NBA Free Agency: Dirk Nowitzki is ready to follow the Tim Duncan path

Ronald Martinez

Dirk's never really been right since winning the championship, but after struggling through knee issues and sub-par teammates, he's finally ready to return to an elite status.

When training camps in the NBA finally get underway towards the end of September, Dirk Nowitzki will be participating in his first full pre-season since 2010.

The past few years have been hard on him, culminating in the knee surgery last October that forced him to miss 27 games. Unsurprisingly, last season was his worst year statistically since 1999-00 -- which was just his second year in the league. It's normal for players to plateau and decline as they hit their mid-thirties and begin the tail end of their career.

But Dirk has never been normal, and he isn't done yet. In fact, let's go a step further: Dirk can win the MVP award this year. Unlikely? Sure. Unprecedented? Not at all.

There's a small number of players compare well with Dirk and his long-term excellence, and contemporary Tim Duncan might be the best. Take a look at Timmy's stats over the past three years:

Two years ago, he had the worst season of his life and put up career lows in both points and rebounds per games. At the time, it seemed like a normal decline for a 34-year-old center who had played over forty thousand minutes.

Duncan bounced back the following year, and now just wrapped up one of his best seasons ever with an NBA Finals appearance that was 28 seconds away from his fifth championship ring. Lost in the controversy of LeBron not winning the MVP unanimously is that Duncan finished SEVENTH in the voting. At age THIRTY SIX.

Being in your mid-thirties and playing at an elite level is no longer impossible.

Tim Duncan is clearly half-robotic, explaining why his face hasn't shown any emotion in seven years. But it also shows that being in your mid-thirties and playing at an elite level is no longer impossible.

Last year, instead of Duncan being the 34-year-old who saw his numbers decline across the board, it was Dirk. For the first time in several years, Dirk's preseason is going to be (knock on wood) unhampered by distractions: the injured knee, the lock-out and the German national team. He has an elite shooter and passer running the offense, something that's been missing since 2011 (Jason Kidd's final year in Dallas was quite terrible in both areas). He's primed for a resurgence, following the same path Tim Duncan took two years ago.

And it's not like Dirk's game really ever left him. His post-All Star numbers rose drastically across board as his knee improved. Perhaps the best example of this was the way he dominated against a playoff-bound Chicago team.

Dirk scored 35 points that night and looked every bit an MVP while using basically two shots: a turnaround jumper and a spot-up three pointer. It doesn't matter if he's 35 or 40 or 50 -- if he can make those shots, what can you do to stop it?

(side note: this game is one of my biggest basketball regrets so far in life. This game was on a Saturday afternoon for God knows why and because it's an hour drive to Dallas, I skipped going in person and just watched it on TV. It was still fantastic, but oh to have been there in person.)

It won't always be as easy as it was that night against Chicago. His athleticism has faded and the jump shot won't always fall. And for a serious bid at an MVP, he'd had to surpass the pure brilliance of LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- something that would be difficult even in his prime.

But after not receiving an MVP vote last year for the first time since 2001, Dirk is ready to follow the footsteps that have already been set in place and force his name back into consideration.

For all we know, his biggest competition for the award might be Tim Duncan.

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