It was in Fall 2015 when Dirk Nowitzki played his final game for the German national team. Although Dirk didn’t formally announce his retirement from the team at that specific moment, you knew it was time. The crowd was roaring and gave him a standing ovation, even after a close loss to Spain.
Dirk was overcome with emotion, shedding a few tears as he walked off the court with “Deutschland” across his chest for the last time. It was sad to watch, but more awe-inspiring than anything else, given the magnitude of that moment.
Now, can you even start to imagine what that moment is going to be like when he plays his last game for the Dallas Mavericks? If you ask Dirk when he plans on retiring from the NBA, you’re always going to get an answer that includes something along the lines of "we’ll see how the body feels at the end of the season." Dirk honestly doesn’t know when he’s going to call it quits, but there’s this feeling that it’s going to happen the same way it did in the 2015 Eurobasket — Dirk’s way.
Dirk is about to hit yet another huge milestone in his already Hall of Fame-worthy career. In October, he’ll begin his 20th season with the Mavs, the only franchise he’s ever suited up for. Only one other player in NBA history has accomplished this feat: Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. In more ways than one, Dirk is more than just a basketball player for the Mavs. He is the Mavs, and his impact on the city of Dallas reaches far beyond the hardwood of American Airlines Center. Many star athletes are considered good role models for their communities, but Dirk is more than that. He is a Dallas icon.
The Mavs have never been in this kind of situation before. Sure, they’ve had some pretty awesome players come through in their franchise history, and they have Brad Davis’ No. 15 and Rolando Blackman’s No. 22 hanging from the AAC rafters (Jason Kidd and Michael Finley, among others, will eventually make it up there too). But those players haven’t come close to what Dirk means to the Mavs. This is why, even though he might play another two or three seasons, the Mavs are already laying the foundation for a gradual transition into the post-Dirk era. They don’t know when it’s going to happen, but they know it’s going to happen soon.
To transition past one man who holds as much weight within the franchise as Dirk does, a re-branding of sorts will be needed to keep the fanbase engaged in the immediate post-Dirk future.
Harrison Barnes seems to be at the center of that re-branding effort. Barnes’ first season with the Mavs showed that he has the potential to be the face of the franchise after Dirk retires. It was his first time featured as the go-to guy in an offense, and for a first-timer, his stats were nice (19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 rebounds per game). Whether it was the first game of the 2016-17 season, when he hit a huge three against the Indiana Pacers to send the game to overtime in his Mavs debut, or giving us an early Christmas present by nailing a game-winner against the Los Angeles Clippers, Barnes showed that he has that special clutch gene we’ve seen out of Dirk all these years.
Given, Barnes could definitely do a better job at getting to the free throw line by being more aggressive consistently. Other than that though, he was never afraid of the big moments, and being only 25 years old, there’s still plenty of room for Barnes to take that next step to stardom.
Another reason I think the Mavs envision Barnes as a suitable face of the franchise after Dirk, is because of his drive to make a mark in the Dallas community. Over the years, Dirk has given back to the community through The Dirk Nowitzki Foundation, which awards grants each year that go to organizations focusing on helping children in need.
Like Dirk, Barnes cares about the community a great deal, and he has already started leaving his mark in a slightly different way.
Barnes’ approach is more centered around the division within the community, especially in regards to relations with law enforcement. Barnes, as he was getting acclimated to his new role with the Mavs last season, also made time to organize a dinner with Dallas officials (Dallas police chief, David Brown and Dallas mayor, Mike Rawlings to name a few) to discuss what more he can do to help the city. According to Barnes’ “Introduction to Dallas” article for The Players’ Tribune, Ron Kirk, former Dallas mayor told him that a lot of sports stars and celebrities fail to follow through with their plans to help the community. He told Barnes, “Whatever you do, stick with it. Be present.” Barnes plans to do just that, and is as humble of a guy as they come. One thing is for sure — Barnes is 100-percent invested in his team, and above all, in his city as a whole.
On the court, Barnes has already taken over the go-to guy role. Dirk, although still very effective in spacing the floor at the ripe age of 39 years old, saw his minutes per game and points per game drop to the lowest they've been since his rookie season in 1998-99. Off the court, we have recently seen how the Mavs are attempting to steer promotions more towards the younger players. The Mavs used Dennis Smith Jr. himself and Barnes’ No. 40 jerseys to promote their new Nike uniforms last week.
I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of this throughout the season, with Barnes being the main face of those promotions. Although I think Smith Jr. will be the franchise’s next real “superstar,” he just needs to soak in as much knowledge as possible, while allowing the other veterans on the team take pressure off of him. It’s unfortunate that Smith Jr. will only get one, maybe two, seasons of tutelage under Dirk, but that’s why it’s a good thing that Barnes is Dirk-like in some ways. I wouldn’t call Barnes a superstar, but given the circumstances, he’s the perfect stop-gap face of the Mavs for at least the next 2-3 years. And who knows? Maybe Barnes can make that leap and be more than that. Only time will tell.
All in all, this is how Dirk always wanted it to be, when it comes to his eventual retirement. He doesn’t want all the attention being on him; he’s never wanted that. He doesn’t want a season-long “Kobe Tour.” He wants to slowly fade away, preferably on one foot, into the background, so when he does decide to retire, maybe it won’t be that big of a deal.
But no matter what the Mavs do to try and soften that blow, it won’t do us any good. There will be an overwhelming flow of sadness, gratitude and nostalgia throughout the AAC when that day comes. It will be here sooner than most of us realize, whether we’re ready for it or not. But the reality is, we’ll never be ready for Dirk’s goodbye, no matter who’s attempting to take his place. We all just need to soak in the time we have left watching The Big German play, and appreciate what all he’s done for his team, his league and his community, because there will never be another Dirk Nowitzki.