After exchanging veterans like Jason Kidd and Jason Terry for younger replacements, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, the Dallas Mavericks are feeling quite a bit younger these days.
So too, it seems, is Dirk Nowitzki.
“It’s kind of hard to plan longer than two years ahead when you’re 34,” [Nowitzki] said. “But I definitely want to finish my contract strong, hopefully have a couple good years.
“So if it’s still fun and I feel well, then I’m more than happy to play longer.”
Is that the early onset of a midlife crisis talking, or might there be some good reason for Dirk's forward-thinking?
As it turns out, there are a couple of good reasons. In the short-term, the Mavs have a unique combination of hungry young talent (e.g. Mayo and Collison) and veterans who for various reasons still feel that they have just as much to prove. If head coach Rick Carlisle can make this squad gel in short order, this team could reprise its 2010-11 role of the ultimate dark-horse contender.
In the long-term, owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson have ensured a wealth of cap space going into the summer of 2014—when Dirk becomes a free agent.
Even if the organization made some pricey long-term acquisitions between now and then (a scenario that doesn't appear to be on the radar), it could still have enough flexibility to make a run at a another premium free agent besides Nowitzki. As Cuban learned this summer, there are no guarantees in such a market, but the sheer possibility of making a big splash has to have Dirk slightly intrigued.
In the meantime, he'll go to work with a roster that has to rank as one of the deepest and most experienced of his tenure.
Needless to say, Dirk isn't too focused on 2014 just yet. He's too busy making the most of his opportunities in the here and now—something you really couldn't have said this time a year ago.
Nowitzki got off to a slow start last season thanks in large part to an offseason routine disrupted by the lockout and perhaps a bit of a post-title letdown to boot. Looking back on the experience has been instructive for the 34-year-old (via NBA.com's Fran Blinebury).
"For me, actually, it was a great lesson to learn," Nowitzki said. "I can't just shut it down all the way to zero anymore and expect to be in shape in four weeks. You can do that when you're in your 20s, but not after 14 years in the league."
As if a rededicated Dirk weren't enough reason for optimism, the Mavs also have to be pretty happy with their new and likely improved rotation.
Dallas will be better prepared to initiate an inside-out offense than it has ever been in the Nowitzki era. You can thank Chris Kaman and Elton Brand for that. Both are capable post scorers, and Kaman is especially adept at playing with his back to the basket. That will allow Nowitzki to spend a bit more time around the perimeter, playing off the ball and allowing the offense to run through someone else for a change.
The speedy Darren Collison should have a similar effect on Dirk's game. On the Mavs, Jason Kidd had been reduced to a spot-up perimeter shooter who could feed the post, but his days as a drive-and-kick threat were long gone.
Collison gives Dallas a point guard who can penetrate and break the defense down, which again means that Nowitzki can space the floor and await a pass rather than be forced to create so much of his own offense from the block.
That will certainly give the seven-footer some cleaner looks, but it also means that he won't have to subject himself to quite so much wear and tear on the block.
With all the indications that Nowitzki is poised for something of a rebound year, it's easy to forget that he was still pretty fantastic last season. He averaged 21.6 points in just 33.5 minutes a game, which is production that most players would envy. The only real anomaly was his 46 percent shooting—a drop-off after six seasons of averaging 48 percent or better.
For a big man who does so much of his damage with a jumpshot, that 46 percent really wasn't half-bad though.
You can see why the prospect of some improvement is so encouraging. This isn't about rebounding from a bad season—it's about rebounding from a season that just wasn't quite up to Dirk's obscenely lofty standards.
Because the Mavs go as Dirk goes, they could be going a long way this season.