It turns out playoff beards don't always work.
The Dallas Mavericks wrapped up the season at 41-41, a record which would have earned them a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs play in the West and finished out of the playoffs by four games.
Dallas failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2000, leaving Dirk riled and restless. "Struggling to make the playoffs" is not in his vocabulary (not even in the German, which I believe is "schadenplayöffs").
After undergoing knee surgery late in the offseason, Dirk didn't play until December 23 when Dallas was 12-15. They promptly lost their next four games and eight of nine after Nowitzki returned.
Following two more months of middling basketball, the Mavericks finished the season on a high note, going 15-9 after March 1. But they still fell far short of punching their ticket to the postseason.
Ultimately, Dirk's future consists in a truly agonizing choice: retire in two or three years as a career Dallas Maverick or try for another ring elsewhere. He cannot and will not have both.
What is Dallas' Plan?
During the January slump, Dirk vented his frustration to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, saying, "So either you break the whole thing up and trade me, or you get a bunch of one-year deals and try to be a player next summer. That's the decision we made, so now we've got to fight through it."
So, even Dirk knew that this year would probably be a wash. And Cuban has also stated he will not trade Nowitzki (via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News).
Since the one-year deals didn't work, it's up to Dallas' front office to lure the top free agents this offseason.
But Dirk was bearish on the free-agent market when talking to MacMahon in January, "We hoped for Dwight. Why would he leave the Lakers? To me, it makes no sense. He's in a great situation. Why would CP3 leave?"
Nowitzki enters the final year of his contract next season when he will make $22.7 million.
He recently told MacMahon: "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...but I also want to play at a high level with a good team that we can be proud of..."
So Dirk can't envision his departure from Dallas, but if he's really hungry for another championship ring and the Mavs aren't playing at a high level, he just might do the hardest thing he's had to do in his life (not such a hard life in that case).
If they plod through another mediocre season in Big D, the greatest player in franchise history might just decide to ride off into the sunset.
Or he might follow Derek Fisher's lead and ride across the vast plains for a title shot with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Or he'd sure fit in well with the Houston Rockets. Rest assured that Daryl Morley has a manila folder in his desk stuffed with potential scenarios to land the gangly giant from Wurzburg.
Will Dirk Return to Top Form?
The season had an odd trajectory for Nowitzki. After struggling to find his legs through an erratic month of January, Dirk missed two games with a right abductor strain. Those already marked the 28th and 29th games he had missed in the young season.
But something about that brief absence set him on the HOV lane to recovery.
He averaged 18.0 points on 45.4 percent shooting in February, including a formidable 54.2 percent from three-point range. He also posted 8.5 rebounds that month.
In March, though Dirk couldn't hit his treys at the same torrid clip (46.8 percent), he poured in 20.0 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting. That's the Dirk Dallas fans know and love.
But Nowitzki seemed to tire down the stretch even as the Mavs nipped at the Los Angeles Lakers for the final playoff spot. Beginning with a damning 20-point loss to those very Lakers on April 2, Dirk's averages declined to 16.7 points on 43.7 percent shooting over the final nine games.
He posted a season average of under 20 points for the first time since 2000. It was also his first season with a player efficiency rating under 20. Of Dallas' 10 most used five-man lineups, only three of them had a positive floor rating, and the top two did not include Dirk (per 82games.com).
Perhaps the German wunderkind is just getting long in the tooth, as the wear and tear of huge playing time finally takes its toll.
Nowitzki is 25 minutes shy of 40,000 career minutes in the regular season. He's also played an additional 5,281 minutes in the playoffs.
To help provide context for how long Dirk has been in the NBA, longtime retirees Steve Francis and Wally Szczerbiak were drafted the year after him. Steve Nash was drafted two years before Nowitzki and still trails him by 2,200 minutes, which is roughly the equivalent of the entire 2011-12 season.
Dirk has plenty left in the tank, but he may be a diminished player going forth, which is always a depressing decline to witness—especially when paying $22 million for it.
Speaking to Tim MacMahon, Nowitzki stated: “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."
While it's common knowledge that Dirk is not possessed of letter-perfect English skills, there seems to be a logical assertion implicit in his use of the word "then." As in, given that the pressure is on, if Cuban and Walsh know that, then it's all good.
And if Cuban and Nellie don't know that? Then it's not all good.
One might be tempted to say something along the lines of this: "Of course the Mavs front office knows the pressure is on. Cuban has piles of money and he's gonna make some big moves."
Ah yes, but the easy rejoinder to that is simple: Tyson Chandler.
Directly after Dallas shocked the Miami Heat to snag the 2011 championship, Cuban let Chandler exit stage left to join the New York Knicks and netted little more than Andy Rautins in return (who has not played an NBA game since).
Chandler wasted no time in winning Defensive Player of the Year and quickly became a heart-and-soul player for New York. Dirk is still bitter.
But don't worry, Nowitzki doesn't seem to consider free agency or throwing a tantrum to force a trade as viable options. It appears the 34-year-old will remain in Dallas until he either decides to retire or Cuban fails to sign any decent players, whichever comes first.
Last summer, Dallas lost Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to contending teams in the East, but they gained Chris Kaman, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo.
Kaman flourished while playing fewer minutes than last year and blended in well with the Dallas roster.
Collison ran the point pretty well, but the Mavs are intent on getting better at that position.
No doubt upgrading PG is Mavs' top priority. Rick Carlisle: "It's become the most important position in the league."— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 18, 2013
Mayo was Dallas' offensive leader for large portions of the season and could be a piece to build a backcourt around.
But much like Rasheed Wallace, Mayo wants someone to "cut the check" and make it in the largest amount possible.
OJ Mayo is opting to be free agent again this summer. More on @espndallas soon— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 18, 2013
Brandan Wright turned in another season of efficient numbers in limited minutes. Jae Crowder came out of Marquette and instantly served as a defensive force, as well as a pretty good cheerleader due to his boundless energy.
The aging vets around Dirk also excelled, with Shawn Marion and Vince Carter each improving significantly on their PER from a year ago.
Now Dallas just needs to focus on beating the half dozen vastly superior teams in their conference.
Gunslinging Out West
Don't tell Dirk, but the Western Conference has become incredibly good since the Mavs hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Not only do the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs continue to sit atop the totem pole, but the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies all look like legit contenders for the NBA Finals.
Add to that mix the burgeoning Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, and you have seven teams that are poised to challenge for their division over the next two or three seasons.
Can Dirk Nowitzki win another title in Dallas?
And you had better believe the Lakers will be back with a huge chip on their shoulders next year.
So how can Dallas compete? In short, they can't. They lack youth, depth and a second star to buttress Dirk. Short of making a huge splash in free agency this summer, Dirk will likely lead the way as Dallas stumbles through another ho-hum season.
Though they have about $21 million coming off the books (per HoopsHype.com), a lot of areas need tending to, far too many to mold these Mavs into a Western Conference contender. So if Dirk wants one last ring, he'll need to shop around.