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Dirk Nowitzki has to be as good as he ever was

The pillar of the Mavericks has to put in a stellar season once again to help Dallas navigate the tricky Western Conference

NBA: Preseason-Charlotte Hornets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Dirk Nowitzki is the Mavericks. He is their alpha and omega. The dawn and dusk. As Dirk goes, so do the Mavericks.

Fortunately for the Mavericks, Dirk has been going very well for almost two decades now. Unfortunately, he can't slow down, not even a bit.

Dirk returns to the Mavs after an up-and-down off-season that saw the starting five get remodeled yet again. There was a brief moment of temptation to leave (mainly drummed up by outside interference), but Dirk was always coming back. He's entering his 19th season with one of the more talented-yet-uncertain rosters he's been a part of. There are good players here, along with some young players we think, hope, are good.

There's just one tiny potential problem — Dirk has to be keep being really good.

Main Question: Can Dirk keep being Dirk at age 38?

As well as the Mavericks rebounded after certain free agency disaster yet again, the entire roster revolves around Dirk. A 38-year-old that was referred to as a mummy THREE YEARS AGO has to carry the load once again.

Harrison Barnes could be the link to the future, but he’s not there yet. Justin Anderson is the brightest young player the Mavs have had in decades. But he projects as a career role player. Deron Williams is 32 with his best basketball behind him. Wes Matthews, Andrew Bogut, Seth Curry, J.J. Barea — all nice players, all nice role players.

All very nice players so long as a certain old dude keeps putting up numbers like he’s a young man. Dirk has been fantastic in his twilight years, stellar even. He’s been All-NBA worthy. His PER has never dipped below 19. He’s never posted a true-shooting percentage below 55.5. Last year he was just outside the top-five of power forwards in real plus minus, he averaged over 31 minutes a game and he had the highest usage percentage on the team...again. He led the team in scoring, again.

He was a load in the playoffs, shooting just a hair under 50 percent and dropping 20.4 points per game against the last time Russ and KD rode together. Dirk was Dirk for the most part and the Mavs shackled that Dirk to a mediocre roster that somehow won 42 games and made the playoffs.

I’ll tell you how they did it — Dirk. When he was on the floor, the Mavs numbers were that of a competent team (3.6 net rating). When he was off, the Mavs were a steaming pile of garbage (-3.9 net rating). No other player gave the Mavs a worse net rating when he was off the floor. Dirk was the rock, yet again.

So the elephant in the room: when does it end? As well as Dirk’s game can age thanks to his position, height and shooting ability, he should be a role player right now. He should be Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce. He shouldn’t be a franchise cornerstone anymore but he keeps playing like he is.

There have been signs. The last couple of years have seen Dirk slog through Decembers like the older man he is. Seriously, look at the numbers from the last couple of Decembers for Dirk — it’s horror movie quality. Since Dirk’s incredible shooting season in 2013-2014 its been a slow decline. His true shooting has dipped the last two years and last year’s was a career-low outside of his rookie year.

So when does it happen? When does one of Dirk’s rough Decembers extend to a rough couple months...a rough winter...a rough, gulp, season? As long as Dirk is expected to carry the burden, he can’t keep this up, can he? The Mavs, for this season at least, are hoping yes.

Best case scenario

Dirk keeps being Dirk. He’s covered on the defensive end by Matthews, Anderson, Barnes and Bogut and keeps raining pick and pop jumpers like there’s no end in sight. Barnes makes a semi-leap to offensive relevance and the addition of Seth Curry, Quincy Acy and improvements from Dwight Powell reduce the need for Dirk to play 30 minutes a night.

Barnes and company hold their own enough for Dirk to finally rest a bit more, take some more nights off and stay as fresh as possible for a postseason run.

Worst case scenario

Outside of injury, the team is a disaster offensively when Dirk hits the bench. As much as Rick Carlisle wants to rest him, he also has to win right now. The slow developments and inconsistencies of Barnes, Anderson, Curry and Powell force Dirk to shoulder the load and drag the Mavs kicking and screaming all season.

He hits his December slump and never recovers. Dirk plays like a 38-year-old man that has rarely had a full summer to himself. He posts his worst shooting numbers of the year, and the Mavs fail to make the playoffs. Dirk said he’ll hang ‘em up when this isn’t fun anymore. So he does.

This is the darkest timeline. Knowing Dirk, he’ll hover between these two scenarios. Or he’ll just obliterate expectations, like always does.