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Paul Flannery | November 22, 2015

Sunday Shootaround: Cherish the twilight of Dirk Nowitzki's career

Twilight of the Dirk

BOSTON -- Dirk Nowitzki played 34 minutes on Wednesday, a number that used to be a regular occurrence back in the days when he routinely logged over 3,000 in a season. Things are different now. A short time after dropping another familiar set of figures on the Celtics -- 23 points on just 14 shots -- Nowitzki laid down on the training table with his legs up against the wall. They were wrapped in recovery boots from his hips to his toes that made him look like the world’s tallest goalie.

He didn’t used to have to do this kind of thing. Nowitzki would spend hours in the gym, honing his shot and perfecting his craft. That was work. Now, it takes almost as long just to get him to ready. This is harder. It happens to everybody in this game, even to one of the greatest shotmakers to ever play. Yet Nowitzki is not slowing down as much as transitioning gracefully into the final act of a brilliant NBA career that we’ve been privileged to observe for nearly half his life.

"I’ve seen it firsthand for a year and a half now and I understand why he’s one of the best players to ever play," Chandler Parsons told me. "His work ethic is by far the best I’ve ever seen. He’s getting to an age now where he has to put in even more effort and he does it every single day. That’s what he has to do. He has a whole bunch of movement stuff, a whole bunch of weight room stuff, flexibility stuff to keep him mobile. We’re smart with his minutes and what he does in practice. He takes care of himself like no one I’ve ever seen."

The remarkable thing about Nowitzki is that he still looks largely the same as when he came into the league. Never the fastest or most athletic player on the court, he ambles up the court as much as he runs and takes just a little bit longer to set up in his favorite spots. Get him into those areas on the floor, however, and he’s just as lethal as ever.

"We’re going to keep giving him shots, keep running plays, keep screening for him," Parsons said. "We’re going to do whatever we can to get the ball in his hands because age is just a number with him. He can still hoop."

Nowitzki’s shooting over 50 percent for the first time since the 2011 campaign and his True Shooting Percentage would be the highest of his career. Maintaining those numbers isn’t the point. That’s he doing it at all at age 37 after a season in which there were notable signs of decline is reason enough to celebrate his game all over again.

"You’ve got to respect him so much that he creates so much space," Devin Harris said. "We do a great job of creating open shots for him and honestly, I think he can play forever."

With Dirk all things have always seemed possible. There is no transitional rebuilding program in place for Dallas and no expectation of mentoring young prospects. The Mavericks are here to win for as long as Nowitzki can still play. When their offseason plans went awry, they quickly cobbled together a makeshift lineup full of veteran free agents with something to prove. There would be no retrenchment. Admirable as this strategy was, outside projections were not high mainly due to age, injury and a lack of familiarity.

Most of their starting lineup -- Nowitzki included -- was held out for significant parts of training camp. Parsons and Wes Matthews are coming back from significant surgeries and three of their starters are brand new. Two of their key reserves -- Ray Felton and Dwight Powell -- were rotational afterthoughts last season. The Mavericks themselves will be the first to tell you that they are still figuring things out on the fly.

"It was a tough preseason for us with a lot of injuries. The good thing is none of them are young," Nowitzki said. "They’ve been through a lot in this league. They want to play off each other, they want to play with each other, they want to share the ball. We’re a bunch of veterans that have no ego. Whoever scores, scores."

The first few games of the season were uneven and there was an unsightly loss in New Orleans to a Pelicans team without Anthony Davis. That was a turning point. The next night the Mavs beat the Clippers and Nowitzki scored 31 points. They’ve won six straight mainly with solid defense and unselfish play. It’s not as flashy as some of the great Maverick teams of the past, but it’s been very effective. It’s also a splendid way for Dirk to live out the final years of his basketball life.

"He’s more sure of himself," Harris said. "He’s more vocal than he has been. He’s just focused on taking it one game at a time and when it’s his time to walk away he’ll know it. Right now he’s just focused on winning games."

Even amid this renaissance, we have to come to terms with the fact that we are watching the twilight of a great career. For almost two decades we have watched Nowitzki transcend the limits of our imagination and sweep into the ranks of the undisputed immortals. He came into the league at exactly the right time, just as the the game was transitioning away from the dreary ISO-ball of the 90s and offenses became more fluid and open-minded.

From the beginning, he was a revelation. Dirk was not the first of the stretch fours, but he may have been the first 7-footer you could build an offense around on the perimeter. He was, and in many ways still is, an offensive system unto himself.

He’s been an MVP, a constant All-Star presence and a four-time All-NBA First Team performer to say nothing of his role as an international trailblazer. He’s also been a champion after which he left us with the indelible image of the man walking off the court, head buried in his jersey to hide his emotions. There is nothing left for Nowitzki to prove, which makes all of this even more enjoyable. He’s not fighting his legacy and he’s no mere veteran presence on a team full of kids. Rather, he’s reinforcing his standing in a league that is now full of facsimiles.

