How do you measure 18 years of Dirk Nowitzki? By a dozen All-NBA team appearances and an MVP? By the 2011 championship, when he lifted Dallas to a height of basketball accomplishment they hadn’t ever achieved? By his day-in, day-out transformation he pioneered for the Mavericks? There’s no singular measure for how much Dirk has meant, other saying that he has meant nearly everything to the Mavericks.
The Mavericks, in turn, owe him three more years.
Nowitzki just turned 38, but he’s not done yet. Listen to Nowitzki’s various comments, and watch him slowly morph into an older, more advanced version of the player who ran wild in the league during the 2000s, and it's clear Nowitzki could play that much longer. It depends on his health, of course — after the 2014-15 season, where Nowitzki was bothered by nagging injuries and sickness throughout the year, it seemed clear he wouldn’t make it that far. But last year’s excellent 2015-16 campaign, where he felt as good as he ever has (and said so repeatedly), changed the equation.
Just as important as his health is the Mavericks’ relevancy, though. Nowitzki won't go to another team, but he has made it clear he’ll retire before playing for a rebuilding roster. After all, he’s old and he has been in the playoffs in 15 of his 18 seasons — you can hardly blame him for that. If the Mavericks clearly aren't fielding a playoff roster, Dirk is hanging it up.
Monday night, it was reported that the Golden State Warriors may give Nowitzki a call this summer to see if he would be interested in joining them. After opting out of his contract, Nowitzki would be free to do that. It’s almost certain he won’t, for reasons that include having a family with small children in Dallas, already winning his sought-after championship, and promising to honor his three-year contract. Loyalty is one of Dirk’s most enduring, endearing qualities.
Imagining Nowitzki in the Bay Area necessitates the question, though: would the Mavericks be better in this scenario? Dallas has tried ever since the championship to retool around Nowitzki to make him the second scoring option, and have largely failed. Maybe the franchise would be better off starting from scratch now, without the burden of being forced into building a playoff roster that is possibly made up of parts that won’t age well.
The answer to whether the Mavericks should rebuild now is “maybe,” but the answer also doesn’t matter, because the question itself is the problem. As many times as sports drill into our heads that “winning is everything” and “championships are the only goal,” that’s simply not true. Half of every game played results in a loss, and only one team every year is a champion. If sports were only about winning and championships, then sports do a pretty bad job at it.
No, sports are just as much about the memories, the journey, the sacrifice, and the humans who embody all those categories. Those frequently culminate in winning and in historic championships, but it can rise above that, too.
The Mavericks owe Dirk three more years, or two, or one, or however many more he decides to play. Nowitzki would never say it, because he doesn’t view his relationship with Dallas as a reciprocal one. In his eyes, he’s given everything he can to this city and franchise, and in turn, they’ve done the same, even if their “everything” is significantly less.
As much as Dirk would love another championship, he doesn’t want to leave. Dallas pushing him away (and there’s absolutely no sign that they would do that, to be clear), even if it were the smart tactical move, would be the dumbest thing they could do. Do you remember how bad the Mavericks were in the 1990s? Do you remember how times they had made the playoffs before Nowitzki arrived, and how he more than doubled that number? They owe him the possibility of going out of his own terms, not based on when the Mavericks decide they’ll gun for draft picks or tread water developing young players.
Turning next year’s Mavericks into a playoff team like Nowitzki wants to play for, even if it won’t be a true contender, isn’t an easy thing. The best, most viable options may include players who won’t age well, like giving Dwight Howard big money or even absorbing Tyson Chandler’s ridiculous contract back into this cap space. Down the road, those moves will be a nuisance, but that’s OK. Because there’s no proven method to win games, either. The Mavericks can’t guarantee pushing Dirk away, throwing away this coming season and using it to retool will get them any further into the playoffs than they already have been four of the past five years. So stop worrying about that. Do right by Dirk.
In the best case scenario, the Mavericks do both things. They sign younger players who can help pave the road into a post-Dirk future while helping him back to the playoffs right now. Of course Dallas should (and will) start the offseason with that task at hand. Nobody is saying otherwise, and there’s hope that this plan might work out and satisfy both parties.
But if it does end up being $25 million per year for Dwight Howard, or any other bloated contract to a player who may be past his prime, then that’s alright. For nearly two decades, Nowitzki’s career has been about making Dallas respectable, even when it would have been easier to go elsewhere. It’s OK for Dallas to do the same for Dirk for once, before it’s too late.