The Eternal Dirk

Season no. 21 is about to start – 21 years playing for the same team: this is a first in the history of the league. Dirk's role may be changing, but he remains just as vital for the Mavericks. Bobby Karalla of mavs.com with a clairvoyant guest contribution from inside the team.

Somewhere in the middle of the scrum of reporters, in front of half a dozen news cameras and even more blinding lights, Dirk Nowitzki was giving his exit interview in the frigid basement of the American Airlines Center after another disappointing end to the season.

Nowitzki seemed tired, and he had every reason to be. The season is long, and the Mavs’ had just ended the day before. This one in particular seemed more challenging than the others, as the gap between expectation and reality was disappointingly large. As one hungover reporter after another asked the usual questions – Could this be it for you? What will it take to get back to the playoffs? Who do you want in free agency? What about the draft? – Nowitzki would give each question a fair amount of thought before sighing and giving his answer. It was no secret he expected better of himself and his team, but he was a good sport and gave us what we needed.

But, just then, things took a turn. Someone asked Dirk if he would be willing to come off the bench if it meant giving the team a chance to fill his position in the starting lineup with a better player, one who could conceivably give them a shot at returning to contention. A typical NBA player, let alone one of the greatest players of his generation, would not hesitate to politely deflect the question and move on. Superstars never admit weakness; it’s part of what makes them so great.

For example, just this season Carmelo Anthony said he would never want to come off the bench for the Thunder, adding during his exit interview, »I’ve sacrificed kind of damn near everything. So it’s something I really have to think about, if I really want to be this type of player, finish out my career as this type of player.«

Anthony is one of the leading active scorers, a 10-time All-Star, and one of the best and most famous players of his generation. While he’s getting older, he certainly has every right to expect to continue to start games. Superstars are often granted that right because they’ve earned it with their stellar play – in Anthony’s case, over the course of more than a decade.

I expected Nowitzki to say the same thing . But then he spoke. »My last two years, I want to enjoy,« Nowitzki began. »I want to be on a good team. I want to be on a winning team. Playoffs. Hopefully deep runs. So yeah, anything I’ve got to do to help is obviously no question.«

Here Nowitzki was, the morning after his season ended, volunteering to diminish his role for a franchise he built. »Whatever it takes,« he continued. »I’ve always said that.« His offer was news to general manager Donnie Nelson, or at least it seemed to be. Nelson was nearly moved to tears when asked for his thoughts on Nowitzki’s offer.

This exit interview did not happen in 2018, or in 2017. No, this conversation took place in 2015, a season in which the 36-year-old Nowitzki averaged 17.3 points per game and the Mavs won 50 games for the 11th time in his illustrious career.

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Dirk Nowitzki is extraordinary, and not only as a basketball player. He is acutely aware of his own shortcomings, to the point that a neutral observer might worry about his self-confidence. And until 2011 many did, although his brilliant run to the championship put those concerns to rest. Nowitzki has scored more than 31,000 points in his NBA career, he’s won a championship and an MVP, and he’s made more All-Star teams than he can count. He’s about to begin his 21st season for the Mavericks and has played in more than half their games all-time. He is so synonymous with his franchise that, at this point, it’s difficult to even remember that the Mavericks existed before Nowitzki.

Suffice it to say that he will not have to come off the bench if he doesn’t want to. He’s established more than enough equity in this town to leverage with upper management and remain in the starting lineup – and it could certainly be in their plans to continue starting Nowitzki even if he offers to be a sixth man even if it means leaving the game after four or five minutes, as was the case last season. Carmelo Anthony was against the idea of coming off the bench, and that’s no slight against him. Many stars throughout NBA history have surely done the same. And while many resist, Nowitzki offered it himself, at the end of a season in which he was named an All-Star.

There is a very real chance that Dirk’s name will not be called during pregame introductions in 2018-19. The Mavericks signed DeAndre Jordan in free agency and traded up to acquire Luka Dončić in the draft, filling two pressing needs in an 11-day span. In Jordan, Dallas has added one of the best defensive rebounders in the league and a lob target that should make life much easier for Dennis Smith Jr. Dončić, meanwhile, is considered one of the best European prospects ever and could immediately become the best passer on his team.

Donnie Nelson and Michael Finley have made a concerted effort to get younger in recent seasons. Jordan is 30 and is no spring chicken, but he’s still athletic enough to play like he’s 25. Dončić is not yet 20, and Smith will turn just 21 early in the season. Harrison Barnes is 26. The Mavericks are younger and more athletic, and they want to play faster and with more movement. Nowitzki, by comparison, is at his best in a slower, more deliberate offense, when a bevvy of ball-screens creates confusion at the top of the key while shooters cut back and forth on the wing.

Do you see where this is going?

This could finally be the year Nowitzki plays as a reserve. That isn’t to say that it will happen, or even that it should. Again, Dirk can do as he pleases. Legends can. If he wants to start games until he’s 50, the Mavericks will make it happen. But if he’s OK with checking in alongside his pick-and-pop buddy J.J. Barea seven minutes into the game and torching rookies, that’s how it’s going to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team’s notoriously funny and foul-mouthed player development coach Mike Procopio is already giving Nowitzki grief about being a backup. »We’ll only be able to sub you in during a replay review because it takes you so long to get up from the bench and walk to the scorer’s table!« The jokes write themselves.

