Forgive Dirk Nowitzki if he doesn't know how to act right now.
It's been a while since he's had to deal with something like this.
For just the third time in his 15-year career, his Dallas Mavericks are not playing playoff basketball. The last time this happened he was a lanky, defenseless 21-year-old sophomore. Not coincidentally, that was also the last time he averaged fewer than 21.6 points per game.
This wasn't all a complete shock.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban's fruitless superstar pursuit left the front office scrambling for productive players, with the caveat that they couldn't eat up the cap space that the dismantling of the 2011 championship team had created. This makeshift roster also opened the season with an uncertainty surrounding its incumbent star as Nowitzki opened the season recovering from October knee surgery.
The fact that this club actually scrounged together 41 wins was nothing short of impressive.
But the 34-year-old Nowitzki can't afford more seasons of mediocrity. He needs to be on a team built to win now, but are the Mavericks that team?
2012-13 By The Numbers
No number created more frustration for Nowitzki's camp or the entire city of Dallas than 29. His knee injury, which necessitated a recent precautionary MRI (via Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News), kept him out of action for 29 games this season.
It might not sound like much—particularly with injuries stealing entire seasons from Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum this year. But this was a player who had missed a total of 45 games during his first 14 years in the league.
But there was one uplifting number for Nowitzki and Mavs fans: two. After making his 2012-13 debut on Dec. 23, he appeared in all but two of the remaining 55 games. Given the propensity of knee injuries to linger—Ricky Rubio seemed hampered by his all season, albeit with a far more serious ailment than Nowitzki's—this was certainly an encouraging sign.
Same goes for the number 20. On Feb. 26, Nowitzki throttled the Minnesota Timberwolves for 21 points and 20 rebounds. And he needed all of 35 minutes to tally those figures.
This isn't some world-class rebounder we're talking about here. Don't let his 7'0" frame fool you; he's averaged just 7.1 rebounds per game over his career. But his relentless glass work on that night gave him his first 20-20 game since April 2003 (via BostonHerald.com).
On April 14 against the New Orleans Hornets, game No. 80 for the Mavericks, he became just the 17th player in NBA history to eclipse the 25,000-point mark for his career with this jumper over Robin Lopez (via Sean Highkin of USA Today).
With two games left to pad his stats, the sharpshooter ran his point total to 25,051 (via Basketball-Reference.com). He now stands just 141 points behind Jerry West for No. 16 (25,192). Reggie Miller (25,279) and Alex English (25,613) are also well within his sights for next season.
What They're Saying
Mavs fans can rest a little easier following Nowitzki's exit interview. As long as the front office gets to work, that is.
The former MVP didn't hide his disappointment with this season's result, but he declared that he plans to remain with the franchise for the rest of his career (via Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com):
Honestly, I can't really see myself going anywhere else but here. Really, the pressure is on Mark (Cuban) and Donnie (Nelson) to get this franchise back to where it belongs, and they know that. Then we're all good, everything's fine...I mean, I belong to this city. That's just the bottom line. I could never see myself playing for another franchise, putting another jersey on. That would be probably the hardest thing I'd have to do in my life. I want to stay here, but I also want to play at a high level with a good team that we can be proud of and represent this city and this franchise.
His stance on the organization hadn't changed throughout the season, not even when the frustrations of mediocrity took over earlier in the year. Back in Jan. he questioned the wisdom behind Cuban's star-gazing approach to free agency (via MacMahon). "We tried to sign (Deron Williams), but we didn't sign him," he said. "So we have two options: We either trade everybody and start over or we bring in a bunch of one-year deals—which we did—and try to be a player this summer."
Even back then, though, his future intentions were clear. "The only reason I would leave—or would have left—is if we wouldn't have won the championship, and I would have been like a Karl Malone and (Gary) Payton going to join Kobe and Shaq in L.A. like they did at the end," he said. "But now I've got a ring and obviously want to finish my career here."
Needless to say, the upcoming offseason carries massive implications for this franchise and its biggest star.
