Looking back, the most common reason most of us could give for voting Dirk Nowitzki as the probable MVP was that he had been the best player on the best team in the league. That's the premise that gets him the trophy next week, just as it does the brunt of blame for the biggest playoff choke in the NBA's history.
Whatever hits Nowitzki takes for the Dallas Mavericks' disgraceful defeat to the Golden State Warriors, it's warranted. From his body language to his defeatist proclamations between games to, most of all, his disappearing act throughout the series, Dirk was a downright disaster.
In every way, the Warriors posterized Nowitzki. They left him the lasting image of loserdom frozen in millions of minds.
There had been a perfect storm to undo this Mavericks season, beginning with the ex-Dallas coach Don Nelson understanding Dirk's vulnerabilities, to the mission of Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, to Avery Johnson's mistake of coasting and resting starters through the final weeks of the season (something Mike D'Antoni refused to let his Suns do).
Now, Nowitzki will spend the summer listening to the definitive declarations of doom. He'll keep hearing that despite a trip to the NBA finals last summer and 67 victories this season, that Dallas will never win a championship with him as the cornerstone. He'll keep hearing that he's a flawed franchise player without the guts to deliver Dallas a title.
And hey, you know those Euros are missing that killer basketball gene, right? And on and on this nonsense will go.
Yet, understand this: He isn't a loser, and he isn't doomed to this fate. Nowitzki has done too much, in too many important spots, to validate him as a forever failure. Just a year ago, he had 37 points and 15 rebounds in a Game 7 Western Conference final victory over the Spurs. He dropped 50 points in Game 5 of the conference finals, alone out-scoring Phoenix in the fourth quarter. His is the oldest odyssey in basketball, shared by scores of past stars in his sport.
Outside of Magic and Larry, most every important star had to chase a title for years. He's 28 years old, had grown as a franchise player and, until this series, had delivered in a lot of telltale moments. What's most confusing with Nowitzki's performance had been that he looked so much on the cusp of a championship.
Only now, these past two playoff series, with the Warriors and Heat, have made him look like he's regressed back to the unsure, awkward 20-year-old fresh out of Germany nine years ago. For the past three months, Dwyane Wade had thrust Nowitzki's legacy under a brighter light, declaring him lost as a leader and the overriding reason his team couldn't close out Miami in the 2006 NBA finals.
Nowitzki didn't snap back, and later told me that he wished his owner, Mark Cuban, hadn't barked back on his star's behalf. "Even by responding to that, it looks like it really got to us," Nowitzki said.
The less Nowitzki protested that premise, the more you believe there existed an inner-peace, a belief, that it was untrue. What's more, the best player has never had to be the star of the Mavericks. That's Cuban. He's the hero and the villain, the face of the franchise. In this way, Nowitzki has never had to blossom as a fully functional superstar. Cuban craves the spotlight, the way that his star largely shuns it.
Still, the playoffs are when everything with these Mavericks is no longer so much about the owner, as it is the player. Sometimes, you get the idea that Nowitzki is too insulated. Cuban has given him everything a star could want in a supporting cast, except perhaps a reliable low-post scorer. The irony is unmistakable, too. Nelson deliberately developed Nowitzki without that part of his game, determined to create the kind of a 7-foot player never before seen in the sport.
"If I would've gone somewhere else, they would've made me a back-to-the-basket power forward and try to punch it in the paint," Nowitzki told me earlier this season. "Nellie didn't think that was my game, and gave me all the freedom. I don't think there were a lot of coaches then who would've let a 7-footer just dribble up the ball and jack up a three, but that's the system he had and he loved that. He helped me to find my game, and really develop my game, into something that really hasn't been done before."
In the end, that killed the Mavericks in this series. They have the excess of depth to make a move for that dying breed of player this summer, but whatever they do, they would be foolish to overreact to the trauma of this loss to Golden State.
"This isn't the kind of team you blow up," Cuban said, and he's right. Nowitzki is a player to build around, and he isn't first to go through that long, painful process of failure on the way to championship glory. And when he gets his MVP award next week, he'll be forced to apologize for it. This happened to the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, too, after a hideous opening-round playoff performance against the Angels two years ago. It was a strange, uncomfortable conference call, but the NBA doesn't let you get away with those. Nowitzki will have to sit for a press conference, pose with the trophy and take his interrogation in living color.
And on and on, it will go this summer. Yes, he deserves this hassle over the Golden State series. When the Mavericks needed him most, he was nowhere to be found. As long as management doesn't overreact, it isn't the end of him, nor these Mavericks. He was the best player on the best team in basketball this season, and that'll be true again next year when Dirk Nowitzki is 29 years old. Perhaps his is a long, hard road to championship glory, and history tells you that he hasn't driven it alone.