Nowitzki still leads Mavs with blood, sweat

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo! SportsDecember 21, 2009
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Nowitzki still leads Mavs with blood, sweat

Carl Landry's teeth opened a deep gash to Dirk Nowitzki's elbow during this collision

DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) watched the doctor remove bits of teeth from his right elbow, a surreal experience in itself. The doctor stitched up the cut, sent Nowitzki for X-rays then decided he needed to re-examine the wound. So he took out the stitches and probed the gash until Nowitzki screamed. More stitches followed. There was even talk of possible surgery.

The Dallas Mavericks' injury report stated simply that Nowitzki had a right elbow laceration following his collision with Houston Rockets forward Carl Landry(notes) on Friday. This, however, was no ordinary cut. Landry lost parts of five teeth, some of which were imbedded in Nowitzki's elbow. Landry ended up getting a root canal; Nowitzki sat out Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers and he also might miss Tuesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers because his elbow is still too stiff and painful.

The doctor "was really scared about an infection, so he went back in there for like 30, 40 minutes," Nowitzki said. "I was just watching him with his fingers in my hole in my elbow. He had his whole finger digging in there. That was ugly.

"I took as many pain killers as I've had in a long, long time. … We did consider [surgery] for a second because we didn't really know how many parts were in there floating around."

Nowitzki said he's at the greatest risk of infection for the first 72 hours after the cut, but is hopeful he'll be fine.

"With that situation with your franchise player, you always take a deep breath, swallow hard and pray for the best," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's all you can do when you're dealing with Mother Nature. So far, the signs are good. This thing isn't over yet."

The Mavericks are fortunate to have three days off following Tuesday's game against Portland, and they obviously don't want to endure a long stretch without their All-Star forward. Backed by a deep, veteran roster that also includes Jason Kidd(notes), Shawn Marion(notes), Josh Howard(notes), Erick Dampier(notes), Drew Gooden(notes) and Tim Thomas(notes), Dallas owns the Western Conference's second-best record at 20-8. But although the Mavericks did win surprisingly easy without Nowitzki against LeBron James(notes) and the Cavs, it's no secret the franchise's long-term success still lives and dies with its greatest player.

Nowitzki is averaging 26.1 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and owns the fifth-best efficiency rating in the league. The Mavericks have also raved about him playing the best defense of his 12-year career.

James, Kobe Bryant(notes), Carmelo Anthony(notes) and Dwight Howard(notes) are the usual names to surface in any MVP debate this season, but Nowitzki has quietly (as usual) emerged as a legitimate candidate.

"He's 31. People take him for granted," Kidd said. "He can play big, small, however you want it. When you see those numbers, you just assume that he's going to give you that on a nightly basis. His team wins, too. It's unfortunate that he doesn't get a little more exposure."

Said Carlisle: "He leads the NBA in plus-minus productivity, so he has the greatest impact of any player in the entire league in terms of when he is on the court."

James ranked the Mavericks among the league's best teams after losing to them. And Nowitzki believes this is the best supporting cast he's had, even better than the team he took to the 2006 NBA Finals. That, however, hasn't won over some skeptics who believe the Mavericks still need one more quality player to help them seriously challenge the Los Angeles Lakers and contend for a championship.

The Mavericks routed the Lakers 94-80 on Oct. 30, but Pau Gasol(notes) didn't play. And as even Nowitzki admitted, Gasol's addition is what made the Lakers a title team.

"Since I've been here, and this is my 12th season now, this is the most talent that we have on a team from top to bottom, Finals included," Nowitzki said. "The only problem is the rest of the top teams got better, too. We're still all mad at Memphis for just trading Gasol to L.A. We're still mad at [Detroit Pistons president] Joe Dumars for trading [Chauncey] Billups to Denver. It just so happens that the rest of the league and the rest of the Western Conference got better as well.

"I think from top to bottom we're better than any team I've been on here. That's a good thing. We need some luck down the stretch; we have to be injury-free, but I definitely like what everybody brings."

Even if Dallas again comes up short in its quest for a championship, Nowitzki likes the makeup of the franchise enough that he believes he'll be a Maverick for the rest of his career. He could opt out of his contract at the end of the season, but said he hasn't decided whether it's in his best interest to even join the heralded 2010 free-agent class. Much like what Bryant did with the Lakers, Nowitzki could pass on free agency with the intention of signing an extension with the Mavericks.

"I figured I'd play this [season] out and see what my options are," he said. "I really haven't focused on it much. I'm really focusing on this season and we'll see what happens at the end, and I guess it will be more of a quick decision.

"I didn't plan on opting out as of now. But nothing has been done so far. I didn't sign anything. We didn't agree on anything. I've always said that I wanted to finish my career here because I've put so much into it for the last 12 years now that if I just go somewhere and win it somewhere else it won't be the same. That's kind of my attitude. I want to make it work here. Whatever we got to do, I guess, we'll have to do this summer."

Said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban: "He knows pretty much what the plan is, but I'll say, 'Here's our options. How can I help?' "

There is at least one player who could significantly help the Mavericks' quest for a championship: Toronto Raptors forward (and Dallas native) Chris Bosh(notes).

There has been speculation Bosh could be moved before the trade deadline if the Raptors feel they have no way of re-signing the coveted free agent next summer. An NBA source with knowledge of Toronto's plans told Yahoo! Sports that Raptors officials are still hopeful the team will improve enough to convince Bosh to re-sign. That didn't stop Nowitzki from chatting up Bosh when both visited South Africa with the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program.

"I was like, 'So, you coming back to Dallas?' " Nowitzki said. "He just said he doesn't know and everything was so wide open to him.

"I think everything right now is speculation. I don't like speculation. I like to focus on what I got."

That's a wise approach considering one substantial obstacle will make it difficult for the Mavericks to lure Bosh if he hits the free-agent market: money. The Mavericks, who are expected to be over the salary cap, would likely either need to persuade Nowitzki to take less money himself or convince the Raptors to do a sign-and-trade deal.

Still, there are no limits, however, on Cuban's creativity.

"We can be a player," Cuban said in regards to the general free-agent market. "Everybody thinks its all about cap room. But I don't think all the guys that are free agents – they've been in this league long enough – don't want to be on teams involved in a rebuilding process. There's a lot to risk. You want to go to a team where you can compete.

"So it may not be about cap room. It might be about a sign-and-trade. It might be about any other options of different things. We've got a lot of different options."

Their No. 1 option remains the same as it's always been: Keep their current franchise player happy – and healthy.