The writing was on the wall in July for the Dallas Mavericks: after the DeAndre Jordan fiasco left the team without an obvious starting center; this was likely to be a throwaway season. Owner Mark Cuban alluded to it, too. However, head coach Rick Carlisle seems to have other plans, riding the twilight of Dirk Nowitzki’s career to perhaps yet another playoff berth — what would be the team’s seventh in the past nine seasons.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is don’t underestimate greatness — at any age,” Carlisle said in reference to Nowitzki in a December interview with 1310 The Ticket. “I don’t think you can ever say you’re shocked that the guy is playing well or playing great. What you do say is this is a net result of a total commitment to the game, a total commitment to your franchise, a total commitment to your team.”
In a vaunted Western Conference, the Mavericks, who are 22-18 this season, currently hold the fifth seed. They are 15-9 in inter-conference matchups, the fourth-best winning percentage among Western Conference teams, and have already bludgeoned the defending champion Golden State Warriors by 23 points. And again: this is a franchise many projected to win 30-33 games this year.
As has been the case for nearly two decades, Dallas’s success has quite a bit to do with the seven-foot German, who passed Shaquille O’Neal last month as the sixth all-time leading scoring in NBA history. At 37, Nowitzki is leading the Mavericks in scoring (17.7 per contest), three-point percentage (39.9), usage among players who have logged more than 500 minutes (24.4) and effective field goal percentage (.520).
“The month of January is a beast,” Nowitzki told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re all over the place. It’s a monster. But we got to make it through. We’ll see how many [wins] we can get.”
He isn’t wrong: Dallas still has to play Chicago, San Antonio, Boston, Oklahoma City, Houston and Golden State this month, and is just 5-5 in its last 10 games. Knowing this, Nowitzki poured in 29 points Sunday against the Timberwolves to help the team notch another win.
“Classic Dirk,” teammate Deron Williams said to ESPN.com about the performance. “Hitting shots from everywhere, making big shots, big plays. That’s why he’s one of the greatest.”
In total, Nowitzki has buried 191 unassisted jump shots at a 44 percent clip this season.
The Mavericks are one of three teams (Golden State and Atlanta being the other two) in the league putting up more than 30 catch-and-shoot points per contest. Nowitzki accounts for 8.1 each night, and is one of three players in the league churning out more than eight points per game in the metric. Since NBA.com began tracking catch-and-shoot points and efficiency in 2013-14, Nowitzki is currently the only player who has averaged better than eight points per game in the metric each season.
“I feel like if my body is still fine, I’m still enjoying the grind of it, I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can,” Nowitzki told The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps recently.
Dallas is certainly still leaning on him: the 17-year veteran is seeing 3.4 more touches per game compared to last season and is possessing the ball for a longer period of time each night. He’s also being tasked with more minutes per game compared to last season, which is why Carlisle chose to sit him Wednesday against the Thunder. However, as expected, the Mavericks feel the effects when he’s not out there, and Dallas’s net rating drops from plus-4.7 to negative-4.2 when he sits. For a below-average shooting team, Nowitzki has long been the Mavericks’ buoy, but he’ll need Williams, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia to shoulder some of the load in the second half of the season to get the team into the playoffs.
The Mavericks are a motley crew of position players, glue guys and one perennial all star. Piece them together and they’re still almost certainly short of what it takes to compete for a title. But this team is learning to jell with one another on the court — Nowitzki was the only player who started for the franchise in the season-opener each of the past two seasons, by the way — and is competing at a far higher level than most expected. That’s worth something, and if nothing else, we should get to see Nowitzki lead another team into the postseason.