Right before the Earth gets glassed by the alien lifeforms that will finally put our puny existence out of misery, they will take pity on one human. It will be Dirk Nowitzki and they will enshrine him as the beaming example of our species.
The year will be 2435. Dirk will still be canning free throw line jumpers against smaller alien defenders. Dirk is forever.
Last season, it felt like we finally witnessed Dirk’s mortality. He shot 43.7 percent from the floor, averaged less than 15 points per game for the first time since 1999, the Mavericks missed the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades and the team had a negative net-rating when Dirk was on the floor. For the first time in 20 years, Dirk wasn’t dragging the dregs of the Mavericks up and down roster to higher peaks.
In terms of how this season is going, things aren’t that much different. The Mavs still have a negative net rating when Dirk is on the floor (minus 3.9 for the season) and their record isn’t much better: the Mavs are tumbling to another top 10 and possibly top five draft pick.
While the team still isn’t any better, recently Dirk has been. And it’s magical.
Since Nov. 18, the Mavs are posting a positive net rating when Dirk is on the floor at 1.6 (it goes up to 3.2 when he heads to the bench but shhhh). He’s shooting 41.2 from three, which would be third best mark of his career. Third best in 20 years! That’s crazy. He’s also up to 46.5 percent overall, which would be the best number from the field since his under-the-radar great year back in 2014 when he almost posted a 50-40-90 season at season 16.
Dirk is mainly still a spot-up dynamo, with 26.3 percent of his possessions consisting of him being the roll (or pop) man in the pick and roll. Another 29.9 percent of his possessions consist of pure spot-up looks. The cool thing about Dirk this season, 20 years in, is how much he’s occasionally turned back the clock.
It hasn’t showed up in eye-popping point totals — Dirk’s season high is 20 points on a couple of occasions. With Dirk sitting in crunch time as well, it has come in small bursts; little pockets of action where Dirk looks like a young man again. Take the Jan. 3 meeting with the Warriors in Dallas. Dirk played 25 minutes and had 12 points, but it was the stretch of play toward the beginning of the second quarter where Dirk looked very much like the All-NBA force he was a few years ago.
On three straight possessions Dirk scored on two post-ups and assisted on a three pointer.
This pass to Dwight Powell was a little high, but it still showed off Dirk’s helpful passing he’s always possessed along with the court gravity he still commands at his advanced age.
While squinting from the press box, Dirk looked like a 28-year-old again, for a brief two minutes. He looked like the dude that could drag this roster to 55 wins.
The Mavs are careful with Dirk’s post-ups as they can take a lot out of his legs. He is definitely more of a spot-up guy now but Dallas and Rick Carlisle still go to the classic Dirk actions at the free-throw line if teams dare Dirk with smaller defenders. After shooting 43.3 percent last season on post-ups, Dirk is at 47.8 percent this season, according to NBA.com.
“They switch a lot, obviously,” Dirk told me after the Warriors game when I asked about his post-ups. “I’m not gonna roll down every time but on some occasion I go down there ... but post-up if they’re gonna go small, we’re gonna pick our spots here and there to still do it.
“Obviously let Dennis [Smith Jr.] iso some of the bigger guys. Just trying to attack from all angles and mix it up.”
It’s kind of incredible to see how comfortable Dirk looks on the offensive end. Dirk’s played every game this season, including every back-to-back. While he’s sitting late in fourth quarters to allow Smith and Harrison Barnes to close games, he’s still averaging right about 25 minutes per game. Again, Dirk isn't a token starter or a ceremonial player — he’s playing a lot, he’s involved and since the week before Thanksgiving, he’s helping the team be competitive in games, despite the overall poor record.
Even Dirk’s percentages this season from certain points on the floor don’t look all that off from his prime.
Look at those numbers at 10-14 feet and 15-19 feet! That’s prime Dirk! Also 77.4 percent at the rim is kind of nuts too, even if Dirk doesn’t really go to the basket much anymore aside from wide-open looks or blown coverage.
The defense, however, is as bad as it’s ever been. Dirk simply can’t keep up with the smaller and modern NBA game, despite mostly playing center. Dirk does what he can staying closer to the rim, trying to rotate and do his best as a quasi-rim defender. Teams still love stretching him out in pick and rolls and as more teams play four-out ball, it becomes harder to keep Dirk on the floor in a lot of scenarios late in games. It’s part of the reason Carlisle likes to rest Dirk late, to give the Mavs a defensive edge if they have a lead. Still though, that doesn’t take away the offensive brilliance, especially as the Mavs are playing well in the last two months with him on the floor.
While Smith piles up headlines for his breathtaking play and we all look toward the horizon for the immensely close post-Dirk future, let’s not forget that future isn’t here just yet. Dirk, at 39-years-old, is still a badass.