DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki‘s beard grows thicker and more unruly with each passing day. Losses like Wednesday’s at home to the Brooklyn Nets decrease the odds that he’ll reach for a razor any time soon. The pact he and a group of teammates made some six weeks ago was that no one shaves until they reach .500.
The Dallas Mavericks were 21-28 on Feb. 8 when the motivational ploy came to light. Nowitzki had little more than the scruff he typically wears. But look at him now. The Mavs are 32-36, barely hanging on to playoff hope, and Nowitzki’s bearded face is proof, untamed, grizzly and rivaling the one he grew for weeks in the Outback six summers ago after his lone MVP season ended dismally in a first-round flop.
“Only then I didn’t even trim this part,” Nowitzki said, pointing to the lower portion of his bushy moustache creeping over his upper lip. “It came all the way down here.”
After Wednesday’s loss when Nowitzki shot 80 percent from the field, but took only 10 shots and none in the final half of the fourth quarter when Deron Williams – the co-star Dallas failed to obtain last summer — took over, the 34-year-old Nowitzki stroked his prickly-chin and scratched the back of his fur-covered neck where clumps of hair forcibly trail downward like a thicket of overgrown vines.
He said his mom told him he looks 45. Judging by his heavy eyes after the 113-96 disappointment to start a crucial six-game homestand, he might feel that old, too.
Nowitzki missed the first 27 games of the season after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Oct. 19. His recovery was slow and painful, as was his game upon his return. And now, after missing his first All-Star Game in 12 seasons, he is on the verge of sitting out the playoffs for the first time in 13.
His team hasn’t been at .500 since it was 11-11 on Dec. 12. They were 12-16 when he returned two days before Christmas.
He was asked Wednesday why point guards Mike James and Darren Collison can’t seem to get him the ball in key situations, particularly on nights when he isn’t missing. In Dallas’ last two losses, both at home, Nowitzki was 8-for-10 in both, yet was a non-factor late.
“They [defenders] don’t leave me much anymore,” Nowitzki said. “It’s up to other guys to make plays. It’s as simple as that.”
There was zero talk of the future Hall of Famer reaching yet another remarkable milestone. Nowitzki surpassed 9,000 career rebounds, making him the 10th player in NBA history with 24,000 points and 9,000 boards, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and the only other active player, Kevin Garnett.
Nowitzki has scored and shot the ball better lately (18.1 ppg, 50.9 percent from the field, 48.8 percent on 3s), but he’s still set for his worst statistical season since he was a rookie, averaging 16.4 ppg and shooting 45.9 percent.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban doesn’t believe age is catching up to his star. In fact, Cuban said he expects Nowitzki to regain his All-Star status next season, the last on Nowitzki’s current contract, and “at least” a season or two after that.
“What we’re seeing now with Dirk is what we can expect to see next year and the year after, if he stays healthy,” Cuban said. “And the year after that.”
Nowitzki’s response to what will be his 16th, 17th and 18th seasons in the league?
“I’m not sure about all that. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Nowitzki said. “Hopefully I can finish this season strong and have a good summer like I basically did last year with a lot of lifting and running and hopefully not have a setback with a surgery. We’ll see how consistent I can be again next season.”
Cuban compared Nowitzki to 36-year-olds Tim Duncan, who is having a renaissance season, and Garnett, who remains an integral part of the Celtics.
The problem with those comparisons is that Duncan and Garnett are not their team’s lone star. Duncan has Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and a crew of impressive young players around him. Garnett has Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, until he was lost for the season with an ACL injury.
Nowitzki is mostly alone now and misses two huge contributors to the 2011 title run — Jason Terry and Jason Kidd — now more than ever. With all due respect to Tyson Chandler, those guards aided Nowitzki’s game. He ran a killer two-man play with Terry, while Kidd made the game easy, getting the ball to Nowitzki where he likes it so he didn’t have to work in isolations as he often does now.
“I can’t wrestle every time to get the ball. You can’t do that for 48 minutes,” Nowitzki said. “I’ve got to pick my spots, take open shots when it’s there. I think we’ve been running pick-and-roll pretty well. Because [defenders] are not really leaving me much, guys are pretty much walking in the lane, getting stuff out of that. I’m going to keep picking my spots and be aggressive when I need it.”
Nowitzki is 18th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, less than 2,000 points shy of No. 10 Oscar Robertson. If Nowitzki plays another two seasons, he should break into the top 10. It will take at least three seasons of elite play to crack the top five.
Can he regain and sustain such a level turning 35 in June? Would he consider leaving Dallas if the team doesn’t get appreciably better in his final contract season?
All we know now is that he’ll at least be able to start next season with a fresh slate and a freshly shaven face.