It could be a fun season in Dallas if Nowitzki is healthy.
There's still no second superstar on the roster to take some of the burden away from Nowitzki, and the Dallas Mavericks' best rim protector, Samuel Dalembert, can't be counted on to play much more than 20 minutes a game. Still, this is the most talented Dallas team since the 2010-11 championship squad, and if it can play just a scrap of defense—and Nowitzki proves that he can still produce at a superstar level—it could make some playoff noise.
Last year was proof that Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle can get to 40 wins with just a so-so cast of role players. Now we get to see what they can do with a little bit more.
Can Nowitzki Turn Back The Clock?
Nowitzki had a rough start to last season after a knee surgery sapped him of his all-important off-the-bounce game. He picked it up in the season's second half however, posting nearly 19 points and eight rebounds per game on 60 percent true shooting, per Basketball-Reference.
Those are some great numbers, but to be honest, Nowitzki has to be even better if the Mavs are to actually compete with the Western Conference elite. Dallas has put all its eggs in the offense basket. Shawn Marion and Dalembert are the team's two best defenders, and you could make the case that they're its only two plus defenders at all.
That means the Mavs have to score in bunches, and they certainly have the tools to do it. For all of the (deserved) flak Monta Ellis takes, he's a creative passer and pick-and-roll player who should couple well with Nowitzki. The same can be said about Jose Calderon, a lights-out shooter who can run a pretty mean pick-and-roll himself.
Nowitzki's the guy who makes it all go though, and to be blunt, he needs to be his old self if he's to carry this team to the playoffs in an absolutely brutal West. Obviously, Nowitzki circa 2006 isn't going to be showing up, but if he could even just get back to his 2010-11 form—both in production and health—it'd be huge for the Mavs.
Nowitzki was, as usual, a very efficient scorer last season, but because of his health issues, he wasn't near as a big a part of the Mavs' offense as would be ideal. Last season, 45 players posted a usage percentage higher than Nowitzki's 24.7, including Ellis himself, per NBA.com.
Again, Nowitzki was banged up and trying to relieve the burden on him was probably a good move in the long run. But Dallas is looking to be competitive this season, and it's hard to imagine that happening if Nowitzki can't be a high-usage player—especially if the team continues to limit his minutes to the extent it did last season.
Over the past few years, we've seen Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant fight the effects of time, and the Mavs' season hinges on whether Nowitzki can do the same.
What's On The Line For Nowitzki And The Mavericks?
The answer is more or less the same for both. They're playing for next year.
Basically, Nowitzki and the Mavs are using this season to prove that they're still relevant. Even the most diehard Mavericks homer would admit that the current Dallas roster is not championship material. There's a lot of talent on the roster, sure, but the team can't defend and the pieces are by no means a perfect fit.
However, Nowitzki has already gone on record saying that he'd be willing to take a significant pay cut following this season, telling ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon:
At this point of my career, it's all about competing and winning. It's not about money. Obviously, Cuban took care of me for a long, long time. I always tried to pay him back by hard playing and being here for this franchise, so I don't think we're going to fight over money. I want to compete over these last couple of years. That's going to be the goal.
That opens up a whole lot of cap space and a whole lot of intriguing roster possibilities. But at the same time, it's become increasingly clear over the past two years that free agents aren't as interested in the Mavs as the Mavs are in them.
There's a reason that Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and many other big free agents have spurned Dallas in recent summers: They don't believe that it's truly a place to compete for a championship now or in the future. The onus is on Nowitzki and the Mavs to prove otherwise this season.
If Nowitzki puts up a monster year and the Mavs show some real fight in the Western Conference, they have a better-than-decent shot of luring over serious help and positioning themselves for future title runs. There's a lot to like about the Mavs' roster, and if you squint, you can see the makings of a team that might just be a piece or two away from true contention.
