Dirk Nowitzki will undergo an MRI Tuesday to assess a knee injury suffered in Monday's win over the Thunder. Nowitzki has been remarkably reliable over the course of his career, appearing in 97 percent of the Mavericks' regular season games since 1999. But should the knee injury, which Nowitzki called "scary" and "weird" after Monday's game, keep the German forward out for any span of time, Dallas' famous depth will be tested.
The Mavericks made a point to shore up its frontcourt this offseason, re-signing Brendan Haywood to a long-term contract, trading Erick Dampier for the younger and more athletic Tyson Chandler and green French center Alexis Ajinca, and signing two insurance policies in former Spurs prospect Ian Mahinmi and wily veteran Brian Cardinal.
But should Nowitzki be sidelined, the most important Maverick big man will be Shawn Marion.
The Mavericks executed a sign-and-trade for Marion before the 2009-10 season, hoping to revive The Matrix's flagging career by slotting him at small forward as a replacement for the then-injured (and later traded) Josh Howard. Marion was seen as the ace defender on the wing the Mavericks needed to press against the L.A. Lakers at the top of the Western Conference. While Marion did indeed defend quite well, a tough season for Jason Terry and the ineffectual trade for Caron Butler sunk the Mavericks in the end.
This season, Marion has been moved to the bench, where he backs up Butler and Nowitzki. Marion's best work in Phoenix came as a power forward next to Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, with Steve Nash orchestrating the whole shebang. Marion was arguably the fulcrum that allowed the Suns to succeed at the level to which they did, as Matrix was the rare two-way player who could effectively defend three positions while finishing the break efficiently and hitting threes at a good clip. Though he was never a great one-on-one scorer, Marion did get plenty of buckets to go with plenty of rebounds. In 2005-06, with Stoudemire on the shelf due to microfracture surgery, Marion averaged 21 points and nearly 12 rebounds.
Of course, Marion was 27 years old -- dead in his prime -- back then, and is 32 today. The move to small forward has surely contributed to his decreasing rebound numbers, but age likely has a role in the decomposition of Marion's other skills. That said, he still a solid performer and few teams -- the Celtics and the Lakers come to mind -- can replace an MVP-caliber big man with an able-bodied producer of Marion's level.
If Marion is forced to replace Nowitzki at the power forward position, Butler and Jason Kidd will be depended upon for more offense. It wouldn't be a surprise, actually, to see Terry moved into the starting line-up for designated shooter/defender DeShawn Stevension. Terry is having a terrific season off the bench, holding down the reserve scoring game until Rodrigue Beaubois returns from offseason surgery.