
But rather than focus on things Nowitzki does not or cannot do as often anymore, we should instead admire his ability to adjust his game and adapt to his new role on this team. He remains a force in the pick-and-pop game, as his mid-range and 3-point shooting command so much defensive attention that the only full-time starting point guard he’s ever played with to have a below-average true shooting percentage was Jason Kidd during the 2010-11 season — the year the Mavericks won the championship. More recently, Deron Williams enjoyed a bounce-back season and J.J. Barea won a Player of the Week award in part because they are simply good players, but also because their pick-and-roll partner has an unprecedented way of making things easier for his teammates without even moving.
As Nowitzki has drifted farther from the basket season by season, his volume scoring has barely been affected. The German took more 3s this season than he has in any campaign since 2002-03, but he made more — 126 — than he had in all but one season in the last 13 years. While only 7.5 percent of his field goal attempts came from within three feet, according to Basketball-Reference, he made 73.5 percent of those shots, the second-best mark of his career. He even dunked more times this season (five) than last season (four)! While Father Time continues to chase Nowitzki down, he’s got more work to do.
Dirk Nowitzki on 1310 The Ticket
Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki recently joined BaD Radio on 1310 The Ticket to talk about the season that was and what is to come.
Kobe Bryant’s retirement this season brought back memories of his Lakers’ battles with Dirk’s Mavericks over the years, and the reflections renewed the conversation about this generation’s greatest players: Bryant, Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. Of the four, Nowitzki remains by far the most impactful and effective, particularly on the offensive end. (No disrespect to Bryant’s 60-point farewell masterpiece.) In fact, one could make the argument that’s been the case since 2011.
There just haven’t been many — if any — players like Nowitzki before. The NBA we know today came to be in part because of how dominant he has been as a stretch power forward. There were no 7-foot point-forward jump-shooters before the gangly German came along, and there was never a big man who could both dribble-drive and fade away from the elbow — and hit 90 percent of his free throw attempts when his defenders hopelessly fouled him in an attempt to avoid the inevitable. Players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green have taken the torch as two of the league’s most impressive power forwards, but they are both free to do what they do offensively because Nowitzki has already done it. They owe at least a little to him, as do many of their contemporaries.
In that regard, Nowitzki is a pioneer of the game as much as he is a legend. Wilt Chamberlain introduced complete physical dominance and then Shaquille O’Neal reinforced it. Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving brought grace, skill, and athleticism to the game, and then Jordan took it up another notch. Nowitzki has made us all believe that height should not dictate the position you play, and also that the position you play should not dictate your skill set. Because of him, 7-footers are now expected to be able to shoot, dribble, pass, post up, and run the floor. And they have no excuse not to, because he’s still doing it. Dirk isn’t a statue or a highlight reel just yet: He’s still very much a thriving superstar, even after 18 go-rounds.
He has said multiple times he would like to play at least 20 seasons, which would mean at least two more. If that turns out to be true, that means he will eclipse the 30,000-point plateau and could very well move past Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list (he needs about 2,000 points to do so). One more playoff series and he’ll past Magic Johnson on the all-time playoff scoring list with a chance to jump over Hakeem Olajuwon and John Havlicek while he’s at it. Two or three more series and he’ll eclipse Larry Bird for a place in the top-10.
His rampage through the record books will continue for as long as he plays, but so will his floor-spacing effect and his impact on the game. Some fans worry the Mavericks might rebuild in an effort to land high draft picks in the coming seasons, but it is virtually impossible not to compete for a playoff spot with a player of Nowitzki’s caliber on the roster simply because he is still so good. And not only is he good, but he completely dictates the defense’s every move. Opponents will never not respect him, for the moment they stop, he’ll drop 30 on them. He will do that at any age.
You might be seeing plenty of tweets and articles encouraging you to enjoy Nowitzki while he lasts, implying the end of his career is approaching and in some ways accusing some of never having watched him in awe before. I would disagree with that sentiment, though. Rather, I would encourage you to continue enjoying him as you have for nearly 20 years. Many of us might not remember an NBA before Nowitzki; he’s all we know. He is the Mavericks, he is THE guy, and he is a legend.
But he will also continue to be, until he isn’t. He will continue as the focal point of every gameplan, and he will continue to overcome them. He will continue to set screens, and he will continue to free up his teammates. He will continue to move slower than you and jump much lower than you, and he will continue to score on you anyway. More importantly, he will continue to work longer and harder than anyone else, showing his younger teammates what true dedication to achieving and maintaining greatness looks like.
There is still so much to enjoy about Nowitzki’s game. He should be appreciated in his twilight years before he decides to retire, sure, but he should also be respected for the player he still is. Don’t take that for granted.
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