July 18, 2012

Dallas Mavericks still banking on Dirk Nowitzki's golden years

The belief in many circles is the Dallas Mavericks must take full advantage of Dirk Nowitzki's current contract, which ends after the 2013-14 season, by fielding a contender.

LAS VEGAS -- Don't kick any dirt on Dirk Nowitzki's contract just yet.

The belief in many circles is the Dallas Mavericks must take full advantage of Nowitzki's current contract, which ends after the 2013-14 season, by fielding a contender. In other words, don't waste the final two years of the career of the franchise's all-time greatest player by rebuilding.

Nowitzki, 34, won't play forever. But he's also not nearing the end, especially if considering the status of a couple of his 7-foot MVP peers. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are both 36 and each recently signed three-year contracts taking them to the verge of 40.

Why can't that be Nowitzki?

"It's important not to assume anything," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "I think with these two years we've got to do the same thing we did last year and that's keep his minutes reasonable, we've got to surround him with the right guys and put ourselves in a position to be successful.

"If we do those things, he's going to want to continue to play. We're all involved with that. We know the challenges."

It wasn't so long ago that the Mavericks appeared to be in panic mode. The team finished second in the Deron Williams Sweepstakes -- in Mark Cuban's world that's the same as being last -- and the roster had nearly as many holes as a box of donuts.

The question was even raised: Is it time to trade Nowitzki? (He has a no-trade clause.)

The front-office rally over the last week has netted starters in Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison, and valuable depth with Elton Brand and Dahntay Jones. Nowitzki won't be forced carry the load alone.

"I don't foresee Dirk all of the sudden hitting some wall in the next year or two," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said. "Our plan has always been to put ourselves in a positive position to win a championship. There's different ways of doing that.

"With the amnesty situation, we've come away with a pretty darn good player [Brand] there. With free agency with Kaman and the creativity in some of our contracts, we feel we can be right there in the thick of it this year and, next year, we've got significant cap room to get a couple big guys."

In addition to Cuban's wallet, Nowitzki is a recruiting tool in the front office's quest to bring in difference-makers. The Mavs believe that superstars will want to play with Nowitzki for years to come.

"Dirk is one of, if not the, hardest-working people in the history of the Mavericks, so I don't foresee his hunger for a championship to end," Nelson said. "Once you've got one, you want to get another one and another one. It's our job to surround him with the kind of team that can put ourselves in position to make those dreams come true."

Duncan and Garnett both signed deals that lowered their salaries from the more than $20 million per year to an average of $12 million annually. Nowitzki has already shown in his current deal ($80 for four years) that he's willing to take less money for the benefit of the Mavs' bottom line.

"He's as loyal a guy as I've seen in this league," Carlisle said, "and if we can keep putting the right team out there, he's going to keep wanting to play."

The career arcs of Duncan and Garnett suggest that Nowitzki can be very productive into his late 30s. Nowitzki's production last season, while down by his standards, compares favorably to his fellow champions when they were 33.

Duncan averaged 17.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in 2009-10, with Garnett putting up 14.3 points and 7.3 boards. Nowitzki went for 21.6 and 6.8 last season.

"Dirk, with his size and versatility, he's a thinker and he's a shooter, he's the kind of guy that can age very well," Nelson said.

Duncan and Garnett both averaged more than 15 points and eight rebounds at the tender age of 35. Nowitzki's commitment to staying in top-notch shape rivals those two.

"Those are three great examples of how they take care of themselves," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "You look at the year that Kevin Garnett had and Tim Duncan had, and it's pretty incredible. And it's a tribute on how they take care of themselves and to their basketball IQ, because they don't just depend on their athleticism."

Asked if the Mavericks are already planning Nowitzki's next contract, Nelson said No. 41 isn't going anywhere.

"I do not foresee under any scenario Dirk not being a Maverick or not retiring a Maverick," Nelson said. "That's one of those situations where this has been a marriage that was magical from the get-go. That's not going to change."

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