People have been looking for the Next Dirk for so long that it’s become a cliché. Every tall European prospect is compared to Dirk in one way or another in the same manner that every versatile athletic big man is compared to Kevin Garnett. Just as there will never be another KG, there will also never be another Dirk. There are, however, a legion of imitators, such as Boston’s Kelly Olynyk who on Wednesday attempted a version of Nowitzki’s signature move, the one-legged fallaway, at the end of the first quarter, right in front of its inventor.

"That was cold-blooded," Nowitzki said afterward. "I told their coach, you’re going to run a 1-4 ISO up top against me? So that hurt me a little bit."

As they left the floor, Dirk told Olynyk, "Don’t give me my own move."

Laughter all around and a good time was had by all. The telling moments came later. Nowitzki was not here for a good-natured tribute. As they made their way out on the court for the start of the second quarter, Dirk went to work. He hit a turnaround jumper, and then pump faked Olynyk into picking up his third foul. The Mavs chipped away at a sizeable deficit as Nowitzki made one shot after another. It was just one more masterful performances in a career that’s been full of them.

"I guess it shows I’ve been around for a long, long time," Nowitzki said. "I’ve done something right. It’s very humbling for guys to like my game or enjoy some of my stuff I did over the last 17,18 years. It’s humbling. It’s fun to still compete against these young guys who want to come at me every night."

Humbling yes, but don’t overlook that last part. Dirk has always been a ruthless competitor. This is what still drives him and makes him endure all those long hours of conditioning and maintenance. There are only so many chances in this game to prove yet again that you’re the baddest man on the court and Nowitzki is still taking them on every night.

"It’s the love of competition," he said. "I feel like my body can still do it. I can still be out there and be effective and help the team win. I’ve got to admit, the summers are getting harder. The getting in shape part, that sometimes gets a little old. But the games, when I’m out there with the guys, it’s always been fun to try and win and show these young guys I still got it. That will always be fun."

Nowitzki signed a 3-year deal in 2014 and he’s said repeatedly that he’s determined to see it through. After that, who knows? There are many nights when it feels like he can go on forever and times when we wonder when it’s all going to end. He doesn’t seem like the type to hang around after it’s over, nor does he seem like the kind of player who wants to play past his expiration date. All of that is easy to say now, of course, but that’s the plan as he sees it.

"I try to enjoy the last couple of years," Nowitzki said. "I obviously know it’s coming to an end, but just give all I have to the game while I still can and then everything else will fall in line after that. I was fortunate enough to make enough money. I don’t have to take a job after I’m done. I can just enjoy life and spend time with my kids. I want to give my all these last couple of years to the franchise and to the game, and then I’ll go away."

Cherish these moments because nothing lasts forever. Not even Dirk.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

As the great philosopher Evan Turner noted this week, "You may be getting shit disguised as steak." He was talking about the first round pick the Celtics are set to receive from the Nets as the latest installment of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade. No offense E.T., but I’m pretty sure the C’s front office will be enjoying that steak dinner this June.

This week’s List remembers a few of the most notable traded draft picks in history, a brief history of filet mignon and one example of ground chuck.

James Worthy (via Cleveland): Ah, Ted Stepien, an owner so bad they named a rule after him. During the 1980 season, the Cavs traded Butch Lee to the Lakers for Don Ford with draft considerations going both ways. The Cavs used their pick on Chad Kinch, a tragic figure who played only one season in the NBA and died from AIDS-related complications in 1994. Ford, Lee and Kinch were all out of the league by the time the 1982 draft rolled around at which point the Lakers happily scooped up Big Game James with the first overall pick. On such shortsighted moves are dynasties built.

Charles Barkley (via Clippers): Say what you will about Donald Sterling’s virulent racism, the man was also one of the worst decision makers in the history of the sport. Way back in 1978, Sterling traded a future first rounder for World B. Free, who went on to average 28 and 30 points per game for some typically mediocre Clipper teams. That future first rounder became Sir Charles six years later. Whoops. Sterling did manage to get back into the 1984 draft, trading Free to the Warriors in 1980 for a pick that became Lancaster Gordon. Because everything in the NBA is connected, Gordon was chosen one spot ahead of Otis Thorpe who would be involved in our next transaction.

Darko Milicic (via Vancouver): Thorpe was a rugged power forward who played 18 years in the NBA and was a key performer for the 1994 Rockets championship team. He was also involved in several significant trades, including one to the Blazers (for Clyde Drexler) that helped Houston repeat. But it was in 1997 when he was dealt from the Pistons to the Vancouver Grizzlies for a future first-rounder that stands as his oddest career footnote. That pick rolled over all the way to 2003 where the Pistons suddenly had the second pick in a draft that featured LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They chose Darko Milicic instead. The Pistons was in the midst of building an enduring juggernaut, but one can’t help but wonder what would have happened with Melo, Wade or Bosh.

