By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Dirk Nowitzki will enter free agency next week with all the drama of a palm tree twitching in a South Beach summer breeze.
Hyperventilating Miami Heat fans can only dream of such simplicity.
“We’ll get together pretty quick,” Nowitzki said recently of his free agency plans during a radio appearance on the Dallas Mavericks’ flagship station, 103.3 FM. “[Mark] Cuban knows I don’t want to go anywhere, and he doesn’t want me to go anywhere. We’re guessing that’s going to be over pretty quick and we can focus on making this franchise even better.”
Nowitzki, 36, will become a free agent for the second time in his career on July 1, just as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will, and potentially Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Nowitzki could chase a second title elsewhere, if he wanted to, with contenders lining up to add the deadliest 7-foot perimeter shooter to ever play the game.
But that’s not Nowitzki’s thing. He wants to stay in Dallas despite celebrating just three playoff wins since beating the Heat for the 2011 championship, to try to re-create the magic with the only franchise he’s ever known. Owner Mark Cuban is a lucky man. He doesn’t have to resort to challenges of manhood — Stay, “if you’ve got the guts” — like Heat president Pat Riley did last week. Or have to guess the thoughts, and whose voices, might be floating through the mind of his superstar. Or to convince Nowitzki to take less money than he could — or should — demand to stay.
Nowitzki, through a good chuckle, has already said he won’t be going the extension route of Kobe Bryant.
The Mavs’ leader in just about every meaningful statistical category in franchise history, and now No. 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, has never employed a traditional agent. He doesn’t play games. He says what he means and means what he says. And come July 2 or 3 or thereabouts, Nowitzki will have likely signed a contract for two or three more seasons at $10 million to $12 million per, a deal similar to the one another one-team guy, Tim Duncan, will complete after next season.
It is, however, interesting to ponder the hypothetical “what if,” as in what if Nowitzki and the Mavs had not won the 2011 championship, and the clock was ticking down? Would he be so steadfast about a return to a team with a turnstile roster over the last three seasons and hasn’t finished higher than the No. 7 seed? That hasn’t made it out of the first round six times in the past eight seasons? That is again a long shot this summer to land a star free agent to ease Nowitzki’s burden?
Rewind to the spring of 2010 and to a decidedly dejected Nowitzki following the No. 2-seed Mavs’ first-round loss to the No. 7-seed San Antonio Spurs. It came after a 55-win season that included the blockbuster trade to acquire aging All-Star point guard Jason Kidd. Nowitzki held the option to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. He was turning 32 years old, still in the wheelhouse of his prime.
It was the third first-round-and-out in the four seasons since Nowitzki led the Mavs to the painfully unforgettable 2006 Finals against Miami. The immediate mood was glum; the future murky. And for the first time, Nowitzki, who even back then rarely drifted from his Dallas-only mantra, seemed to suggest that looking around might be his best option.
“I don’t know, this is all pretty fresh. I just have to keep my options open at this point, see what’s going on,” Nowitzki said the next day during the team’s exit interviews. “I have to get over this disappointment for a while. I’ll probably drown my sorrows for a bit and then I’ll start thinking about stuff like that in a week or two. As of now, I just want to keep my options, see what happens.”
Those early pangs quickly subsided and soon Nowitzki was back to his usual Dallas-or-bust refrain. He ultimately opted out to become a free agent, and by July 5 he had inked his name to a new contract, even agreeing to a hometown discount by leaving $16 million on the table for Cuban to use elsewhere to fortify the club. A summer trade brought in oft-injured center Tyson Chandler, whose defensive tenacity and overt leadership greatly empowered Nowitzki’s remarkable postseason run to a career-satisfying first title.
And a much easier decision today. So move along, nothing to see here.
The Mavs finished in the eighth seed last season, but won 49 games in the competitive Western Conference, just two games back of sixth-seed Golden State. The roster is far more stable than any of the past three entering the offseason and Dallas is loaded with cap space, hopeful of improving by landing a free agent such as Luol Deng or Pau Gasol, if not a LeBron or a ‘Melo. With a ring on his finger, that’s good enough for Dirk.
Never a drama king, he’ll be happy to leave the July fireworks to LeBron and those other guys.