There are a number of coveted players flooding the 2013 free-agent market (via Hoopsworld.com). But don't expect Nowitzki to be on the negotiating front lines. "I can try, but I'm really not the most positive person," he said. "I guess that's a German thing."
Still, he's confident that the pieces in place create an enticing environment for potential additions:
We have a great owner and a great GM in place. We have a great coach in place that coached us to win the championship. We've got a couple of veterans (Shawn Marion and Vince Carter) still under contract. We've got some veteran leadership already, and then we've got a lot roster space...Come on in, we'll see how far we can ride it out.
Nowitzki's put a lot of NBA mileage on his body. He's also seen steady declines in his production and playing time in each of the past four seasons.
He has never been a player known for his defense, and he looks like he's losing ground on that end. His 106 defensive rating this season was his worst mark in four years and the third-highest of his career (via Basketball-Reference.com).
But don't look for Dallas to be selling his stock anytime soon. And don't expect general manager Donnie Nelson's phone to stop ringing, either.
Nowitzki's still a potent offensive force. His deft shooting touch hasn't abandoned him.
His trademark step-back jumper is mechanical at this point. And coming from a player of his size, it'll be nearly impossible to block regardless of how much lift he can get.
And his high basketball IQ can't be overstated. Athleticism has failed many a former star, but that intelligent approach to the hardwood is here to stay.
He might not be the kind of player that can carry a franchise anymore, but he'd have a welcome roster spot on all 30 teams.
If we've learned anything from the exhaustive departures of players like Carmelo Anthony (from the Denver Nuggets) and Dwight Howard (from the Orlando Magic), it's been of the grueling effects that a star's uncertain future can plague an organization.
Perhaps that's why Nowitzki felt the need to align himself with the Mavericks when he did. He has just one year left on his current deal, with more than $22 million headed his way next season (via Hoopshype.com).
Don't be surprised if his production level falls short of meeting that lofty dollar amount, but he earned every penny of it during his masterful championship run two seasons ago.
Now there are no guarantees that he'll hold true to his words—this is the NBA after all. And he was careful to leave himself a bit of wiggle room with that statement.
But his comments carried no hint of a threatening tone. Rather, they came off more as instructional, tasking the front office with finding productive players over the summer, a necessary action to return this franchise to relevance.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Line
18.8 PPG / 7.0 RPG / 47.2 FG% / 39.5 3PT% / 32.7 MPG
Assuming the results of his aforementioned MRI come back clean, expect a slight bump in his scoring and rebounding numbers next season. If Cuban and Co. fall short in free agency again, those jumps could be more glaring.
There's nothing to suggest that his shooting percentages will vary much from his career numbers. His 41.4 three-point percentage this season was actually his third-best perimeter success rate since coming stateside.
As for the projected minutes, they would represent the third-lightest workload of his career. But if the Mavs are thinking playoffs entering the year, they'd be wise to monitor his playing time during the regular season.
The Crystal Ball Says...
It will be interesting to see how this franchise fares on the free-agent market. It's growing increasingly difficult to see either Chris Paul or Dwight Howard leaving L.A..
But even if the franchise only gives him a supporting cast comparable to this year's team, Dallas should have a postseason berth in its future. If Nowitzki could have avoided his knee surgery, I'm not sure Howard's Los Angeles Lakers are still playing at this point.
Regardless of the organization's recruitment success, Nowitzki's not going anywhere. Now he might not have more than three years left in his body—perhaps fewer if it starts to fail him—meaning his quest for another ring could be determined at the negotiating table this summer.
Frankly, I can't see Dallas finding the type of talent to take this team from the draft lottery to the NBA Finals before Nowitzki's forced to shut it down. When the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Hornets are matching max contract offers for players like Roy Hibbert and Eric Gordon, even Cuban's deep pockets will have trouble luring productive players away from their current clubs.
The bottom line for Mavs fans, though, is to enjoy Nowitzki while he's still here. The league may never see another talent quite like him.