On Nowitzki, savoring success and recognizing your team's saints

Mark Cuban said Thursday he's confident Dirk Nowitzki(notes) won't play for anybody but the Dallas Mavericks next season. That's good, because allowing him to go elsewhere would sulfur-spark a karmic firestorm the likes of which would envelop Dallas-Fort Worth, scorch all traces of basketball prosperity and set the franchise back 15 years.

Not to sound overly dramatic.

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Since staging another playoff flameout in their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, there's been a lot of discussion about what the future holds for the Mavs. (The Dallas Observer's Richie Whitt writes that, while disappointment persists, hysteria has abated.)

Much of the talk has focused on what to do with their star forward. Nowitzki has certainly invited inquiry, telling reporters that he intends "to keep his options open" this offseason. He's slated to make $21.5 million next season, but an opt-out clause in his contract allows him to forgo that payday in search of a longer deal (he'll be 32 when the 2010-11 season tips off) and, possibly, greener postseason pastures.

During a Dallas radio hit on Wednesday, Cuban said he's not worried about Nowitzki bolting:

"Well, I can see the circumstances where he would opt out, but not necessarily leave the franchise," Cuban said during an appearance on KTCK-AM. "... We all recognize that we want to get even better and do things to improve the team even more. And Dirk told me that if he can help the team get better, he would sign a different deal."

Should Nowitzki opt out, he'd draw major interest — FanHouse's Tom Ziller lists him as the fourth-most attractive potential 2010 free agent, and for good reason.

He's an elite scorer, averaging at least 21.8 points per game in each of the last 10 seasons and posting the fourth-highest career Offensive Rating among active players, according to Basketball-Reference. He's also remarkably efficient, with marksman-status career field-goal/three-point/free-throw percentages (47.3/38.0/87.6) and 10 straight years of stellar Player Efficiency Ratings (including league-leading marks of 28.1 and 27.6 in 2005-06 and 2006-07).

But it's not just about math. Watch Nowitzki on the court, in the flow of the game — his evolution from distance specialist into high-post Sasquatch has been stunning. He's taken advantage of the matchup problems that his size, length, range and touch create, developing a numbingly effective herky-jerky style inside the arc that works from the low block and the elbow. When it's right, he's nearly unstoppable.

Despite residual Euro-knocks that he's too soft for a 7-footer, Nowitzki's shown a nose for the ball, finishing three seasons among the league's top 10 rebounders, and has proven to be a durable star — he's only missed 29 games over the past 11 years. On top of all of that, he's a bankable commodity that has driven attendance figures through the roof — Dallas has drawn more than 800,000 in total attendance in each of the past nine years, according to Database Basketball and the NBA's 2009-10 attendance report, after failing to draw more than 697,000 in any of the previous 20.

Nowitzki has been the primary on-court contributor to an unprecedented stretch of success in Dallas — even when the Aguirre/Blackman/Harper Mavs were making playoff runs in the late 1980s, they weren't winning 50 games for a decade straight. The dude's been a once-in-a-lifetime revelation for the city's basketball culture. He's Halley's Comet.

That's why Mavs fans need to appreciate what they've gotten, are getting and — if Cuban locks Dirk up this summer — will continue to get to watch for as long as they can. Because it can all go away. Fast. And when it's gone, all that's left is a sobering thought: "Things will never be that good again."

Trust me. I'm a Knicks fan.

Which is why it hit so hard when Alan Hahn, who covers the Knicks for Newsday, used his Twitter account to localize the national story of the Mavs' ouster for his New York-based readership:

Dallas Mavericks are like the Knicks in the 1990s. Get to the playoffs every year, but what's the use? Dirk = Patrick.

"Patrick," of course, is Knicks center Patrick Ewing. SB Nation's Mike Prada took the analogy and ran with it, noting the deleterious effect of subpar supporting casts on the 7-foot stars' championship chances:

Could you win a title if your next-best guys are the 2009 versions of Jason Terry(notes), Caron Butler(notes), Jason Kidd(notes), Shawn Marion(notes), Brendan Haywood(notes) and Erick Dampier(notes)? On paper ... no, you couldn't, and we should have always seen that coming. Just like Ewing could never win a title with the 1997 versions of John Starks, Allan Houston(notes), Larry Johnson, Charles Oakley, Chris Childs and Charlie Ward.

