While he hasn’t made it official, it appears the end of the road is imminent for the Dallas Mavericks’ influential talisman
Hunter Felt – The Guardian
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that he’s never actually uttered the words: I’m retiring. Even as his 21st season in the NBA comes to a close, Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t made anything official about his future. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the 40-year-old isn’t coming down the homestretch of his remarkable career. If so, we’re witnessing the end for a player who has shattered expectations for both big men and international players in the NBA, but whose outsized influence is only truly beginning to take hold.
On Monday, Dirk Nowitzki eclipsed Wilt Chamberlain for sixth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, placing him right behind Michael Jordan. It was just the most recent accomplishment for Nowitzki, a 14-time All-Star who was named Most Valuable Player in 2007 and MVP of the NBA finals when he spirited the Mavericks to the club’s first and only championship in 2011. He’s all but rewritten the team’s record book, which is what happens considering he’s spent more seasons in one place than any other player in league history.
Nowitzki even has his own trademark shot: that one-legged fadeaway jumper imitated by many, perfected by one. Thanks partly to this signature, the seven-footer practically invented the modern-day big-man ideal with his proficiency beyond the arc. He currently ranks 12th all time in three-pointers made, having recently been surpassed by the much younger James Harden. That standing will certainly fall as outside shooting becomes more integral to modern basketball, but that’s partly because the revolution that Nowitzki himself helped start.
Nowitzki didn’t just change people’s perceptions of big men. When the Würzburg, Germany native joined the Mavericks in 1998, a certain stereotype surrounding European players was persistent. The most notorious adjective was “soft”, that continental imports were just unable to handle to more physical NBA game. It wasn’t so much that Nowitzki changed when he got to the league: he remained himself and, as Luke O’Neil noted in Deadspin, forced the league to adapt to him. Even those that didn’t particularly appreciate Nowitzki’s game had to respect it by the time he embarrassed you on the court.
Any lingering doubts over Nowitzki’s toughness were dispelled in 2011 when his underdog Mavericks shocked the world by defeating LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s seemingly invincible Miami Heat in the NBA finals. Playing through injury and sickness, Nowitzki single-handedly carried his team from a two-games-to-one series deficit to upset the heavily favored Heatles in six, preventing Miami from winning a championship in the immediate aftermath of LeBron’s Decision. In the end, Nowitzki only won the one ring, but it was a catharsis that exorcised a career’s worth of demons, mostly lingering from the Mavericks’ come-from-ahead loss as favorites in the 2006 finals, and assured his place in the pantheon of basketball icons.
The Mavericks, who have stumbled to a 28-42 record this year, have long since ran out of things to play for besides tanking for better position in the upcoming draft lottery, putting Nowitzki’s presumptive farewell tour to the fore. Sentimental scenes abound. Since returning to the court in December, he’s experienced receptions from opposing fanbases that have rivaled those for their own players. During a blowout loss to the Celtics at TD Garden, the Boston fans were chanting his name trying to will him to score one final time in their home arena.
It was a touching spectacle, but one with a rather depressing outcome: Nowitzki ended that game scoreless, missing all 10 of his shot attempts. In fact, he’s averaged 6.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.6 assists per game this season, far beneath his career norms. It’s clear that there’s very little left in the tank. Sure, there remains “one more year” chants that break out during home games when Nowitzki gets going, but it’s hard to imagine him playing beyond this one. The way it’s been going, it might not even be particularly enjoyable to see him make the attempt.
No matter what happens, chances are that he won’t be leaving the Mavericks organization. Every report has Nowitzki remaining with the only NBA team he’s ever known as part of the front office. If so, he could oversee the development of a player with the potential to surpass him: Slovenian guard Luka Doncic, this season’s likely Rookie of the Year. When the Mavericks made the trade with the Atlanta Hawks that landed them the vaunted 20-year-old, the thought was that they were the perfect fit for the most highly touted international player since … well, Nowitzki. For what it’s worth, Nowitzki seems as high on Doncic as his bosses, even saying that he’s more advanced than he was at his age.
During the trade deadline, Dallas traded for Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis, giving them yet another profoundly talented foreign-born player. Nowitzki’s success with the Mavs has helped the team transform into one that consistently leads the league in incorporating international players onto their roster. It’s yet another example of the impact he’s made. His playing days will end soon, but his presence will endure for generations in Dallas. In fact, he’s one of the rare players who can truly say he’s changed the game.