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On Appreciation

For me, watching Dirk Nowitzki play basketball is one of the supreme joys of my life. And that’s even if they’d never won a championship.

It’s the simple fact that nobody is as good as Dirk is. I know the stats, the rings, even your run-of-the-mill objective analysis of who the best player in the game is, tell a slightly different story. But here’s what I know for a fact. When the game is down to the last second—and every game is down to the last second—when Dirk has the ball at the top of the key, with his back to the defender, it’s a 70-30 proposition. Or better.

It’s that nobody does what Dirk does. As John Hollinger points out, the long two is the worst shot in basketball. Unless you’re Dirk Nowitzki. And you know what a long two means?

If Dirk has the ball anywhere on the court and you’re guarding him, it might already be too late.

I’m sure that none of us REALLY remember how good Dirk used to be, though we have the feeling down, the music of the memory. I wrote a column a couple of years ago about Dirk’s head-to-head clashes with the other great PFs of his time, in the playoffs (to which we can only add a truly dominant performance against Gasol from last year’s playoffs).

Looking at the numbers now, for all three of the guys involved (Nowitzki, Duncan, Garnett, if you haven’t done the math yourself), it looks like a cartoon, or at the very least, fundamentally impossible.

Did you know that the one time Garnett and Dirk met in the playoffs, in 2002, Garnett had a line of 24-19-1.7-1.7 and Dirk had 33-16-1.3-3? That’s absurd, right? In 2006, when the Mavs finally got past the Spurs, Duncan actually outscored Dirk 32-27 (probably the only time Dirk’s been outscored by a PF in a series), but what I find even more surprising is that Dirk outrebounded Duncan 13-12.

And in that unbelievable game 7, Duncan threw up a 41-15-6-3 to Dirk’s 37-15-3-1.

Isn’t that insane? I really think I only think I remember it. It’s too unbelievable. Nobody does these things.

Dirk has, by my possibly inaccurate count, nine 30-15 games in the playoffs, a 40-15 game, a 50-point game, and games with numbers like 31-14, 32-13, 25-20, 29-15, 50-12, 26-16, 28-17, 30-14, 25-19, 26-21, 27-15, 29-15, 26-16, 44-13. Again, just in the playoffs. Since I wrote that column in 2009, he’s added the unbelievable 12-15, 24-24, 48 point game against the Thunder, and a 12-14, 12-12 36 point game against the Spurs.

So yeah, maybe Dirk’s slowed down a bit. But he actually hasn’t. Because last year, I saw something I’ve never seen in my entire time watching the NBA, which is a player shooting over 50%, for an entire season, while A) being the focal point of his team’s offense (by a factor of about 30 in this case), and B) shooting from literally everywhere.

And you know what else? It should have been higher. He shot 44% in the 8 games he played after his injury.

He shot 69% in the three games he played in October. 52% in November. 55% in December. 53% in February, his first month post-injury. 52% in March. He also shot 42% from three in December and January. And FIFTY PERCENT FROM THREE in February.

I’m trying to stress this, because I’m trying to stress this: You couldn’t believe what Dirk could do when he was a young man. But no one could believe what Dirk did last year. The point is, if his other seasons were Top 40 stuff, last year was a Mozart concerto. He knew exactly what he was doing with the ball and he did it, and there was nothing you and your Serge Ibaka could do about it.

He didn’t get top billing for it because he didn’t score enough. Hell the Mavs didn’t get top billing for it because Dirk missed ten games, eight of them losses. If the Mavs had won half of those, they would have had 61 wins, tied with SA for the lead and one behind Miami. What are the odds they only win half?

If they’d had the best record in the NBA, going into the playoffs, would you have felt differently about their odds? If Dirk had been by far the best player on the best team in the NBA, and did what he did, turning a difficult game, with every team throwing their best defense at him, into a predictable science experiment, would Derrick Rose have been such a lock for the MVP?

It doesn’t matter. Thanks to the events of last year, we can save the bitterness, the angry, slighted arguments, until the "where does Dirk rank all-time "debates, post-retirement. This is not a column about bitterness, it’s about appreciation.

Dirk is 32 right now. By the end of next season, he will be 34, the age at which Peja Stojakovic—whose skills would also seem to recommend themselves to a long career—just retired. It’s an age at which Vince Carter, whose skills never seemed like they’d recommend themselves to a long career, but who was nevertheless one of the most dynamic players of the last decade, can find himself playing on a one year, 3 million dollar deal. Dirk is, incidentally, nearly a year older than my favorite player of the early 00s, now sadly gone to feed, Tracy McGrady.

Dirk is extremely durable, stays in great shape, and never has to move very fast or put his body in dangerous positions. There’s nothing saying he can’t stay effective at 36, 37, 38. There are no guarantees, either.

Last season, Dirk turned into something I have never seen before, in the NBA, in my entire career as a fan. Others scored more often, more explosively. Others dominated longer stretches of the game. Dirk Nowitzki turned into a machine that chose only good shots and made them when they mattered, more or less every time.

The Mavericks are betting he’ll still be able to do that in a year, when they can get him defensive help again, and also that he’s still good enough this year that with new offensive talent around him they can mount a credible defense and not, as John Hollinger supposes, "taking a rain check on their season and defending their title in 2013". They don’t know, though, and neither do I and neither do you.

For my part, I will enjoy the privilege of another season watching the most transcendent athlete in Dallas sports history, for the first time free of worry ABOUT him. About whether he’d get his due, what he deserves.

I will enjoy watching this player who will probably never grab 15 rebounds in a game again, this seven-footer who barely ever blocks shots, who scores 30 a lot but 20 sometimes too, depending on what the game needs, not what he needs.

And I will enjoy, forever, that indelible instant that I have seen in so many Mavericks games, for so many years now, but especially this last year, especially I hope this coming season: Dirk Nowitzki, at the high-elbow, holding the ball with his back-turned to the defender, in a one-point game, as the clock ticks slowly down. Waiting for that moment.

And me sitting at home, knowing everything is going to be fine.