DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki is not used to his season ending in mid-April. He also doesn’t plan on that being the case ever again during his career.
After seeing the Dallas Mavericks’ 12-year stretch of consecutive playoffs come to an end following a 41-41 season, Nowitzki heads into the offseason much sooner than he’s custom to and earlier than he’d prefer. But, after missing the first 27 games of the season following preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, Nowitzki vows to come back stronger than ever while trying to lead a team that battled out of a hole from 10 games below .500 on Jan. 9 to break even thanks to a second-half surge.
“I mean, it was what it was. I missed basically almost 30 games for the first time in my career and had knee surgery, and I thought that kind of messed the season up a little bit. I figured if I was healthy all year, this team, looking at it before, had a shot at making the playoffs. And then I missed too many games I thought,” Nowitzki confessed to reporters last week during his exit interview. “Once I came back, I wasn’t in the shape I needed to be to really help the team much, and it really took for me almost till the All-Star Game to get halfway where I wanted to be. And then I thought we put in a heck of a finish and we fought. At some point we were 10 games under (.500). We came all the way back and made it interesting with the playoff picture, but just overall not consistent enough. Not winning enough of those close games, losing too many games in overtime when we were there and just overall not really consistent enough to get into the playoffs. But I’m proud of the guys. … How we battled, how the veteran guys didn’t give up and showed the young guys how you compete even though there was nothing to play for (the last week of the season). We played hard and battled, just overall didn’t win enough of those close games to really sneak into the playoffs.
“This was a tough year for me,” he added. “Like I mentioned earlier, being out and then starting from scratch and getting back into game shape obviously took me a lot longer than I expected or everybody expected. And I guess that shows how important that summer work has been for me that I put in the last 15 years, coming (to training camp) in great shape. So, yeah, I want to avoid surgery at all cost the next couple of years, so if there’s something we need to address we need to do it now in the summer, ‘cause that period was not fun for me and it wasn’t fun for the team. Once I was in good shape, I felt like I played some good basketball. Not quite consistent enough that I would like, but like I said, with a summer of hard work and being ready in October, I still think that I’ve got a couple of years left. How good and how long, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the next couple of years.”
Battling his way back to an elite level after the surgery in the preseason, Nowitzki would also see the end of his stretch of 11 straight All-Star appearances. Still, he would finish the season leading the Mavericks in scoring at 17.3 points a game to go along with 6.8 rebounds while connecting on 47.1 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from 3-point range in his 53 (47 starts) appearances. Nowitzki also became just the 17th player in league history to reach the 25,000-point plateau and only the ninth to do so while collecting 9,000 career rebounds.
Now, with his right knee back at 100 percent, Nowitzki hopes to pick back up where he finished this season while also joining forces with Mavericks proprietor Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson to attract a talented free-agent class to Dallas to fill expected vacancies left for a team with nine expiring contracts.
“Well, we had nine one-year players, so I think the roster is going to look different again next year,” Nowitzki confessed as the Mavs head into a second straight summer of uncertainty. “It starts now obviously with the draft, where we can get a young talent fairly high, so we’ll see how the draft is looking this year. And then July is a big free-agent period for us this year. There’s a couple of free agents out there. If you don’t sign a free agent, if you are under the (salary) cap, sign-and-trade is always a possibility to get your team better. If you’re under the cap, you can actually take some gambles on a deal that’s not great but hoping that it will work out in your situation. I think there’s some options once you’re under the cap, and I think we all know that Donnie and Mark are going to explore all these options. They always find ways to make stuff happen. We know that. Their track record is great, and we’ll just have to go from there. It’s a big summer for us. To have the 12-year playoff streak snapped is disappointing, but like I said, Mark has said that this is a big summer for him as well, so there will be probably a lot of changes but it’s hard to predict now. I mean, we could probably use help in every area on the court, so there’s work to do.”
Alongside Nowitzki, the Mavs will also return veteran leaders Shawn Marion and Vince Carter next season, but that’s where the certainties end for a franchise yearning to get back to the mountaintop after seizing the 2011 NBA championship. Meanwhile, despite welcoming his first child into the world this summer, Nowitzki’s desire to bring another title to Dallas continues to drive the 7-footer while hoping to be surrounded with a viable supporting cast. And with no thought of slowing down creeping into his mind, you can expect Nowitzki to return to the hardwood hungrier than ever next season.
Until then, however, the Mavs’ franchise player says he will play a prominent role in helping to rebuilding a championship-contending team this summer. And with Nowitzki as their lead recruiter in free agency, the Mavericks will attempt to fill their vacancies with plenty of talent to once again compete with the league’s upper echelon teams.
“Honestly, I can’t really see myself going anywhere else but here, so really the pressure is on Mark and Donnie to get this franchise back where it belongs,” Nowitzki said while putting to bed any doubt that he would request a trade elsewhere. “They know that, and then we’re all good. Everything is fine. I mean, I belong in this city. That’s just the bottom line. I could never see myself playing for another franchise or putting another jersey on. That would be probably the hardest thing I’d have to do in my life, so I want to stay here but I also want to play at a high level with a good team that we can be proud of and represent this city and this franchise.
“I’m here. If that’s going to bring a big free agent in here for me to fly somewhere, I’ll fly somewhere. I mean, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said of his summer plans. “I’ll be here for most of the summer probably. I’ve got to go home (to Germany) in June for a little bit, but I’ll be back somewhere the last week in June and then I’m probably here the rest of the summer. Start working out again like I did last year somewhere in July and running, so if they need me, if Mark and Donnie want me to do anything, I’m more than happy to. … We have a great proprietor and a great GM in place. We have a great coach in place that coached us to win the championship, and then we’ve got a couple of veterans still under contract, so we’ve got some veteran leadership already. And then, yeah, we’ve got a lot of roster space. We’ve got some cap space and we can get some players in here that can help and win. I think all those three experienced guys showed they still have some left in the tank. ‘Come on in and we’ll see how far we can ride it out.’”