Why Dirk Nowitzki's Championship Window Remains Wide Open

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2014

It's all too tempting to believe Dirk Nowitzki's best days are behind him. The 35-year-old already has a ring, and he's been on his share of dangerous playoff-bound teams, more dangerous than the one on which he currently finds himself to be sure.

So there's certainly a counterintuitive ring to the belief that he just might have another title in him, that his Dallas Mavericks could turn the corner in the not-too-distant future, turning into contenders in the process.

The argument against conventional wisdom isn't just based on wishful thinking, though. Nor is it grounded in a mistaken belief that all owner Mark Cuban touches turns to gold. This is a serious argument, based on a careful analysis of Dallas' development as a team and potential to exploit cap space this summer.

Most importantly, it's based on the indisputable fact that Nowitzki is one of the greatest big men ever to play the game. According to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon, Dirk's longtime mentor, Holger Geschwindner, believes "if he's not seriously injured he can play three or four more years easily."

The numbers and eye test seem pretty consistent with that assessment, leaving only one question of any real importance: Can the Mavs actually surround Nowitzki with enough talent in that time frame to make a difference?

And to ensure he actually wants to stick around.

There are a few reasons to believe Dirk's window of title opportunity will last as long as he does.


Cap Space

Per MacMahon, "Nowitzki has publicly declared on several occasions that he intends to re-sign with Dallas at a significantly reduced salary after he becomes a free agent this summer."

With only a handful of players under contract for the 2014-15 season, the Mavericks could wind up with around $20 million to spend even after re-signing Nowitzki (assuming he agrees to a deal in the neighborhood of $10 million a year, on par with Tim Duncan's most recent pact with the San Antonio Spurs). Other factors will impact that figure to some degree, like whether the Mavs pick up their $3.9 million option on Samuel Dalembert.

You can also figure on Dallas dishing around $5 million of its space to Vince Carter. The Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko reports that Carter is eager to remain a Maverick and optimistic about the club's chance to take a big step forward:

My fingers are crossed. Next year might be even better. We can attract some more people, more talent. Now I know my role, and I know the system, it’s second nature to me now. I know the city very well. I’m stepping out, going to SMU games and getting out and about. I’m very comfortable here.

Given that Carter's only making a hair over $3 million this season, it's hard to see him commanding much more than that—especially given his strong desire to stay.

So that still leaves Dallas with potentially around $15 million in cap room, which could make for quite the shopping spree. The question is about who will be available and whether they'll be keen on joining Dallas' aging nucleus. 

The best-case scenario would be Carmelo Anthony deciding that not even Phil Jackson can keep him around the New York Knicks. Anthony wouldn't only be a perfect fit for the Mavericks in the grand scheme of things—he'd fill a specific need at small forward with Shawn Marion and the Mavs ostensibly parting ways.

He'd also have a coach who'd hold him accountable, complementary scoring options in Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, along with a capable distributor in Jose Calderon. The scenario has all the makings of a perfect fit, all the potential for the first time in three offseasons Cuban didn't whiff on his principal free-agent target.

Unfortunately, it's only a matter of speculation for now. There have been no rumblings linking the Mavericks and Anthony, and the probability of Anthony departing New York certainly diminished with Jackson's arrival. That doesn't mean it won't happen, but don't hold your breath.

The even more unlikely—though nearly as intriguing—option would be for Chris Bosh to exercise his early termination option and decide he wants to return home. If the Heat implode sometime before now and the summer, it could happen. But again, don't get too excited.

The more probable options include the likes of Luol Deng or even Pau Gasol. Both players find themselves currently on losing teams, and both would fill important needs in Dallas—Deng occupying that wing position in Marion's absence and Gasol giving Nowitzki a credible cohort in the paint. Either acquisition would immediately upgrade Dallas' roster, perhaps putting them in position to contend right away.

Though the organization could theoretically wait to spend its money on the comparably more robust free-agent class of 2015, that seems problematic given Nowitzki's age. You have to think it wants to take that next step as quickly as possible, giving the new rotation time enough to gel so that Dirk can spend his next two seasons contending.

By all accounts, this core is already halfway there.


