At the start of the season, the Dallas Mavericks waited for what must have seemed like an eternity for the return of their star power forward Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has been the anchor the Mavs for more than a decade, and losing him was a tough blow to a team that was already struggling. Thankfully, he finally made his return in mid-January and so far, the results have been pretty underwhelming.
At first, Dirk’s diminished productivity was simply a side effect of still getting over the injury. He was coming off the bench, playing limited minutes and it was tough to blame him for not having his legendary jump shot back yet. As time progressed, Dirk started playing more minutes and found his way back into the starting lineup. Still, he hasn’t totally looked like his usual self, so the time has come to ask the question of whether or not Dirk Nowitzki will ever go back to being the dominant player we’ve loved and respected for the past decade.
When the lockout ended, no player — other than possibly Raymond Felton — was less ready to return to the court than Nowitzki. He played far below his normal ability and it eventually got so bad that he was taken out of the lineup for four games so he could get work on his conditioning. Because he was coming off a year where he led the Mavs to a title, Nowitzki was largely given a free pass for the incident when really, it was pretty embarrassing and if it had happened to a more controversial superstar like, say, Kobe Bryant, the media reaction would have likely been far more damning.
But hey, he worked through it and by the time the season was over, he looked pretty close to the Dirk we’re used, too, so no biggie, right? Well, now Dirk is in his second year of playing below his usual standard, which means it’s looking more and more like he’s past his prime. Oh sure, we can readily line up excuses — he was out of shape in year one, and injured in year two — but the results don’t often lie and right now, it looks like Dirk might not ever be the same.
Maybe he’ll prove me wrong, and next year, we’ll be back to arguing over whether Nowitzki is the best power forward in the league, but it’s looking more and more like those days might be over with. Dirk turns 35 this year, and the odds of a player reversing their decline at such a late age is extremely slim. The fact that Nowitzki thrives on skill more than athleticism means he could be an outlier, but still seems more likely that his days as a perennial all-star are numbered. If that’s the case, what Nowitzki will likely do is settle into the same stage of his career than Kevin Garnett began back in 2009 — still a very good player, and still capable of carrying his team to victory on a given night, but not the unstoppable force he was in the past.
The problem with this scenario is that the current Mavs team is a terrible situation for a player like that. The ideal situation for a past-his-prime-but-still-good Dirk would be a role as the second- or third-best player on a title contender, like Garnett has been with the Celtics for the past few seasons. This would not work out on the current incarnation of the Mavericks, a team consisting of players who are solid, but past their prime (Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Elton Brand) and players who have potential, but haven’t fully realized it yet (Jae Crowder, Bernard James). If Dirk is going to have a chance to win another title, one of two things needs to happen; the Mavericks need to make a splash during free agency or Dirk needs to be traded. Otherwise, he’ll be wasting his last few years of usefulness on a team going nowhere. And for a player with such an accomplished career, it would be a real shame to see him go out that way.