Damian Lillard (via Nets): Having already traded away much of the future for Deron Williams, Billy King needed a veteran sidekick to prove to D-Will that the franchise was serious about competing. He came up with Gerald Wallace, a one-time All-Star who was already showing signs of decline. The price was a top-3 protected first-rounder that wound up sixth, which is where the Blazers drafted Lillard. After signing a 4-year, $40 million deal, Wallace lasted one more year with Brooklyn before being included in the KG/Pierce trade. Everything is connected in this league. Everything.

Kyrie Irving (via Clippers): It has been said that the Cavs won the lottery three times over a four-year period. This is not technically correct because the Clippers won the 2011 lottery. In what was Sterling’s last great basketball debacle as a decision-maker, they traded the pick at the deadline to Cleveland for the sole purpose of getting Baron Davis out of town. Sterling was forced out of the league a few years later, a fitting epitaph for his repulsive tenure.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

The importance of Quiet Khris

Milwaukee swingman Khris Middleton is one of the early beneficiaries of the league’s desire for two-way wings who can shoot from behind the arc. Britt Robson profiles the quiet force.

Knight of the Rising Suns

Tom Ziller’s been on the Brandon Knight bandwagon for years and now validation is within his grasp! Because he’s a masochist, Ziller also ranked the best young backcourts.

Hit the panic button

Is it time for Houston/Memphis/New Orleans to panic? Ziller and I explore the rocky starts of Western contenders and contrast them with surprising returns from the conference’s lower tiers. Basically, everything from 5-14 is up for grabs. (Sorry, Lakers).

Failing McHale

Lo and behold, the Rockets fired Kevin McHale one day later. Mike Prada excoriates the players who failed the coach with weak efforts.

Still D.R.A.Y.

Jesus Gomez makes the case that Draymond Green is the second best player on the Warriors and it’s hard to argue given Green’s strategic importance. For some reason, people still don’t understand how good he is and how vital he is to Golden State.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Winning is so much fun, man. It’s one thing to put up numbers and be a top guy on a team, and it’s another thing to sacrifice and be the best team in the NBA. I’ll take the latter every time. We have a lot of guys in this locker room who could be franchise players for other teams. That doesn’t matter. At the end of the day people are going to remember championships. That’s what it’s all about." -- Golden State guard Klay Thompson.

Reaction: The career arc of players who are lucky enough to be drafted into great situations like Thompson is fascinating. Sure, there was an initial struggle as he and the Warriors found their footing, but Thompson’s entering his prime years on a team where the only concerns are wins, losses and championships. His low-key personality probably helps here, as well, but he’s been able to bypass most of the young star road bumps as he establishes himself on a winning team.

"We haven’t done anything. We didn’t win anything. We lost. We lost in the Finals. So, that’s enough motivation for myself. I think we need to understand that. Like, we lost in the Finals. We didn't win. And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are. So it shouldn’t be that way." -- Cavs star LeBron James after a loss to Detroit.

Reaction: This is the second time in the past week that LeBron has called out his team after a lackluster performance. They may be the overwhelming favorites to get out of the East, but they should still strive for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Beating the likes of Golden State or San Antonio is hard enough without it.

"We all don’t know how much time KG has left playing the game of basketball. To me it feels like another 20-plus years, but you never know how long. I’m just trying to absorb everything, so when his time is up and he can’t play this game or he doesn’t want to play this game any more, and leave on his own terms, I can pick up where he left off and try to take this organization to the next level." -- Minnesota rookie Karl-Anthony Towns to’s David Aldridge.

Reaction: I’ll admit that I was skeptical when Minnesota brought Kevin Garnett back at last year’s trade deadline. It had the whiff of a stunt, a way to sell tickets through a lean time and put a familiar (albeit scowling) face on a long-term rebuilding project. That was before the Wolves landed Towns in the lottery. That Garnett is a great mentor is well-known to anyone who’s been around him in the past. That he has a stud like Towns to work with is a blessing from the basketball gods.

"The East is the better conference right now. That's a good thing." -- Dallas owner Mark Cuban.

Reaction: It would certainly be a good thing for Cuban’s Mavericks if the balance of power shifted eastward and it would absolutely be a better thing for the league if all the top teams weren’t located within a single conference. But is he right? Four of the top seven teams and six of the top 10 in net differential were from the East entering play on Friday. There’s no question that the much-maligned conference has gotten deeper, but there is still a heavy concentration of top contenders out West. The key difference has been a surplus of great players in the West and that still holds true at the moment.

"It is completely beyond our hands, but at the same time, we can help facilitate it." -- NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to Wall St. Journal columnist Jason Gay regarding the league’s social media strategy.

Reaction: Embracing not only social media, but also its creators and innovators, is one of the smartest things Silver and the NBA has done recently. While other leagues, like the NFL, have attempted to shut-down outlets (including this one) that traffic in gifs, Vines and highlights, the NBA has taken a benevolently hands-off approach. It’s all marketing, as Silver has said in the past, and it doesn’t cost them a dime.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

There were a few Dunk of the Year candidates this week, but only one of them involved scaling the Stifle Tower. Have mercy, DeMar!

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.