Nowitzki might generally be more effective coming off the bench, if we extrapolate from last year’s numbers. When he and Barea shared the floor last season, Dallas scored a whopping 110.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA Stats, more than six points above the team’s season average. The Mavericks won just 24 games last season, but the club was always more than respectable when those two played together. In the 14 games the Nowitzki-Barea pair didn’t take the floor, Dallas was just 1-13.

Those two have terrorized opposing second units for years. I can’t begin to wonder how much hair coaches have ripped out of their own heads as they’ve watched yet another young backup big man leave Dirk wide-open at the top of the key or, even worse, being so terrified of Nowitzki getting open that they’ve disregarded every other player to the extent that Barea can scurry all the way to the rim for an uncontested layup.

Playing as a reserve could help save Nowitzki‘s legs, too. Even if he plays the same number of minutes as he did last season, he’ll feel fresher near the year’s end if he’s not constantly chasing around opposing starters. Dirk has left the door open for season No. 22, and feeling good in April and May is obviously the first step of that process.

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Of course, his decision will have less to do with himself and more to do with what’s best for the team in the years to come, when Nowitzki won’t have the choice to start or sit. That potentially could be an awkward, humbling thought for anyone, let alone a superstar of Dirk’s magnitude. But he’s on board. »If we are rebuilding, then I’m the face of that,« he said in 2017. The Mavericks haven’t had to rebuild since the former German wunderkind helped carry them out of the doldrums and into the playoffs at the start of the millennium. But all good things come to an end, and even Nowitzki realizes it.

But now, in season 21, there’s another reason for Nowitzki to remain excited to stick around, another project for him to undertake: Luka Dončić. The former Real Madrid superstar is a wunderboy in his own right, a 19-year-old prospect who has played more than 200 professional games since 2015. There has never been a teenager with as much experience and as many accolades as Dončić, who’s won the Spanish league, EuroBasket, and Euroleague (along with MVP honors) in the last calendar year.

There’s a night-and-day difference between Luka and 19-year-old Dirk. Dončić has been a star and known quantity for years, the son of a Slovenian basketball legend, and has racked up more accomplishments than most NBA players could ever hope to achieve. At the time Nowitzki came across the ocean, he was playing second-division basketball in Germany, and many of the most obsessed NBA fans had never heard of him.

Part of the reason Dončić is so ubiquitously well-known in America, though, is due to Dirk’s own trailblazing. Nowitzki shattered the Euro stereotype on the rise to superstardom, and many GMs were fired for taking chances on overseas talent in hopes that they would do the same. Americans now pay close attention to European sensations like Dončić and Mario Hezonja from the time they’re 16 years old, sometimes even earlier.

We watched EuroBasket last summer and marveled at how the Slovenian team dominated Spain in the semifinal, making a team of Ricky Rubio, Marc and Pau Gasol, and Sergio Rodriguez look pedestrian. Dončić racked up 11 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists against the Spaniards, and it was then that we all knew there was no way he wouldn’t be drafted in the top-five the following summer. A dominant season for Madrid vaulted him into the top-three, and in the No. 1 spot on many analysts’ draft boards. Teams were split on him, but he was No. 1 in Nelson’s eyes, and so Dallas traded its fifth pick and next year’s first-round pick to move up to No. 3 and get him.

Nowitzki’s job this season will be twofold: Force backups to be benched, and ensure that Dončić’s transition to life in the NBA is as seamless as possible – smoother than Nowitzki’s in 1999, his lockout-shortened rookie season, when he wondered whether or not he wanted to continue his NBA-career at all. Dallas is investing quite a bit into Dončić’s future, and the Mavericks are hoping Nowitzki is willing to do the same. He certainly has Dončić’s attention; during a draft-night press conference, Dončić called Nowitzki a »legend« and said he hopes to learn as much as he can from the German. He might have one season to do it, maybe two, but nevertheless the clock is ticking.

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Nowitzki’s end as a player might be coming soon. We all know this, himself included. After a few summers of signing contracts with an option for a second year, this time around Dirk signed a contract for only one season. Nowitzki isn’t one for pomp and circumstance, though, so we won’t really know if this is his last season until next spring. Or even the summer. If you recall his first quote in this story, he said he wanted to enjoy »my last two years.« That was in 2015, and he’s played three seasons since then. But you can’t help but feel that this time seems slightly different: The table is set for the Mavs’ future. But Dirk is still sitting at that table.

Luka Dončić and Dennis Smith Jr. appear to be the young cornerstones the front office has been searching for, and Harrison Barnes is perfectly equipped to be the team’s statesman in the post-Nowitzki era. (He’s no slouch on the floor, either.) This doesn’t mean Nowitzki’s work is done, however. Dirk won’t be in a jersey when Dončić is 26 and in his prime, but his legacy will. His words of wisdom, his attitude, his work ethic could live on in Dončić, and in Smith and Barnes or whoever else might be wearing a Mavericks uniform in 2025. They will pass his statue as they enter the arena, and every time they look up they’ll see his No. 41 jersey hanging from the rafters, right next to the championship banner.

But we’re not there yet.

Superstars are rarely asked to set up their teammates for a future without them, but Nowitzki is doing just that. He’s trained Barnes to be the silent workhorse, he’s introduced Smith to life in the league and guided him through a losing rookie season, and now he’s readying Dončić to make the most challenging leap of his career. Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, Nowitzki is playing an active role in preparing his team for future success. That is a sacrifice, but it’s one the eternal Dirk is happy to make.

___ von Bobby Karalla.

Photo © Jason Miller/Getty Images