The In-House Talent

The 2013 offseason wasn't as splashy as it could have been, but it netted two very important additions in Ellis and Calderon. Barring a trade, that should be the backcourt of the future, and that's not a bad thing. Ellis is having the best shooting season he's had since 2010-11, cashing in on over 45 percent of his attempts from the field.

And Calderon has become the steadying presence Dallas expected, averaging 4.8 assists and making nearly 46 percent of his three-point attempts. The Mavericks probably wouldn't say "no" to an upgrade at the point should one come along, but Calderon is a relatively mistake-free solution. His 3.85 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks fourth in the league according to ESPN.

The Mavs will have inexpensive decisions to make on DeJuan Blair and Devin Harris. The latter has only played in 32 games this season, but Blair has proven a useful reserve behind Dalembert and Nowitzki.

This is where some of the question marks begin emerging. Could Marion return at a steep discount, adding some needed depth or perhaps even reprising his starting role? Does Brandan Wright—who has another season left on his deal—make Blair expendable?

Given the possibility of splurging on a new free-agent acquisition, the Mavs will probably take a conservative approach with returning talent. We might even see younger pieces like Shane Larkin get more of a look as Dallas attempts to preserve its treasured cap space.

The big takeaway, though, is that there's the makings of a strong core surrounding Nowitzki, especially in that backcourt. Assuming Carter returns, Dallas can also count on a strong sixth-man presence. As is, this isn't a championship core, but it wouldn't be much of an overstatement to suggest it's just a piece away.

Remember, this backcourt is brand new to the Mavericks. We've been watching them learn on the job, gelling as they go. Give them some time and some help, and don't be surprised by the results. 



Of all the pieces Dallas has or will acquire, the most pivotal remains Nowitzki. He's never relied on elite athleticism or a deadly first step. His game has instead been predicated on smarts and skills, the kinds of things that only tend to get better with age.

Unlike contemporaries like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki also has his health. That's thanks in large part to his style of play, the fact that he's a jump-shooter and not a banger. Insofar as those tendencies aren't going to change this late in his career, we should expect a relatively healthy Nowitzki for the foreseeable future.

We should also expect him to continue producing.

Nowitzki's rebounding has receded a bit in recent years, in part because he's playing slightly fewer minutes and in part because he's better off leaving the paint battles to guys like Dalembert—especially at his age. But Nowitzki's value has never been about his ability to dominate the interior. The question is whether he can still shoot.

Granted, it's not much of a question. Dirk's 49 percent success rate from the field is his best since 2010-11, better even than his efficiency through several of his prime years. It's especially impressive because he's attempting nearly twice as many three-pointers as he did in 2010-11, making over 38 percent of them in the process.

Yes, unsurprisingly, Nowitzki still has the touch. 

The key will be keeping those legs fresh in the coming years, ensuring that the jumper doesn't suffer from fatigue or wear and tear. That won't be easy to guarantee without some improved depth. Nowitzki's averaging over 32 minutes per game this season—not an exorbitant amount, but more than you'd like to see from him in a season in which the playoffs are anything but guaranteed.

There are certain realities to life with Dirk that some Mavericks fans might rather ignore. Even Mark Cuban knows his best player could and should play better defense, but that's nothing new. The Mavericks have long looked to hide Nowitzki on the defensive end, and that's part of what's separated him from other MVP-caliber stars—he's just not much of a two-way player, never has been.

That said, he's one of the best scoring bigs ever to play the game. It's important to surround him with defenders, and the Mavericks haven't quite done that—though they have one of the best defensive coaches in the game with Rick Carlisle. As a result, Dallas has given up 102.6 points per game, which ranks them 21st in the league.

It would be nice if Nowitzki could will himself to solving that problem, but it's not happening. It's the thing that's made him one of the most vexing superstars of his time—such a gifted scorer, such a lackluster defender.

Nevertheless, with the right additions this offseason and the continued development of returning talent, Nowitzki has a real chance at another title. This season's struggle to make the playoffs could fool you into believing otherwise. 

Then again, Nowitzki's Mavericks have fooled us into counting them out before. We'd be wise to keep an open mind.


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