On Tuesday, Dirk Nowitzki reportedly told Mark Stein of the New York Times that “as of now”, he’s “planning to come back next season”. If he does indeed do just that, the 2018-19 season will be his 21st in the NBA, not to mention his 21st with the Dallas Mavericks.
The romantic in me loves this story, as Dirk’s greatness is a result of hard work and devotion to his craft. But on the flip side, I’m inclined to believe that he should have hung them up some time ago.
Dirk’s effectiveness on the floor has slowly dwindled over the past five years. He’s gone from averaging 21.7 points in 32.9 minutes per game in 2013-14, to averaging just 12.1 points in 24.8 minutes this season. Don’t get me wrong, Dirk can still get it done. But watching him play now is like watching the corpse of an All-Star traipse up and down the floor, desperately trying to catch his breath from possession to possession.
Alright, so it’s not quite that bad. But star players need to know when it’s time to give up the ghost. That said, recent evidence suggests that bowing out at the right time isn’t all that easy though, and it could be said that in recent years players like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have all lost that particular battle.
This, presumably, has a lot to do with the fact that athletes get such a limited window in which to do the thing they love. And while NBA players like Kobe, Timmy and KG will all have retired with enough money to do whatever they please, nothing will ever match the thrill of competing at the very highest level.
Evidently Dirk knows this. He’s currently 39 years old and hasn’t been part of a competitive outfit since the Mavericks overcame the Miami Heat back in the 2011 Finals. Since then, they’ve made the playoffs on four further occasions, however they’ve not progressed beyond the first round in that time. To make matters worse, this season they’re 22-51 and quite obviously tanking. But Dirk’s reluctance to pass on to the NBA afterlife may now be affecting the franchise’s ability to move forward, as the roster is still very much caught between his glory days and a bright new future. In its current form, it’s pretty darned messy and aside from Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes and (potentially) Nerlens Noel, features very few beacons of hope. It needs an overhaul, but one can only assume that owner Mark Cuban is delaying his spring clean until after Dirk’s swansong.
Given how much of a mess the club has become behind the scenes, who knows if this is true or not. Cuban’s reputation has been called into question recently thanks to his behavior, but he hasn’t done himself too many favors since the Mavs won their title back in 2011. He, after all, failed to bring back some of the key pieces of that title-winning team, which meant Dallas, in turn, failed to build on its success. In 2011-12, the Mavs won just 36 games – 21 fewer than the previous year. Also, it should be noted that Dirk’s willingness to accept increasingly decreasing deals still wasn’t enough to help Cuban field a team capable of competing in the Western Conference.
Given that Dallas is a relatively small market, that’s not all that surprising, but it is strange to think that the Mavs fell so far behind the game so soon after winning a title, despite having one of the best power forwards of all-time onboard. And the bottom line is that Dirk is one of the best of of all-time. He currently occupies the sixth spot on the all-time points list, and has a realistic shot at catching Wilt Chamberlain if he does play on. He’s the most impactful European player the NBA has ever seen, not to mention a first-ballot Hall of Famer. On top of that, he has career averages of 21.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists. The trouble is that his sub-par play is now arguably going some way to tarnishing his reputation.
Luckily for him, what a player does in the years leading up to retirement rarely leaves much of a memory, Kobe’s epic final game aside. After all, when we think of a player like Garnett, we’re probably more inclined to recall the “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE” roar of his championship-winning season rather than his final year, during which he averaged just 3.2 points per game for his beloved Timberwolves. And the same will be true of Dirk when he finally gives in, as he’ll always be remembered for that shaggy hair and those awkward looking one-legged faders. Still, it’s sad to see our idols fade before our eyes and fade he certainly has these past few years. But there is, as Mark Stein wrote, a chance that he won’t return:
“An official decision on whether to invoke the 2018-19 player option on the two-year, $10 million contract he signed in July 2017 will not be made until the off-season. First, Nowitzki plans to step away from the game next month, huddle with his wife, Jessica, and his longtime German shooting coach and adviser, Holger Geschwindner, about the future, and undergo a thorough examination of his health.”
Let’s hope he also examines his ability to impact the game and the effect his continued presence in Dallas is having on the team. Assuming he does, these next few games may turn out to be his last.
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