Of course, if they crash and burn this season, then things start to look a lot bleaker. Heck, at that point, Nowitzki choosing to sign elsewhere isn't completely outside the realm of possibility. He's made it very clear that he wants to compete for championships over the next few years, and there's no shortage of teams that will bid for his services. If he doesn't feel like he can compete in Dallas, he could definitely go somewhere else.
Either way, the future of both Nowitzki and the Mavericks is at stake this season. It's a big one.
Scouting Report For 2013-14 Season
I think we all know what Nowitzki's go-to move is. His oft-imitated one-legged turnaround is becoming as much a part of basketball lore as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook, Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake and George Gervin's finger roll.
Nowitzki's size and nifty off-the-dribble game make him an absolute nightmare to defend.
If he's faced with a smaller defender, he can back them down for an easy shot at the basket, and if he's faced with a bigger defender, he can just face up and blow by them for an easy look at the rim. Even worse for opposing defenses, he can consistently draw bigs out to the three-point line. Not a lot of ways to win against Dirk.
Honestly, the only real way to defend Nowitzki is to make getting him the ball as difficult as possible. If there's one weakness in his offensive game it's that he generally needs to rely on other players to get him the ball—he can't really run the show on his own. It's hard to characterize that as a “weakness” for a 7'0” forward, but that's the best you're going to find.
Aggressively fronting Nowitzki as much as possible is the route most defenses take, and it's probably the most effective one. He's a very good passer out of the high post, and doubling him isn't the best idea unless he's really hot.
Nowitzki is similar to Kevin Durant in the sense that if he gets a clean catch around the elbow area or further in, the defense is already dead. He's almost guaranteed to get off a solid shot, and at that point, the best a defender can do is body him up, try not foul and just hope that he misses.
Even without the ball, Nowitzki can mess with a lot of defenses.
There are only a handful of bigs who can consistently shoot around 40 percent from three. Even if he doesn't have it going offensively, Nowitzki can give other players a boost by just standing around on the perimeter. He's guaranteed to draw opposing bigs away from the rim, which opens up easy lanes for guys like Ellis and Vince Carter.
With all that being said, Nowitzki does have one weakness aside from the whole “needs someone to get him the ball” thing—his defense. He's not a bad defender by any means, but on a good night, he's little more than slightly above average.
Nowitzki is a smart defender who understands where to be, but he's lost some quickness over the years, and he's not exactly a leaper. That wasn't a problem when Chandler was behind him erasing shots during the Mavs' title run, but it might be this season, especially if Dalembert doesn't prove up to taking on more minutes.
The Mavs have precious little rim protection in a league that basically demands it of competitive teams. Nowitzki's offense far outweighs his so-so defense, and Marion has been one of the league's best and most versatile defenders for years, so it's often a non-issue.
Still, Dallas ranked 19th defensively last season, per Basketball-Reference, and it won't improve leaps and bounds (heck, it could regress) this year. For a team with playoff aspirations, that's a problem.
If Nowitzki is healthy, then he could be poised for a big-time comeback year. Say what you will about Calderon and Ellis, they'll give him some breathing room and should help Dallas to its best offensive year since Chandler was eating up defenders in the pick-and-roll.
In the absolute best-case scenario, Nowitzki is healthy and meshes with his new teammates right away, establishing a killer pick-and-roll with Ellis and regaining his high-post mojo. The Mavericks put up a great fight in the playoffs, and free agents line up to play with a rejuvenated Nowitzki.
In the worst-case scenario, a banged-up Nowitzki submits a subpar season, and the Mavs get torched defensively on a nightly basis, leading to the lottery and No. 41 signing elsewhere in the summer.
I'm going to lean more on the optimistic side and project a stat line that looks a bit like the one Nowitzki put up in 2010-11:
Dallas is going to be hard-pressed to make the playoffs, but I think we've all learned by now that it's never smart to doubt Nowitzki. Either way, it's a critical year for both him and the Mavericks organization.