So yes, Dirk = Patrick. Neither player was the best in the league, sure, but neither had enough help to get over the top in their primes.

It was a compelling comparison by Hahn, and Prada did a great job of elucidating the connections. So great, in fact, that it depressed the hell out of me — partly because it reminded me of how overlooked Ewing's talents have become, and partly because it sparked visions, however unfair, of history repeating itself.

Here's the thing: Ewing was awesome. He averaged more than 20 points per game in each of his first 13 seasons, including eight straight 20-10 years. At his peak — the 1989-90 campaign, his age 27 season — he was a monster, grabbing 10.9 rebounds and blocking four shots per game to go with 28.6 points (shooting 55.1 percent from the floor and 77.5 percent from the line).

He played in New York for 15 years; in 13 of them, Madison Square Garden hosted playoff games. The lion's share of those games — not all, but most — were played as a direct result of Ewing's force of will. This is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, a remarkable amalgam of size, skill, athleticism and competitive fire that carried a franchise for 15 years. And yet, because his Knicks didn't beat Jordan's Bulls or Olajuwon's Rockets, he's largely relegated to eternity's outlands.

We forget why he mattered; too often, we forget that he mattered.

If you're a Mavericks fan, this should depress you, too. Because if your team never gets over the hump, you're going to find yourselves fighting really hard to remind folks that Dirk was epic. You're going to have to make the case, over and over, that he mattered. Even if, as The Baseline's Eric Freeman recently noted, that notion feels preposterous now.

"Could [Nowitzki] go down as a disappointment even as he's acknowledged as the best player in franchise history and top European in league history?" Freeman asked in an eloquent consideration of Nowitzki's legacy. "When you list his accomplishments, it seems silly to think Dirk will be seen as somehow lacking an ineffable greatness in 10 years time."

It does seem silly — it is silly — but if Hahn's math is right, there's an excellent chance it'll happen. Like Ewing, he deserves better. Hell, we deserve better.

No matter which NBA tribe we belong to, we should hit our knees at night and pray we don't let ourselves just forget that we watched the best years of such a special talent. We should continually remind ourselves that players — and the moments they create, and the emotions they elicit — can still matter in the fabric of this game, even if they never lay a hand on the O'Brien.

Some have argued that Cuban should not only close his checkbook, but actually look to jettison Nowitzki. In one scenario, pitched by NBC Sports' Ira Winderman and co-signed by SLAM's Rasheed Malek, Dallas ships Dirk to Toronto in a sign-and-trade for Chris Bosh(notes). It's enticing — kind of hard to knock a proposal that brings in an All-World talent like Bosh. The Mavs might not even take a step back; heck, with a more athletic four and a sophomore leap from Rodrigue Beaubois(notes), they could even take a step forward.

Plus, hanging on to Nowitzki opens the door to other, thornier difficulties. Say Dirk does re-up, signing a multi-year deal that keeps him in Dallas through his mid-30s and, for any number of reasons — the onward march of a new Laker dynasty, LeBron or Dwight taking the throne, etc. — he stays ringless. He slides into NBA old age. Injuries mount, percentages fall off, sneers fade. We can't even see the comet's trail.

Now comes the tricky business of figuring out when to divest, emotionally and organizationally, from the greatest player in franchise history. And there's no easy way around it: Getting back to perennial contender status after the sun sets on a savior is really, really hard, even with a deep-pocketed owner willing to do anything to win. Wouldn't it be better to say "Thanks for the memories" and roll back the odometer with a 26-year-old beast hungry to be The Man?

Honestly? I really don't think so. Even if it means lean times circa 2015.

Transformational players — the kinds of guys that can put cities on the map or breathe life into dead franchises; the kind of guy Nowitzki's been — don't come around that often. You've got to appreciate the bounty they provide, and you've got to do right by 'em. If you don't — if, say, you panic, ship them out in the wrong deal and lead them into sad, inglorious endings — well, as the Big Aristotle once said, "Trade a legend, bad things happen to you."

I don't want to see that. Mavs fans definitely don't want to see that. Anyone who really cares about what makes this game special can't want to see that.

Freeman implores us to "acknowledge [Nowitzki] for what he is, not what he isn't." It's the right idea. Too often, we allow our recollections to veer dark and become muddled. For Dirk, and for all the wonder children that have blazed across the sky and fallen short, may our hearts and memories point us toward a better path.

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