Players like Dirk Nowitzki are rare. And it's even rarer when surefire Hall of Famers like the Diggler sustain their greatness as they enter their mid-30s.
But Dirk has been phenomenal this season, defying age and putting together what might be his final campaign as a true superstar.
Which is why it's such a shame that a flawed Dallas Mavericks team is letting it go to waste.
What we saw in the Mavericks' 117-115 home loss to the Houston Rockets drove that painful point home.
Nowitzki was a beast, piling up 38 points, 17 rebounds and three assists on 13-of-21 shooting in 35 minutes. He was the only consistent force for the Mavs, as nobody in his supporting cast could offer much help—save for Vince Carter's 22 points in 26 minutes.
Dirk: 13-of-21 for 38 points Remaining starters: 9-of-34 for 22 points Dirk outrebounded the rest of the starting 5 (17-14)— Bryan Gutierrez (@BallinWithBryan) January 30, 2014
Monta Ellis was 3-of-10 from the field. Jose Calderon was 2-of-12. Even the typically reliable Shawn Marion managed to connect on only three of his 10 attempts.
Numbers aside, it was scary how often Nowitzki drew the defense and set up his teammates for open looks, only to see them either unprepared or unwilling to take the shots he'd created. Then again, Dallas shot a respectable 46.5 percent as a team and managed to accumulate 50 points in the paint, so it's not as though offensive production was the real issue against Houston.
Ultimately, it was the Mavs' inability to get stops that did them in.
Dallas defended poorly, allowing the Rockets to connect on 55.4 percent of their shots from the field and 42.9 percent from long distance. And in a fit of interior generosity that gave Houston plenty of easy looks, Dallas allowed 56 points in the paint.
To be fair, the Rockets are a great offensive team. They make even the best defenses look a little out of sorts. But James Harden sat this one out, so Houston managed to do real damage without its most dangerous scorer.
This was just one game, but it served as a perfect example of the bigger concerns that have plagued the Mavs all year.
What a Waste
As a preliminary matter, it's important to emphasize the quality of the season Nowitzki is having. Without laying that out from the start, it's hard to appreciate what's really at stake.
Put simply, Dirk is in nearly vintage form.
A monster Dirk game. It's real. Dallas has to find a way to capitalize on when he goes Full Dirk.— Bryan Gutierrez (@BallinWithBryan) January 30, 2014
He's averaging 21.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists in just 32.4 minutes per game. Perhaps more impressively, he's flirting with the elusive 50-40-90 season. On the year, he's knocking down 48.3 percent of his field goals, 39.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and 90.8 percent of his free throws.
That's the statistical profile of a star, and it's a little ridiculous that it belongs to a 35-year-old player in his 16th NBA season. But that's Nowitzki: a guy whose game has aged remarkably (and somewhat predictably) well.
The problem is, he can't keep it up forever. And if this is his last truly elite season, his team isn't putting it to very good use.
Hardly a Shock
The Mavericks can't stop anybody, and that's the main reason they're currently clinging to the final playoff spot out West despite having one of the NBA's top offenses.
Dallas allows offensive players into the lane far too frequently, something that was foreseeable from the moment it paired the undersized, largely inept duo of Ellis and Calderon in the backcourt. Neither has ever been mistaken for a capable defender, and Samuel Dalembert's underwhelming rim protection has only exacerbated the problem.
On the year, the Mavs have a defensive rating of 105.7, a figure that ranks 23rd in the league, per NBA.com. Making matters worse, they permit opponents to hit 63.8 percent of their shots in the restricted area, the third-worst mark in the entire league.
If you weren't familiar with those statistics coming into the game against Houston, you certainly would have suspected they were that bad after watching the game. In fact, only a few silly fouls and careless turnovers by the Rockets down the stretch made the contest close.
Fittingly, Nowitzki did everything he could to steal a win, but Calderon couldn't convert on a pair of clean looks (one of which Dirk created with a sharp pass out of a double-team) in the final seconds.
Not the Biggest Problem, But...
Clearly, Dallas' inability to support Nowitzki by fielding a capable defense is the team's biggest issue. On the other end, the Mavs are quite good.
But it's simply crazy to rely on Nowitzki to carry the offensive load the way he has all season—and especially the way he did against the Rockets.
Ellis has functioned as a better-than-expected sidekick, but his awful defense allows as much damage on that end as his solid offense inflicts on the other. As a result, Nowitzki's responsibilities have become harder to bear.
The Mavs struggled to score without him on the court, to the point that his trips to the sideline in the second half became almost comically brief.
Dirk's rest lasted about 16 seconds and a time out. With Rockets up 9, he checks back in with 5:01 left.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) January 30, 2014
We saw what fatigue did to Dirk against Houston. On fire for the first three quarters (he hit 10-of-13 shots in that span), Nowitzki's legs left him in the fourth. He shot just 3-of-8 in the final period.
Nowitzki was gassed.
An Ill-Fitting End
This Mavericks team was assembled with spare parts over the summer, a strategy that has unfortunately become a roster-building trend in Dallas in the past couple of offseasons. There never was an especially high ceiling for this bunch.
But Nowitzki has been good enough to haul his team into the No. 8 spot out West, a position that is growing more precarious by the second.
Doesn't a player of Dirk's caliber deserve more than this? Shouldn't Dallas be bending over backward to give him the kind of roster he could lead deep into the postseason? One thing's for sure: He's still up for it.
But if this is the end, it's a disappointing one. After all, performances like the one Nowitzki turned in Wednesday should mean something.
Dirk after his 38-point, 17-rebound night: "I always said numbers don't mean anything in a loss. It really means nothing."— Earl K. Sneed (@EarlKSneed) January 30, 2014
Maybe the Mavericks will pull together this season. Maybe they'll go out and find some pieces to shore up their weaknesses. Hell, maybe all this worry is for nothing and Nowitzki will put together four more seasons just as good as this one.
But on a night when Dirk was as dominant as he's ever been, his teammates let a sterling performance go to waste.
More and more, it's starting to look like that'll be the narrative that defines this season.