Dirk Nowitzki’s knee surgery will keep him out six weeks, and it was a long time coming

Larry Bird played 41,329 minutes in his career, combining playoff and postseason totals, and his body was an absolute wreck by the time it was over. Oscar Robertson managed 47,559 minutes in his legendary turn, and he was just sort of hanging on at the end. Michael Jordan put up 48,485, and you saw how he looked from 2001 to 2003, because every one of those bloody Washington Wizards games was on national TV.

Dirk Nowitzki, who just underwent arthroscopic surgery on his bothersome right knee that will keep him out for six weeks, is already at 43,595 career minutes; and he'll be asked to lead a hopefully reformed Dallas Mavericks right back into the championship hunt one last time during the 2013-14 season (this season, more or less, is an 82-game holding pattern with hopes for a surprise at the end). Kobe Bryant is at an astonishing 51,018 in his career, and he'll be the focal point late in games for championship contenders both next spring and over a year and a half from now. Kevin Garnett is at 50,600; and Celtics fans badly want another shot at the Finals before the wheels fall off, which is why KG is signed through 2014 with partial guarantees through 2015.

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Teenagers that entered the NBA during the 1990s had a lot going for them. Garnett (as a high schooler), Kobe (as a high school guard, something that was dismissed in the wake of Garnett and Moses Malone's jump from preps to pros) and Nowitzki (as an international project) were all groundbreakers in significant ways; and on top of that noise, due to their brilliance, almost immediately they were playing big minutes with postseason participants. Toss in the ever-expanding NBA playoff format, and some good luck with health for the first decade or so, and the minutes piled up. Sure, they got their first big contract a few years earlier than Oscar, Larry and Michael; but they also had their knee first drained at ages that no athlete should have to consider.

Dirk has been the luckiest of the triptych, only counting an unfortunately timed knee sprain in the 2003 playoffs and a malaise-inspired trip through the 2011-12 campaign as his only injury or conditioning missteps. All the while, the Mavericks have taken an intelligent extended view of Nowitzki's progress — sticking with him after a tough rookie year, refusing to put him back on the court in 2003, and writing off that championship defense in 2011-12 while considering the possibilities of pairing Dirk with either Dwight Howard or Deron Williams as it worked back to the top of the heap in 2012-13.

Instead, Dirk got Darren Collison. And surgery, which will keep him out of the season's first month, and keep Nowitzki a little hesitant as he throws his 7-foot frame around for a few weeks after. It's his first time under the knife, and no amount of veteran know-how can prepare you for those first uneasy strides upon the return.

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How it affects the Mavericks will be discussed next week in our Dallas season preview, but the quick and obvious take is the correct one — Dirk is the team's best player, by far, and the squad's spacing and movement come as a result of the attention paid to its best player from that high elbow. It's true that Chris Kaman's perimeter marksmanship will help, and we trust Rick Carlisle with coaching adjustments as much as any man in the NBA, but the Mavs will struggle. In spite of the team's 3-1 record (with victories over the middling Suns, Hornets, and similarly-successful Jazz; and a loss to the Timberwolves) without Nowitzki last season.

In terms of experiments, the high school influx from 1995 to 2005 went quite well. Players like Tracy McGrady and Andrew Bynum have endured their fair share of career-defining ailments, but you get the sense those would have set in just as early had they worked through a year or two at North Carolina or Kansas. It truly is remarkable that, with over 145,000 career regular and postseason minutes between Kobe, Dirk and KG, we're still looking at these three as franchise players who would stand tallest amongst all the confetti come June.

Consider that, before fretting about orthopedic shoes.

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