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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
Dirk Nowitzki is a machine. There really is no other way around it.
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He turned 38 in June, and outside of the idea that 38-year olds shouldn’t be playing NBA basketball at a high level, there is no bankable reason to think that Dirk Nowitzki can’t keep up to his recent, post-championship standards. Big scoring in diminished, but not middling amounts of, minutes per game. Step-slow rebounding and defense, but footwork sound enough to leave him well above the millstone mark. A legendary aversion to turnovers. Trickiness without compare, and an unrelenting knack for securing what is to him a “clean” look off.
Last year Dirk checked in at 18.3 points and 6.5 rebounds with just 1.1 turnovers in 31 minutes a contest. He shot 45 percent and made nearly 37 percent of his three-pointers for a Mavericks team that won 42 games prior to being dumped in the first round of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nowitzki worked on this efficient level while making $8.3 million with the Mavs, a below-market contract pitched by the team in its hopes of retaining cap space to surround Nowitzki with free agent talents that matched his promise.
The franchise, for the fifth offseason since winning that championship in 2011, failed to load up with that talent. And even if the Mavs had followed through on signing someone like DeAndre Jordan to help Nowitzki up front, moves such as these would have hardly vaulted the Mavericks into the stratosphere that the Warriors and Spurs (and, by the postseason, the Thunder) were working in. Dallas’ continual free agent pangs, hamstrung by chance and what feels like a perpetual seller’s market, have been thrashed about in every NBA offseason since the title.
With the rising cap a bit of flexibility in place, Dallas rewarded Nowitzki with a two-year, $25 million deal this offseason, balancing out the two years he spent working on a relatively tiny contract with a bit of an overreach. Due to that cap increase, the team was able to deal next to nothing to Golden State for Andrew Bogut while pinching free agent Harrison Barnes from a Warriors squad understandably smitten with signing small forward Kevin Durant.
Encouraging names, to be sure, but the ideal remains. It’s Dirk, at two-thirds of a game on most nights, and the hope that the brilliance of coach Rick Carlisle can develop something greater than the sum of the parts he’s been handed.
All while watching the clock on Nowitzki, who has 145 postseason games to mend from on top of those 47,249 career minutes. He owns a no-trade clause, a pair of feet that have been in the NBA since shuffling onto Don Nelson’s driveway hoop (prior to a meeting with Gary Trent) back in 1998, and a two-year deal that team owner Mark Cuban will no doubt pay in full whether Dirk calls it quits early, or not.
“You know, I loved the way Kobe went out … with a 60-point game? That’s so Kobe-like. The whole arena was standing up the whole fourth quarter. So much fun to watch. But I’m more like a Duncan guy. More a quiet guy. I don’t need the limelight as much. Maybe not quite the just e-mail, ‘Hey, by the way Tim Duncan is retiring.’ I thought that was a little low profile. Maybe there’s a little press conference or something. I don’t know, I don’t really want to think about it because I know it’s gonna come up soon anyway. I’m just gonna enjoy the last couple of years.”
“Couple of years.” That’s a good start.
Of course, “the last couple of years” might seem like a long time to work through midway through 2016-17. Say, maybe in late January, when the Mavs have to take on the Thunder, Spurs and champion Cavaliers within a five-day span, only to be met with a day off prior to taking on the 76ers. The Mavs would be expected to beat Philadelphia by 20 points in that one, but you try working your way toward 20 points against Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons, two leapers that were barely on solid foods by the time Gary Trent retired.
Of course, all this should take place in the weeks following Nowitzki’s move into the 30,000-point club. He’ll likely hit the milestone, barring injury or a major drop-off, in the final week of December; joining just five other NBA legends in that realm along the way. These aren’t the sort of milestones that usually keep NBA players going – nobody grows up memorizing how many points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar compiled as a pro; least of all a tennis and handball-obsessed kid from Germany in the early 1990s – but these little gifts along the way can’t hurt, can they?
We’re fair to wonder, even with all the concurrent good cheer and potential milestones (at his current pace, Dirk could pass Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the league’s all-time scoring list in 2017-18, not that he’s into that), if the blowback won’t become too much at some point.
The Mavericks, quite understandably, turned in a year of Dirk’s prime following the NBA’s 2011 lockout in order to retain free agent flexibility. The team did not want to commit too heartily to Nowitzki’s aging teammates, but that strain of bad luck in the free agent market has made it so the three biggest prizes of the post-championship era include a signing that wasn’t, a respected-yet-limping shooting guard coming off a career-altering Achilles tear, and a small forward in Barnes that was yanked out of the starting lineup in a Game 7 last year prior to shooting 5-32 in Golden State’s final three Finals losses to the Cavaliers.
Nowitzki is pitched somewhere in between Duncan and Bryant’s respective final seasons as he heads into 2016-17. The Mavs won’t struggle to stay out of the Western cellar as last year’s Lakers did, but they also won’t challenge for the best record in the NBA (hell, for a while, the best record in NBA history) as the Spurs managed. Bogut and Barnes are to be admired, and it will be fun to see Carlisle work with the year-older Justin Anderson and potentially a more confident (if that’s possible) Wes Matthews, but this remains an above-average team in a very good conference.
Will that step above mediocrity be enough to push Dirk Nowitzki out after 2016-17? The optimist can point out that he’s already been dealing with this for five years at this point, and that he should be used to this sort of turnout, while the pessimist can also point to the fact that he’s been dealing with this for five confounded years, already.
To say nothing of his health. Ask Tim Duncan – it is one thing to struggle through with one balky knee, but it’s another thing entirely when the other knee goes.
Nothing’s gone yet, though. Dirk Nowitzki is champing at the bit to return for a “couple of years,” he’s swinging tennis racquets and making a ridiculous (-ly appropriate) amount of money and even though it’s been too long since we’ve seen him in a game that really counts, just his mere presence on the stage he’s gifted us with since 1999 is enough.
It’s enough to make you never want to check your inbox. Here’s to a couple of a good ones, Dirk.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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