Manager's note: as we do each year, we'll be breaking down each player's season and looking forward to what might be over the next season. We start, as always, with the most important Maverick.
The Dallas Mavericks have now had 18 years with Dirk Nowitzki. There are only 35 players in NBA history who have played 18 or more seasons. Few have played as well as Dirk this late into their careers.
With a career old enough to vote and enter the military, it has become increasingly difficult to contextualize Dirk's play. Do we judge him relative to his career numbers? Do we cut him some slack for being old on team that had three new players in the starting lineup? Do we ignore all these things and simply look at his play relative to the Mavericks' success this season?
During the 2015-16 season Dirk Nowitzki played in 75 games, missing seven due to scheduled rest. He averaged 18.3 points on 45 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds and just under 2 assists while playing 31.5 minutes a game. The hallmark of Dirk's entire career has been consistency and this past season was no different, as he posted numbers remarkably similar to the last half decade. Oh, and along the way, he passed Shaquille O'Neal for sixth all-time on the NBA scoring list.
Taking the long view, a healthy season from Dirk is a win. When we consider the turmoil from the off-season with DeAndre Jordan, paired with the dueling injury recoveries of Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews, Dirk Nowitzki was the most important Maverick by default to start the season. Though both Matthews and Parsons rebounded well from their injuries (before Parsons got hurt again), Dirk ended the season as the unquestioned best player. During a nine game stretch in early March, he averaged 26 points and 7.5 rebounds on 55 percent shooting. That's simply absurd for a player of his age at ANY point in the season, much less towards the end.
What happens next is anyone's guess. The likelihood is that he re-signs to a two year deal where he gets a slight raise. Frankly, Dirk should demand more than a slight raise but given the incoming salary cap increase, he probably takes a marginal percentage increase that still allows him to make a respectable amount as he goes for 20 years in the NBA
Predicting the future for Dirk is easy, in theory. He will likely continue to average 17-18 points, grab 5-6 rebounds, all while shooting a healthy percentage. Barring a bad injury, he'll play north of 70 games, all while helping Dallas to a record above .500.
What happens to Dirk and the Mavericks broadly depends on what the front office is able to do in free agency. A goal for Dallas has to be either finding Dirk a suitable backup or constructing a roster that allows Dallas to play without a traditional power forward in the backup role. While Dirk is mainly a rhythm player who needs time to find his groove, 31.5 minutes per game is more than he should be playing at this stage in his career. If Dallas could cut his minutes even just a tad, to 28 per game, that would lop 262.5 minutes off his season total (assuming he plays 75 games again next season), the equivalent of five and a half full games. That would be a lot less wear and tear on his body.
There's nothing more that can be asked of Nowitzki as a player. He's sacrificed so much of his time and effort, not to mention money (repeated discounts on contracts) in order to give Dallas a better chance at building a contender. Many fans are trending towards hoping the Mavericks would simply start over and do a real rebuild, but when the best player in franchise history wants to keep playing, it's impossible for the front office to try to do anything other than reload.
It's quite possible that Dirk Nowitzki will be the best player we will ever see don a Dallas Mavericks uniform. All we can do during the time we have left is enjoy the ride.
- Rob Mahoney's excellent piece "The Craft" on how Dirk's game has evolved over the years.
- Chris Ballard's in depth feature "Cowboy Way: Dirk Nowitzi Still Loving the Ride"
- Phenomenal early season piece from Tim MacMahon on Dirk's preparation for the season.
- Josh Bowe on Dirk deserving more than the Mavericks are giving him.
- WSJ's Chris Herring on Dirk's fade away being the most stolen move in the league.
- Tim Cato's spectacular postseason piece on Dirk's lonely road.