Are Dallas Mavericks About to Waste Dirk Nowitzki's Resurgent Season?

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Are Dallas Mavericks About to Waste Dirk Nowitzki's Resurgent Season?
Rick Bowmer

There are no historical road maps for Dirk Nowitzki to follow. We've never seen a Germanator before and may never enjoy another one again.

Logic says the 35-year-old's superstar skills should have started to erode by now. It says nothing, however, about the way Father Time affects a 7-footer with an unguardable fadeaway jumper.

"In a season where fellow ’90s icons Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are rapidly declining, Nowitzki’s agelessness is something of a miracle," USA Today's Sean Highkin wrote.

Nowitzki's combination of size and skill boggles the mind, challenging everything we know about an old man's place in a young man's game. It's predictable and perplexing, a riddle our minds can't solve but our eyes figured out a long time ago.

Yet what should go down as a historical triumph actually reads far more like a tragedy. His timeless talents have delayed his demise, but they aren't enough to pump the brakes on a Dallas Mavericks season teetering on the brink of disaster.

A disheartening 122-120 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday—the Mavericks' franchise-record-tying fourth extra-session defeat of the season—stripped away Dallas' control of its own destiny. The Diggler was at his best (33 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two steals), but as has often been the case this season, that overstuffed stat sheet couldn't keep the Mavs out of the loss column.

A no-call on a crunch-time, borderline-goaltended block by Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal didn't help, but that play never happens if the Mavs don't make the critical mistake of leaving the game in the referees' hands.

"Listen we were up four two or three times (in) regulation or overtime and it happened multiple times during this stretch at home," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, via Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. "We’ve made poor decisions. We haven’t done what we needed to do to get stops. We’re paying the price."

The loss, the team's fourth in an eight-game homestand, pushed the Mavericks a half-game back of the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns in a three-team battle for the final two playoff spots in the West. Dallas has just seven games left to close the gap, including each of its next four on the road.

At some point, Nowitzki's basketball biological clock will start to tick. Clearly, that bridge hasn't been crossed yet:

Even without any age qualifiers attached, his numbers are still absurd.

The sharpshooting big man ranks 12th in the NBA in scoring (21.6 points per game), 10th in player efficiency rating (23.5) and tied for 14th in true shooting percentage (59.8), via Basketball-Reference.com. He's within striking distance of posting the second 50-40-90 campaign of his career (.491/.392/.903 slash line).

"All this in what is his 13th season as a first-option scorer, having logged over 46,000 NBA minutes," Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney notes. "The man is a marvel."

Nowitzki is every superlative wrapped into one: remarkable, unparalleled, magnificent. But he needs help—and more of it than the stargazing, mid-level-settling Mavs have been able to deliver.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

To be clear, Dallas' current core is far superior than the one-year-contract-heavy group it assembled for last season. Between a clean bill of health for Nowitzki and a beefed-up talent base around him, the Mavericks already have more wins (44) than they had in 2012-13 (41).

But this roster, at best, sees its ceiling stop at a one-and-done playoff appearance. With the team stumbling and bumbling through that eight-game home stretch, even that will take some work to realize.

"If you’d have told me we’d go 4-4 on this home stand, I would have said it’s not good enough," Nowitzki said, via Sefko. "Down the stretch, we always seemed to make a little mistake. Good teams make you pay."

This team was built to ease the offensive burden he felt, and to that extent it's been mildly successful. The slashing game of Monta Ellis (19.0 points on 45.2 percent shooting), low-risk playmaking of Jose Calderon (4.9 assists against 1.3 turnovers) and floor spacing from Calderon (45.4 three-point percentage) and Vince Carter (39.3) have all relieved some of the defensive heat Nowitzki used to feel.

But the team has been undone by its own design.

Glenn James/Getty Images

The front office either failed to recognize the defensive deficiencies built into its architectural plans or simply miscalculated how damaging they would be.

As good as the offense has been (108.9 points per 100 possessions, third in offensive efficiency), the defense has been equally inept (106.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, 22nd).

Perimeter sieves Ellis and Calderon have no protection behind them. Despite Carlisle's best efforts—cross-matching, defined rotation paths and a smattering of zone play—those gaps haven't been hidden. Samuel Dalembert and Brandan Wright might be good for 2.2 blocks a night, but they haven't kept the Mavs from yielding a 63.9 percent conversion inside the restricted area (third-worst in the NBA).

Getting stops has been an issue, as has closing them out. Only six teams have a lower defensive rebounding percentage than the Mavericks (73.0).

Even the offense has its faults.

Ellis forces himself into windows that don't actually exist (team-high 3.3 turnovers per game). Carter loses his effectiveness when he ventures inside the arc (42.5 percent shooting on two-point field goals). Calderon dribbles to pass—not score (5.3 of his 9.3 shots per game come from three).

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Nowitzki is the lone constant at an age that says he should have vacated such a role years ago. He should be making plans for a farewell tour, but the Mavericks are still trotting him out as a featured act.

It's crazy that he's actually delivering the way he has.

It's maddening that the Mavs haven't been able to do anything more with his production than they have. It's sadder still that this story won't change until Dallas gets him the help he needs or Father Time adds another notch to his unblemished record.

An unrestricted free agent at season's end, he's not looking to change the setting for the final chapter of his basketball story.

"My heart's here," he told NBA.com's David Aldridge. "I've been here for 16 years now. My family's here, friends. I'd love to retire here. I think everybody knows that."

Nowitzki has made it clear he'd like to retire in Dallas. Is that the best basketball decision he can make?

Submit Vote vote to see results

The Mavericks will shed some $36 million off their payroll this summer, via ShamSports.com, and he's already opened up to the idea of taking a massive pay cut to give the franchise financial flexibility.

But where's the evidence that Dallas will use that wiggle room to build a championship-caliber club for his swan song? How long can the organization really depend on the big man to keep providing star-caliber stats? Why are we still having this same discussion three long years removed from the Mavericks' championship run in 2011?

Why? Because Nowitzki's still providing nightly heroics—and the Mavs are still wasting them away.

Maybe they'll find a way to sneak in the back door of the playoff picture. But is that really the best way to use a historical gift?

Nowitzki's superstar days aren't banished to the history books just yet. His days as a pivotal piece on a relevant team, though, may have already met that fate.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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