Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Dirk Nowitzki underwent arthroscopic surgery to his right knee. He is expected to resume on-court activities within approximately 6 weeks.— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) October 19, 2012
This essentially means the only thing left to do in Dallas is panic.
Nowitzki is the latest NBA superstar to suffer an extensive injury. In the past six months, we have witnessed the humanization of prolific fixtures such as Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin and, more recently, Kevin Love.
Now it's Nowitzki, who has had knee problems in the past but was hoping to avoid going under the knife.
Well, that didn't quite work out, leaving the Mavericks to face a bitter reality, one they haven't had to acknowledge in 15 years—life without Dirk.
Truth be told, Dallas literally cannot remember what it's like to carry on without him. In 14 seasons with the team, Nowitzki has played in fewer than 73 regular-season games just twice. The years in which he played in fewer? His rookie campaign in 1998-99 and the 2011-12 crusade—both lockout-shortened seasons.
In other words, Nowitzki has been the poster boy for durability his entire career, a career that has seen him lead the Mavericks to 12 consecutive playoff berths, a career that has seen him carry the team to one NBA title and, most importantly, a career that sheltered Dallas from life without a superstar.
But now, everything has changed.
If Nowitzki indeed returns in six weeks, he will have missed 16 games, 10 of which come against playoff contenders.
Can the Nowitzki-less Mavericks survive such a stretch? Can they put themselves in a position to where they're still within playoff contention upon his return?
To put it lightly—no. To put it with a strong dose of blatant honesty—hell no.
Let's assume that Nowitzki, even at 11 years his senior, won't follow in Eric Gordon's footsteps. Let's assume that not only will he be ready by December 1, but he will be prepared to put up his averages of 21.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest.
The Mavericks will be tasked with digging themselves out of an enormous hole.
Even after some deft offseason patchwork, Dallas' roster isn't fit to contend for a title. It's more of a bottom-four playoff team. And that's with Nowitzki.
So, how is a group of perennial role players, a group where the wildly inconsistent O.J. Mayo is suddenly top dog, supposed to fair on its own for nearly two months?
Not well. Because, best-case scenario, the Mavericks lose all 10 games to postseason hopefuls and grab victories against the other six that aren't.
But that's the best case. Without Nowitzki, Dallas isn't guaranteed to defeat teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Wall-less Washington Wizards. They'll barely even be favored in their two games against the Charlotte Bobcats.
Let's not forget, this isn't just a team down Nowitzki—this is a squad with players that are completely new to each other. Elton Brand, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Mayo are all expected to be key contributors—especially in Nowitzki's absence—but they've never played together before.
And even powerhouses experience growing pains—just ask the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat—and Dallas cannot even be considered a super team, so just imagine how much more it'll struggle to compete without its primary pillar.
Beyond that, the reality of exploring uncharted territory cannot be stressed enough. Nowitzki missed nine games during the 2010-11 campaign—the most he's ever missed in a single season—and the Mavericks posted a record of 2-7 during that stretch.
And that was a championship team, a team that boasted the likes of Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and a younger, more effective Shawn Marion. If they, the supporting cast of a title-caliber collective, cannot make do for nine games without Nowitzki, how is a docket of unfamiliar and inconsistent role players supposed handle 16?
It can't. Dallas won't be able to survive without him. And by the time he returns, it will be too late to salvage what's left of the season.
A healthy Nowitzki was the only entity standing between the Mavericks and being demoted to the lottery for the first time in over decade.
But he's gone.
And with him went Dallas' hopes of making the playoffs.