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Dirk Nowitzki and the test of time

The best player in Maverick history continues to age gracefully.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back

Dirk Nowitzi has played professional basketball for so long now that contextualizing the conversation early is key. Heck, just look at his Basketball Reference page; it’s quite literally a wall of data. Playing professional basketball for 20 straight years is nearly unheard of, with only five other players besides Dirk in NBA history playing 20 or more years.

So that he was somehow able to play this season at all is incredible generally. But specifically, Dirk Nowitzki managed to have a remarkably effective season. At 39 years old, Nowitzki played in 77 contests, his most games played since his final All Star season in 2014-15. He might have added a few more games to the total during the stretch run had both he and the Mavericks not elected to perform a season ending ankle surgery. He averaged 12 points on the fewest number of field goals (9.8) since his rookie season, while shooting 46 percent from the field. Dirk was a flame thrower from behind the arc in 2017-18, connecting on 41 percent of his long ball attempts.

While Dirk is (and has been for years now) a problem defensively, he’s so valuable offensively that it’s quite hard for Dallas to keep him off the floor. His usage rate was the lowest of his career at 20 percent, but so was his turnover percentage (just 6 percent!). Pair these two stats with his ridiculous shooting, and you have a player who’s a gravity well on offense. Either teams leave him alone and he makes them pay via open shots or his man sticks so closely to him that he frees up teammates. Just look at this space:

Dirk pushes in just enough to force his man to stay directly on him, so Dennis has enough room to navigate the lane and dunk on Larry Nance’s head. Beautiful.

Defensively, we know the drill. Dirk Nowitzki is not able to move anymore, and that causes team defense problems. But once the team opted to move away from Nerlens Noel, the Mavericks were going to have defensive problems regardless. Once a team chooses to play a 39 year old and a rookie with a small wing span on the court at the same time without a true rim protector, things are going to get funky.

Contract status

Dirk just finished the first year of a two-year deal worth $10 million with the second year being a team option. The most likely scenario is the Mavericks pick up Dirk’s team option, and it’s that simple. However, he’s known for working with the Mavericks front office to give them maximum flexibility, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Mavericks turn down his team option (thus making him a fake free agent), as it would give Dallas more cap room if they were somehow to become a major player in the free agent market this summer.

There’s also the fact that Nowitzki is not interested in a retirement tour. He’s committed to year 21 next season, but it really wouldn’t be a surprise to see him sign another two-year deal just so he could keep the retirement chatter to a minimum.

Looking forward

Speculating on a players 21st season is probably an exercise in futility. And yet there’s continued reason for hope with Dirk next season. Unlike his more recent peers playing late in their careers (namely Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett), Dirk’s still very functional on at least one end of the floor.

For Nowitzki to have a successful campaign in 2018-19, he will require good health luck and for the front office to continue to add actual talent to the roster. The recovery from the ankle surgery will be worth watching closely. The Mavericks and Dirk admitted that whatever was causing him problems in his ankle was not a recent occurrence, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that once addressed, it could help hold off Father Time just a bit longer. However, lower extremity surgery on a player with over 50,000 regular season minutes is not to be taken lightly, no matter how small the procedure.

Additionally, the draft and free agency are very important to how Dirk will look next season. The athleticism of Dennis Smith paired beautifully with Dirk’s skill, and the two really worked well together. Another impact rookie could further take the load off Dirk on either end, making his potential plan to come off the bench in 2018-19 all the more feasible.

Dirk Nowitzki will most likely exit his time in Dallas playing on another lottery bound team. But he makes watching basketball fun, even after all these years. Appreciate what he’s done and look forward to what he will do. He’s not done with Dallas just yet.