DALLAS – With his team almost unrecognizable in its personnel and its play, and the first surgery of his career having delayed his 15th season by two months, Dirk Nowitzki’s patience is being tested like never before.
The Dallas Mavericks are laboring to complete the most basic tasks on a nightly basis and are enduring blowout losses at a rate that doubles any other team in the league. Nowitzki, now five games back in uniform, might be starting to round into form, but he has so far been unable to spark a more consistent team game as he strangely comes off the bench for the first time since he broke into the league as a mop-headed 19-year-old.
“Obviously, Dirk is not ready,” said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose club walloped the Mavs on Sunday for a second time in the span of a week with Nowitzki in the lineup. “He’s not Dirk Nowitzki basically, one of the greatest players that’s ever played, so it’s going to take time for him. Everybody’s just trying to figure out their place and work around him and get back into a rotation. It’s very, very difficult when you have a guy like that out and then he comes back.”
Suddenly the unimaginable is racing toward reality. With still 50 games remaining as the Mavs head to Miami Wednesday night after stopping a six-game skid at Washington with a 103-94 win on New Year’s Day, urgency is already setting in as two enduring streaks are effectively endangered.
Nowitzki, averaging 8.2 points after scoring in double figures (11 points on 5-for-7 shooting) against the woeful Wizards for the first time since his return, will likely see his 11-year run as an All-Star end. That one won’t sting nearly as much as potentially missing the playoffs. The franchise he magnificently led to its first championship some 18 months ago is in jeopardy of seeing its string of 12 consecutive playoff appearances come to an inglorious halt.
Having lost nine of 11 games — and just 1-4 in Nowitzki’s return — Dallas sits at 13-19 and out of a playoff spot in the heated Western Conference. The idea of holding down the fort until Nowitzki got back was long ago blown out of the water. The hopeful notion — perhaps from fans more than the organization — that Nowitzki would provide an instant jolt and galvanize Dallas’ bottoming-out rotation is proving faulty as he’s averaging just 20.8 minutes a game as a reserve.
“It’s not pretty right now, obviously,” Nowitzki said. “It’s not pretty defensively, it’s not pretty offensively, not pretty on the glass. So we got to keep on working and keep on plugging and eventually we’ll work ourselves out of it. I’m going to work myself into better shape, obviously, and can help a little more. But right now I’m not helping that much.”
Adding to the difficultly of a quick and smooth return is that Nowitzki isn’t returning to a familiar situation. Dallas added nine new players this season and his teammates are relative strangers in terms of floor time together. Before missing the first 27 games of the regular season, Nowitzki played in only the preseason opener in Berlin.
Now he must adjust to a new backcourt consisting of the erratic Darren Collison, yanked as the starter 14 games in and reinstated only after Derek Fisher quit the team after a month, and O.J. Mayo, who is mired in an ugly six-game slump.
In 2008, Nowitzki pleaded with owner Mark Cuban to trade penetrating, low-assist point guard Devin Harris for savvy veteran Jason Kidd, believing the cerebral assist man would elevate the offense and create opportunities for Nowitzki that didn’t require the constant burden of grinding, one-on-one isolation work.
With a return to a Harris-type point in Collison, Nowitzki is faced with a clear adjustment in styles and increasingly limited time to make it work.
“The thing I think Dallas is missing is passers,” said Denver coach George Karl, whose Nuggets blitzed Dallas by 21 points last week. “I’m just saying Jason Kidd and Jason Terry; the Dirk-Jason Terry connection was incredible in the fourth quarter. Jason Kidd has a way of making everybody pass the ball the correct way.”
Nowitzki’s time with the starters, the group he’ll eventually join, has been sporadic. He’s getting shots up, 37 in the last four games, but only 13 have gone down (35.1 percent). His hot shooting Tuesday night in just 17 minuets is the most encouraging sign to date. Still, Carlisle said he won’t rush Nowitzki into the starting lineup until he’s ready to play 30-plus minutes.
“I’m not very good right now so I’m not going to worry about anybody else,” Nowitzki said of adjusting to his new backcourt. “I’m worried about getting myself halfway into game shape. That should be able to make stuff easier for my teammates if I start making plays and start having a little lift on my jumper and make some defenses pay for sucking in, then I think it’s going to open up a lot of stuff for the other guys.
“Darren is the best, I think that’s obvious, when he attacks, when he gets to the rim, when he gets in the paint, and that’s when he makes stuff happen. So that’s his game and we’ve got to adjust to that.”
While it’s convenient to say it’s still early in the season, the clock is ticking.
Over the last five seasons, not including last year’s lockout-shortened one, it has taken 46, 50, 48, 50 and 42 wins to sneak into the playoffs as the West’s eighth and final seed. Last season, if extrapolated to 82 games, would have required 45 wins.
So take 45 as the magic number to get in this season and Dallas would need to go 32-18 the rest of the way, or somehow manage to accrue one fewer loss than it did in the first 32 games.
So much of that climb up will fall on Nowitzki. Yet that’s certainly nothing new for the franchise’s longtime lone superstar.
Missing the playoffs would.
“We got to stick together,” Nowitzki said. “I mean, when it’s tough, it’s tough. Sometimes guys will go sideways a little bit and you got to circle the wagons and keep them together, pull them back in if somebody in a timeout is not listening or not focused or pissed at himself or at somebody else; stick together, this is not the time to go separate ways.”