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Dirk Nowitzki’s struggle to stay healthy may be the biggest hint that retirement is near

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He still won’t say for certain whether this is it or not, but Dirk Nowitzki’s struggle to get back on the court and stay there this season a big factor.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When Dirk Nowitzki passed Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, the focus was primarily on the achievement itself. Topping 31,419 points is a feat that only five players have reached previously, after all.

However, on the night that he reached the milestone, there were glimmers of what the future may hold for the 40-year-old face of the Dallas Mavericks. You just had to listen closely.

This season has been trying for Nowitzki. He missed the first 26 games of the season with an inflamed tendon in his left ankle, a complication during recovery from surgical debridement on the same ankle last April. Once he finally returned, he still didn’t look right, laboring through games. The injury and lost time took its toll on him both physically and mentally.

“There were obviously times in December and January where I couldn’t really move and it wasn’t fun,” Nowitzki said. “It wasn’t fun to compete. I couldn’t help the guys. I had to put in a lot of work, a lot of work on off days. Whether it’s conditioning, lifting—just to somehow get back to where I can enjoy the game a little bit.”

That’s a telling statement from the Big German. For years now, Nowitzki has iterated that his final decision to retire will be partially predicated on whether he still enjoys playing and if he is helping his teammates. That he wasn’t doing either a couple of months ago should be seen as somewhat alarming for those hoping that the future Hall of Famer sticks it out for another year.

That said, Nowitzki didn’t let his spirits dip too much.

“As we know, you never want to get too low with the lows and too high with the highs,” Nowitzki said. “As it was frustrating at times to go through, I tried to stay positive. I tried to stay positive with my teammates and have fun and still interact with them during weightlifting sessions or in practices even though I was frustrated.”

His frustration has subsided in recent weeks, thanks in large part to improved play. Though not the player he was in his heyday, Nowitzki appears to be moving well and even provides a modest scoring burst here and there. Part of the reason he’s playing better is due to his conditioning regimen as well as the countless procedures he undergoes just to keep his aging body going.

“If you see the things that they are sticking in his body, from needles to everything else—all over it—just to be able to get out there and play then you’d be absolutely amazed,” Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle said. “Part of me is just, really more than ever, in awe of his will to compete.”

Carlisle didn’t elaborate on the treatments that Nowitzki is receiving from the team’s training staff, but he didn’t need to. The message is clear. It takes the best that medical science has to offer just for Nowitzki to be able to play. Even with the treatment, he still moves like a mummy, but that seems to be enough for him to continue to want to suit up nightly, for now at least.

His days of donning the Mavericks’ blue and white are numbered. That much is obvious. Nowitzki was realistic about his potential future in the league when asked if he had his sights set on passing Michael Jordan’s scoring mark.

“I mean, I wish,” Nowitzki said bluntly. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

Nowitzki sits just 865 points behind Jordan, at the time of this writing. In order to catch him, he would need to average 10.5 points over the course of his next 82 games. To put that into perspective, Nowitzki is averaging just six points this season in 40 games. If he maintains his current scoring average, it will take him 144 games to catch Jordan—almost two full seasons.

Still, what Nowitzki is doing now, in his 21st season, is remarkable. That he still wants to be on the court through all that he’s endured this season is even more astounding. Meanwhile, the league and fans are essentially goading him into retirement, giving him a congratulatory sendoff in arenas across the country.

Regardless of his physical limitations and the external pressures placed on him, Nowitzki is insistent that he will do things his way and step away from the game when he is ready. It’s what he’s said for a few years now and he’s standing by it. His retirement may be nearer, but his ultimate decision won’t be based on his early struggles and recent successes this season.

“I tried to push through it and have fun and enjoy my teammates because you never know how many months I have left,” Nowitzki said. “But now it’s been a lot better, but I still want to see how it is with the rest and how I feel after the season and I then think I’m going to make my decision later.”