DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki, the last NBA Finals MVP before LeBron James dug in his heels, didn’t spend his Dallas Mavericks Media Day on Monday taking questions about which uniform he’ll choose to wear a year from now.
For Nowitzki, who turned 35 and became a first-time dad this summer, being in the final year of his contract won’t cause much of a national or even a local stir. He’ll turn 36 next June and he’s consistently made it clear, with only rare fits of hesitation, that his passion and his priority is and always will be the Mavs.
Last season, though, could have easily beckoned self-doubt about the direction the franchise is heading. It was a waste both individually for the perennial All-Star and collectively for a franchise that for a decade only talked about contention in terms of titles. He underwent the first knee surgery of his career last October, missed more games than ever before and failed to make the All-Star team for the first time in 11 seasons. The Mavs, an odd collection of free agents on one-year deals, finished .500 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
Entering his 16th season, Nowitzki will need all of his daughter’s little piggies to count the number of new teammates he has as Dallas regrouped from missing out on Dwight Howard by again re-tooling with another batch of free agents that includes Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and Samuel Dalembert. Last season eight new players joined the team. This season it’s nine.
Without Nowitzki at full health, the Mavs have no chance. So paramount on everybody’s mind in Big D is how Nowitzki’s right knee is faring after his workaholic summer, one that did not include the usual international basketball and was spent mostly in Dallas with head athletic trainer Casey Smith working to strengthen the knee for what could be, but almost positively won’t be, his last in a Mavericks uniform.
“I did a lot of work this summer and hopefully the body will respond right the first couple of days in camp and stay healthy and go from there,” Nowitzki said. Dallas opens training camp Tuesday with two practices.
He uses the qualifier “hopefully” because he can’t totally trust the knee. Not yet. He said last year it felt great, too, as camp opened. Then quickly came the irritation and swelling that forced a closer look and ultimately arthroscopic surgery. He didn’t play his first game until late December and the real Dirk, albeit one admittedly still lacking a consistent burst to put the ball on the floor at the elbow, didn’t surface until February.
“That’s the problem. Last year I felt good as well,” Nowitzki said. “I put a lot of work in last summer, I lifted and just kind of a freaky thing in Barcelona, first couple days of two-a-days, my knee started to swell up. But I had no indication before that.”
Nowitzki said he got back to work in May, the earliest he had started training for a season in a “long, long time.” Coach Rick Carlisle called Nowitzki’s summer training a “phenomenally conscientious summer with his workouts.”
That’s good news for a spoiled fan base that hasn’t quite figured out what to make of the last two disappointing seasons and the free-agent misses (Deron Williams and Howard) that followed. Many observers expect Dallas again to be on the outside looking in come April, and it’s hard to find any prognostications that land the Mavs higher than a seventh or eighth seed.
The season after winning the title, Nowitzki’s Mavs were the No. 7 seed and were swept in the first round by Oklahoma City. Nowitzki had never been swept out of the playoffs. Prior to that season, his teams had finished as low as the seventh seed just once (2008), and were the fifth seed or higher in nine of 12 consecutive postseasons.
“This is serious business. It’s been a tough couple of years for him,” Carlisle said. “The ‘12 season was dicey with the knee thing [soreness early in the lockout season that forced him out for a week] and then coming into last year it seemed like it was OK. Then all of a sudden in Barcelona we’re sitting there before the game and the thing puffed up.
“He’s a guy that has such love and respect for the game and such pride in his own performing and taking responsibility for winning and losing with this franchise that he knows how important his health is to his game and our game, and all of us in this room and all of our fans. This is serious business and his effort has completely matched up with the level of importance.”