Tonight, Dirk Nowitzki will become just the sixth player in NBA history to play 50,000 career minutes.
Nowitzki recently became the sixth ever to score 30,000 points. He’s the only European to win NBA MVP honors, and is a card-carrying member of the exclusive club of greats to have won both MVP and Finals MVP honors. He holds virtually every Mavericks record. Suffice it to say that by now, we are used to witnessing Nowitzki accomplish things.
This achievement, though, is a little more meaningful. For starters, it’s now even more exclusive than the 30,000-point club, which is crazy to think about. There have been thousands of NBA players, and soon only six will have played 50,000 minutes. Earlier this season, LeBron James became the seventh player to reach 30K.
More importantly, however, this is a testament not just to Nowitzki’s peak and offensive prowess, but to his longevity. You don’t reach 50,000 minutes played without a combination of extraordinary ability, of course, but also health. Nowitzki never missed more than nine games in a season during his first 14 NBA campaigns. Now in his 20th season, he’s only missed 10+ games twice: his age-34 season in 2012-13 and age-38 season in 2016-17.
“It’s a staggering accomplishment and done with such grace and such little hype that it’s probably very much taken for granted,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said.
Nowitzki’s knee injury that sidelined him for the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign was a tough blow for the Mavericks, who at the time were only two years removed from winning a championship. Dirk was still considered an elite NBA player, but missing the first two months of the season resulted in a down year for the German and for his team, which floundered without him. (We did get the infamous .500 beards from it, though, which produced some pretty awesome pictures.)
The next season, 2013-14, he returned to his typical load of games and minutes at age 35 and nearly put together a 50/40/90 season. That year, starting next to Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, and Sam Dalembert, Nowitzki averaged 21.7 points per game on 49.7/39.8/89.9 shooting splits. Dallas won 49 games that season and nearly upset the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the first round, taking them all the way to seven games. Only one other team even took San Antonio to six games that postseason.
The Mavericks struggling without Nowitzki is not new. Dallas had a positive net rating with Nowitzki on the floor for at least 16 straight seasons, from 2000-01 to 2015-16. (Basketball-Reference’s plus-minus database only goes back to 2000-01.) Throughout that time, the Mavs outscored opponents by 7.1 points per 100 possessions with Nowitzki on the floor. For reference, the 36-16 Toronto Raptors, who are on pace to win 57 games, have a +7.0 net rating this season. That was what the Mavericks averaged with Nowitzki on the floor for 16 years. During that time, the German had a cumulative +6,587 plus-minus, which ranked second in the NBA behind only Tim Duncan.
Even last season, the first time in at least 17 years that the Mavericks were outscored on average with Nowitzki on the floor, Dallas was still better with Dirk on the floor than when he wasn’t. The Mavericks won 33 games last season but still played competitive basketball with Dirk on the floor, being outscored by only 2.1 points per 100 possessions. (They were outscored by 3.8 per 100 with him off.)
“The whole thing is just an amazing set of accomplishments straight across the board, starting with leading the franchise in virtually every offensive statistical category along with rebounding, to the longevity to the durability to how he’s carried the franchise and everything else,” Carlisle said.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about all of this is Nowitzki’s contained efficiency. Despite playing nearly 50,000 minutes and scoring more than 30,000 points, Dirk ranks just 81st all-time in field goal attempts per game at 16.0. For reference, Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell is taking 16.2 shots per game this season. Kobe Bryant, who ranks third all-time in scoring, averaged 19.5 field goal attempts per game for his career. Nowitzki averaged as many attempts only one season in his entire career.
Now at age 39 and in his 20th pro season, Dirk is certainly not the First Team All-NBA superstar he was in the mid-2000s. But he’s still effective, currently sporting the third-best effective field goal percentage of his career, at 54.4 percent. He’s shooting the 3-ball better than he ever has, at 42.9 percent. He’s only taken 81 free throws, but he’s only missed nine. He’s still a picture of efficiency, putting up numbers that most big men could only dream of matching.
And he’s still got his longevity. He hasn’t missed a game yet this season. If he realizes his goal of playing all 82, by year’s end he’ll tie Karl Malone (1,476) for fourth all-time in games played. With 29 more games under his belt, that would likely move him past Kevin Garnett (50,418) for third all-time in minutes played. As he climbs the minutes list, he’ll move past his old running mate Jason Kidd.
There have been few players quite like Nowitzki. Only one, obviously, has played 20 seasons for one team (Kobe Bryant). Just a handful have scored more points, and soon only a couple will have played more minutes. His rare combination of an extended peak and superior longevity is virtually impossible to achieve in this day and age as even the best players play fewer minutes and miss more games for rest and maintenance purposes in order to maximize their primes. It’s a wise practice for both player and team, but it also means the likelihood of Nowitzki’s places on the scoring list and minutes list are relatively safe. LeBron James is sure to pass Dirk in points within the next year or two, and will probably also catch him in minutes. Beyond him, Kevin Durant is a real possibility in points (and Carmelo Anthony to a much lesser degree), but it’s hard to come up with many others that have a true chance at passing him in either.
And his trump card: He did it all for one team. That’s something that will set him apart from his peers for decades to come, and maybe forever. Twenty seasons for one team, 30,000 points, 50,000 minutes, an MVP, and a Finals MVP. You’re lucky to do one of those things; no one has ever done all five until now. Until Dirk. He’s become a member of enough exclusive clubs at this point in his career. It’s time to start his own. And it’s likely he’ll be by himself in this one for a long, long time.