Even at 40 Years Old, Dirk Nowitzki's NBA Legend Continues to Grow

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2019

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) stands on the court after sinking a basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Dallas, Monday, March 18, 2019. The basket placed Nowitzki as the sixth all-time league leading scorer surpassing Wilt Chamberlain. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

It happened in typical Dirk Nowitzki fashion.

He set a high, unspectacular screen for Luka Doncic. The New Orleans Pelicans switched: Anthony Davis rotated onto Doncic, and Kenrich Williams moved behind Nowitzki. Doncic dumped the ball off to Dirk. With his back to the basket, he jab-stepped, pivoted, turned and fired with the slightest fade.


A routine play, an even more familiar outcome, but with a milestone-moment twist: 

Nowitzki moved back into sixth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list with that basket, passing Wilt Chamberlain. He is now at 31,424 points for his career after putting up eight in the Dallas Mavericks' Monday night loss to the Pelicans. 

That may be the final milestone of Nowitzki's career. If he returns next year, at the age of 41, he'll be within 1,000 points of Michael Jordan (32,292), the league's No. 5 all-time scorer. No one is putting him on Michael Jordan Watch, though. 

The entire NBA has treated this season, Nowitzki's 21st, as his swan song. He has not embarked on an official farewell tour. He is not swapping jerseys at the end of every game like Dwyane Wade. He has not announced anything beyond that he'll make a decision about his future after the season is over.

But read between the lines, and this year sure feels like Nowitzki's last. Standing ovations, arranged tributes and "We want Dirk!" chants have followed him everywhere. The NBA added him to the All-Star Game along with Wade. The Mavericks have subtly and not-so-subtly leaned into this farewell process:

That sense of finality is only reaffirmed when watching Nowitzki play.

His athleticism long gone, he's become a down-to-business jump shooter. Over 80 percent of his looks are from 16 feet and beyond, while fewer than 1 percent of his attempts come at the rim. He fires close to 80 percent of his shots without taking a dribble. 

This is, essentially, the brass-tacks version of Nowitzki. He works in some bells and whistles from time to time, but the primary goal remains getting him on the floor at all—an endgame reiterated after he surpassed Chamberlain.

"That's really a monumental, historical accomplishment," Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "Not many people on the outside know the kind of sacrifices he's made just to be on the floor to accomplish something like this. Just another credit to how he's approached his entire career."

Perhaps that's what this latest feat nods to more than anything—not the accolade itself, but the way it came.

Oh, make no mistake, this triumph matters. Nowitzki is forever entrenched in the NBA's pantheon of scorers. Only Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sit in front of him, and his sixth-place standing won't come under siege for quite some time. 

Vince Carter is the closest active player to Nowitzki's scoring total—unless you count Carmelo Anthony—and he's more than 6,000 points behind. Kevin Durant eventually figures to catch him, but for now, he sits at No. 31, nearly 9,000 points away . It will be a while before Durant or anyone else (James Harden?) unseats Nowitzki.

By dethroning Chamberlain, Nowitzki has also allowed for yet another discussion of his all-time standing. The top 10 is out of reach, but he isn't miles outside of it.

Of the 22 players who have eclipsed 25,000 career points, Nowitzki ranks sixth in true shooting percentage, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, James, Malone, Reggie Miller and Shaquille O'Neal. He is 12th all time in made threes and first among everyone who stands 6'8" or taller.

Good luck sussing out any 7-footers ready to topple Nowitzki's three-point totals. Only Channing Frye, Brook Lopez and Kelly Olynyk crack the top 100 of that club, and not one of them is within striking distance.

For as much as the description of the ideal big man has changed, Nowitzki remains in a class all his own. He is both architect and anomaly—the original floor-spacing 7-footer still waiting for a peer even as that blueprint evolves to account for the more dynamic skill sets of players such as Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns.

But aspects of Nowitzki's resume are starting to feel underrated. He's so far removed from his heyday that the basketball intelligentsia has become almost numb to what remains objectively absurd. 

League MVP (2006-07). Finals MVP (2011). Twelve All-NBA selections. Champion (2010-11). Nowitzki is one of 10 players to post a 50/40/90 shooting slash for an entire season—and just one of four to do so while averaging more than 20 points per game. The list goes on. And on.

These days, the crux of his legacy tends to rest on his longevity and loyalty. And, of course, the ability to never take himself too seriously.

Nowitzki's one title is worth more to the majority of NBA fans than the two rings James picked up with the Miami Heat and however many Durant ends up winning on the Golden State Warriors

And why? Because he stayed. And stayed. Twenty-one seasons. The same franchise. Zero drama. Sub-zero ego. Long after the Mavericks slayed their Goliath in 2011, long after it became clear his best opportunity to remain in the playoff hunt lied outside of Dallas, he stayed. 

That all matters. But the manner in which Nowitzki has stayed is more impressive than his resisting whatever temptation there may have been to leave.

The Mavericks didn't bend to his twilight the way the Los Angeles Lakers pandered to Kobe Bryant's post-prime. Nowitzki has adapted to fit Dallas, not the other way around—sort of like Carter, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, except more so.

Transitioning from superstar to complementary role player is easier when the promise of championship contention looms, your peak was prematurely brought to a halt or you're willingly hopping from team to team to prolong a title window or career shelf life.

Nowitzki's arc has played out in different terms. He began adjusting before he exited his prime and kept on redressing his role for different iterations of a Mavericks squad that stopped offering him postseason guarantees.

The core of Nowitzki's game has never undergone stark revision. Fadeaways remained a staple, and his value has always been rooted in stretching defenses with his range and efficiency. He maintains his green light on long twos to this day.

But he also gradually weaned off stylistic elements afforded to someone of his status. He cut down on his mid-range reliance toward the tail end of his prime, and he ceded control of the offense. In what could be his last season, he has mostly come off the bench.

Even when he still enjoyed superstar volume, Nowitzki found ways to blend in. Just look at the progression of his assisted field goals since 2004-05, when he earned his inaugural All-NBA first-team nod:

Dirk Nowitzki's Shot-Making Progression
Season%FGM Assisted%FGM Unassisted
Stats courtesy of NBA.com

From twilight to steeper decline to the potential farewell tour unfolding now, the latter stages of Nowitzki's career parallel the smoothness of Duncan's own final acts. The Mavericks lack the same playoff assurances the San Antonio Spurs offered, but their three-year absence from the postseason—and eight-year break from the second round—don't have anything to do with Nowitzki's performance. (His health is a different story. Remember the 2012-13 season, anyone?)

Dallas hasn't needed to think twice about turning over the keys to someone else. The team has taken many different forms, going from win-now mode with Chandler Parsons to signing Harrison Barnes to investing in Dennis Smith Jr. to mortgaging the future for Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. But prioritizing the big picture and enjoying the time Nowitzki has left have never been mutually exclusive.

If this isn't the end, that's even better. Nowitzki is past helping the Mavericks win on the court. He has the worst net-rating differential of anyone on the team. But unlike so many aging stars before him, he is not in the way or overstaying his welcome.

If he wants to come back, he won't be chasing Jordan's No. 5 spot at the expense of the Mavericks. His continued presence is neither evocative nor destructive. Right now, he's working through a season-long curtain call he neither asked for nor indirectly invited, trying to fit in with the rest of Dallas' roster rather than wring every last drop of production and recognition from what might be his last hurrah.

And in doing so, Nowitzki has allowed us to appreciate the end to a Hall of Fame career, whenever it comes, without weighing the trade-off. He's made sure there isn't any.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on March 19. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.

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