According to Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News, Dirk Nowitzki participated in his first full practice since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Nowitzki is now targeting a post-Christmas return to game action.
The question is, with the Mavericks having lost three of four, will Dirk's return be enough to save the Dallas Mavericks' season?
Sefko reports that Nowitzki is uncertain as to when he will return. What Dirk is sure of, however, is that he will require multiple practices to return to game form.
Considering the Mavericks have a light practice schedule ahead, that projects Nowitzki to miss more time than some would like. Perhaps a 2013 return date remains accurate. Nowitzki said (per Sefko's report):
It’s the first time I really got going a little bit and it feels good to be back out. Unfortunately, the next couple days, I don’t think there’s a lot of practice time. We got a back to back and another game on Sunday, so I’m going to be playing probably some one-on-one, some two-on-two, with the low-minute guys and slowly get better and better.
[I at least want] a couple practices under my belt. But there’s no real date set. So we’ll have to see how the knee responds to the first couple workouts.
With this being established, it is safe to estimate that Nowitzki will miss at least the next three games. Considering December 27 is also a road game, December 28 against the Denver Nuggets may be the earliest return date.
That's all speculative, however.
As for what will happen once Nowitzki returns, expect the future Hall of Fame power forward to serve as the sixth man. Temporarily, that is.
Much like what the Minnesota Timberwolves have done with Ricky Rubio, the Mavs will provide Dirk with a gradual return to his usual playing time. A gradual process that is intended to create a smooth path to recovery.
It will also help the nine new players on the roster adjust to his presence and style of play. Nowitzki said:
[We’ll] see what the smartest thing is, maybe come off the bench for the first couple games, play around 20-25 minutes. That’s something I guess we need to talk about when it gets to that point. I’m not opposed to obviously coming off the bench at the beginning and slowly finding my rhythm, but I think that’s something we need to talk about when it gets closer.
We haven’t addressed that yet, but it’s obvious I’m not going to play 35 minutes my first game out. That’s something I think we’re going to talk about next week.
It's clear that the Mavericks are thinking big picture.
The issue at hand, however, is not how Nowitzki returns to a starting role. It is whether he can save the Mavericks from missing the postseason.
Here's why he can.
The 2012-13 Dallas Mavericks have seen an All-Star caliber outburst from O.J. Mayo and the revitalization of Chris Kaman. Unfortunately, they've also witnessed the inconsistency of their supporting cast.
Fear not, Mavericks fans. Help is on the way.
With Nowitzki and Shawn Marion returning from injury, there will be an elevated level of consistency.
A scary thought considering Dallas is presently averaging 100.2 points per game.
Marion is already making an impact, averaging 14.0 points and 10.8 rebounds since returning from a groin injury a week ago. Nowitzki will likely chip in 20 points of his own, thus forcing opposing defenses to collapse on the interior.
This will give Mayo more space on the perimeter to work his magic. Offensive efficiency.
Dirk Nowitzki has never been the most dominant defensive force. In fact, Nowitzki's individual defense has been average, at best, throughout the duration of his illustrious career.
As for his impact on team defense, allow the numbers to speak for themselves.
During the 2011-12 season, the Mavericks allowed 91.4 points per 48 minutes with Nowitzki on the floor. They allowed 97.4 when Nowitzki was on the bench.
2010-11 was no different, as the Mavs allowed 93.8 with Dirk and 99.5 without.
Considering the Mavericks are allowing 101.5 points per game in 2012-13, it's fair to say that Dirk's presence has been missed. His presence as a 7'0" body in the paint, alone, offers an improvement over the present situation.
He may not block many shots, but he'll certainly alter the trajectory of some.
Considering the Dallas Mavericks have managed to start this season at 12-13, it's safe to say that head coach Rick Carlisle has done a rather masterful job with the talent at hand. As for why, look no further than injuries to Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Chris Kaman.
Scarce was the belief that Dallas would sit one game off of .500 with O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison leading the way.
The Mavs have also been in the game in many of their losses, as six of them have come by 10 points or less. Four of those defeats came in overtime.
One can only imagine that the Mavericks would have fared differently had Dirk been present in late-game situations.
With Nowitzki's return to the rotation, coach Carlisle will now have a player that he can trust with the ball in his hands during clutch moments. Although Mayo has proven capable, he hardly has the late-game pedigree of Nowitzki.
With Dirk helping Dallas improve on offense, defense and late-game situations, the season can be saved.