DALLAS – In his final game Sunday night before the Western Conference coaches head to their bunkers to select seven All-Star reserves, Dirk Nowitzki left them with one of those vintage performances that this season has spawned the phrase, “He’s still Dirk.”
“Twenty-eight points in 32 minutes,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, glancing over the 10-for-16 shooting, the nine rebounds and the four assists. “I guess he’s an All-Star.”
Is he? That is the question.
“This year [I’m] right up there, and we understand there’s always going to be some guys that deserve it and don’t make it, so that’s just the nature of the game,” Nowitzki said after raising his averages to 21.2 ppg and 6.0 rpg in a win over Detroit. “The power forward spot in the West has always been loaded and somebody is going to feel like they’ve been snubbed, but that’s just part of the game.”
The power forward position, plus a couple centers tossed into the new “frontcourt” designation, is loaded with young, thriving talent. The three starters voted in by the fans are 25 (Kevin Durant and Kevin Love) and 24 (Blake Griffin). Two sure-fire reserves, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge are both 28. On-the-bubble candidates DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are 23 and 20, respectively. Serge Ibaka, 24, almost gets lost in the discussion because of the superstar teammates who overshadow him. David Lee, an All-Star last season, is like the older brother of the group at 30.
Nowitzki, 35, and Tim Duncan, 37, are like the godfathers. The West coaches put Duncan back on the All-Star team last season after his 13-year run was snapped in 2012, and seemed over for good. Knee surgery during training camp last season sabotaged Dirk’s 11-year run. Now there’s likely room for only one, if that, legendary old-timer on the 12-man squad.
Have fun, coaches. The reserves for both conferences will be announced Thursday night on TNT.
“He’s a Hall of Fame player, as we all know,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is prohibited from voting for his own player, and would seem a prime candidate to give Dirk, his decades-long nemesis, the nod. “Dirk basically — modern times so to speak — has really personified that stretch-4 because he scored from everywhere on the court and from distance … and he hasn’t slowed down much, if at all.”
Prevailing wisdom suggests this is Dirk’s — and Duncan’s — best chance to add one last All-Star appearance considering the aforementioned list of bursting, young talent. Dirk, who ranks seventh among forwards in usage percentage and fifth in true shooting percentage, might still have a few more fine seasons left in him beyond this one, just as Duncan has proved post-35, but the next generation will likely be too strong and push him out of All-Star consideration.
Dirk’s edge this season is lifetime achievement. How heavily will coaches weigh career milestones? Likely heavily. He’s surged up the NBA’s all-time scoring list, starting the season at No. 18 and passing Reggie Miller and Jerry West, among others, to move all the way up to No. 13. He’s 412 points from passing John Havlicek for 12th and it’s possible he will catch Oscar Robertson at No. 10 by season’s end.
Dirk recently collected the 1,000th steal of his career and joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett and Karl Malone as the only players with 25,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,000 steals.
“I’ve looked at it pretty closely,” Carlisle said. “He’ll make it. I just have the feeling that he will. You look at his stats, what he’s carrying, the production and the minutes; if he was playing the minutes most of those guys were playing, he’d be a 25-point scorer. So, we’ll see. We’ll see.”
Dirk didn’t think he deserved a spot on the 2012 squad after a slow start to the shortened lockout season. But the coaches weren’t about to let the Finals MVP be swept out of the All-Star Game that easily. They won’t this year either, especially when he’s not exactly a hardship case. In fact, if he does’t make the team, it will be a first of sorts. Five players 35 or older — Malone, Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan and Alex English — have averaged 21 points or more in 11 different seasons. Each time they made the All-Star team.
When his streak did end last season, Nowitzki had little control over it. His right knee required the first surgery of his career during training camp. He missed the first 27 games of the season, probably came back too soon to help save a sinking season and didn’t regain his All-Star form until the second half.
Fending off Father Time (with an eye on a semi-concerning sleeve he again donned on his left knee), Nowitzki has shouldered another near-totally retooled roster to a 26-20 record, good for the last playoff spot in the ultra-competitive West. The Mavs, while inconsistent, not unlike like Nowitzki’s shooting performances, are just 1.5 games behind No. 6 Golden State and three games back of No. 5 Houston, a so-called contender Dallas will attempt to defeat for a third time in four tries at home Wednesday night.
“They still have that big guy from Germany. He’s pretty good,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said earlier this month. “And when you have a player like that, you can put a lot of people around him and they’re going to be better. That’s the effect of a Dirk on your team. I bet Monta’s never seen open shots that he’s seen when you come off a pick and roll with Dirk setting it, so he does make you better.”
Monta Ellis would agree. A fringe All-Star candidate himself, Ellis is averaging 19.2 ppg, about what he averaged last season with Milwaukee, but his 46.2 shooting percentage blows away last season’s mark and is at its highest since 2007-08 with Golden State. He’s finding wide lanes to drive and open jumpers to fire thanks to the defensive attention Dirk draws and the spacing he brings.
How dependent are the Mavs on Dirk? With him and Ellis on the floor, they’re averaging a potent 109.1 points per 100 possessions. With only Ellis on the floor, it drops to 102.7.
Dirk’s net rating of 4.0 is easily the highest among Dallas’ starters, a group in which only center Sam Dalembert (1.6) and Jose Calderon (0.2) also boast positive net ratings.
So is Dirk an All-Star? Bet on the coaches granting him the grand stage, if not for one last hurrah, and leaving the lure of a February beach vacation for the years ahead.
“It always means something to be among the best 12 or 13 players in the West,” Nowitzki said. “It has always been an honor. I’ve always had fun going there and representing the Mavericks the right way — but, I did have some fun at the beach last year, too. Either way, I’ll be happy to go, obviously, and always represent the Mavericks. And if not, then I’ll find something else to do.”