Monday, February 20, 2012

Dirk's Demise Greatly Exaggerated

It has been the greatest year in the man's life, but probably the longest, too. Think about the last 12 months for Dirk Nowitzki. How many people can put together 52 weeks like he just did?

365 days ago, he was at another all-star game, going through those All-Star Game motions in Los Angeles and gearing up for what would be the most memorable stretch run to a season in his entire life.

Nobody knew what last spring would hold for Nowitzki (especially those of us who predicted with great confidence a one-and-done playoff campaign), but when things were all said and done on that magical Sunday Night in Miami last June, Nowitzki had taken his spot in basketball immortality among the legends. After 13 seasons, he had finally put together that 2 month run that required him to dig deeper than he ever had before. The bumps, bruises, and even injuries had taken their toll, but with the NBA Title that he had likely thought he may never see finally in his grasp, he had arrived at the top of the rarest of mountains.

And then the summer happened.

The events of the summer were partially well-documented. There was the parade and rally in Dallas - a place where we had never seen Nowitzki so happy and so ready to share his joy with all of his adoring fans. There was the rally in Germany, where he was met with thousands of his countrymen and celebrated for his miraculous performance. There were other moments; late-night tv appearances, quite a few Texas Rangers games, and being seen at various night spots around Dallas.

There was also a summer that included Dirk loading up and playing again for Germany in an attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. That did not go nearly as well as the Mavericks run to the NBA Title, by the way.

But, somewhere during the summer and fall, between the night in Miami and the Christmas Day rematch against Miami, Dirk's body changed. Some suggest it had plenty to do with a long summer of partying and a departure from his normal routine where he does 2-a-days with Holger and refines and develops his game in most years. Others, especially those of us who don't mind admitting that we root for arguably the greatest athlete in Dallas history, wonder about the wear and tear that his body sustained during the playoff run had caught up with him a bit. That he needed a prolonged rest to get his body right, but in doing so, his aches and pains had rendered Dirk less-than-prepared when it was time to reassemble the champions in December.

This seems a distinction worth making, whether he was ill prepared to start the season because of basketball reasons or party reasons, but either way, he certainly did not look himself for the first 5 weeks of the season. From December 25 through the first game in February showed us statistics that were well down (16.2 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game) from his career numbers (23 points per game, 8 rebounds) that were as consistent as the sunrise. His shooting was horribly off, 43% from the field (last year 52%) and 17% from 3-point range (last year 39%), and he looked bad physically, as if he was running with rocks in his shoes. The discomfort was difficult to watch.

And for that, the Mavericks decided to shut him down once, and even upon his return, many of us were calling for it to happen again.

He had recently passed 1,000 games and 37,000 minutes. It is easy to see where most stars drop off in their careers around those same milestones. And Nowitzki was not a typical NBA player. He was a 7-footer who had put a different type of wear and tear on his body in those 1,000 battles in the regular season and 124 more playoff games (say nothing about his regular appearances for Germany in the "offseason).

On February 1st, the Mavericks faded down the stretch of a home game against Oklahoma City because they kept going to Dirk and Dirk didn't have it again. He shot 2-15 and looked way out of form again. After the game, it certainly occurred to me that shutting him down for several weeks and getting his body completely right was a reasonable idea. He just wasn't himself.

The next day, Charles Barkley made some public comments on Dallas Radio to Randy Galloway on the topic:

Dirk's getting old bro. Father Time is undefeated. You know, Dirk's been a great great player for a long time and he's been in the playoffs pretty much every year. Father Time is catching up with him.

That's the way it happens, you drop off the face of the earth. His days of being the man are over. I hate to break it to you. I lived it. When you're a great player it hits you quicker, too, more than anybody because you have further to fall. You can be a guy like who's a good solid player and you can hide it for a couple years, but when you're a great player you have further to fall.

The timing of it all is interesting. However, I highly doubt that Dirk was waiting to be called out like that. I imagine being in form for a professional basketball player is a difficult thing to track with linear measurements and time. It is simply feeling confident and fit and knocking down the open shot when it comes to you. Taking over the game when the moment is right is a feel, and if your body is not willing to cooperate, then you will be in trouble.

But since that moment in time, Dirk is back. The Mavericks are winning with great routine and despite the late issues in New York yesterday, it appears that they can ride their big German again for long, key moments of games. His production for the last 3 weeks is right back where it has always been: 25.3 points per game, 7 rebounds a game, 51% from the field, and deadly from 3-point range. Dirk looks like Dirk again. The guy who has the opponents shaking their heads and the fans in visiting arenas gasping in despair when he is left open for a split second. He has that swagger and that confidence back and he simply looks the part of the talisman of this entire operation.

He is 33 and on his way to 34 in mid-June. At some point, he will have to move aside and not be a superstar anymore. But, for the time being, it appears Barkley jumped the gun. But he is right about one thing - Father Time is undefeated.

Next weekend, the NBA All-Star Game happens again, and Dirk will be there again. Funny thing is, the idea that he doesn't belong there will be brought up by bored media types looking for something to prattle on about. If we judge this sort of thing on 5 weeks, I suppose there is a point to be made for the start of the season. But, if the question is whether Dirk is still among the best in the game or has he fallen off the face of the basketball planet, then let's put that silliness to bed.

Nowitzki has had the craziest year of his career, but any reports that this year has included his inevitable decline is crazy. On the contrary, anyone who watched knows that this year has contained his masterpiece; a 21-game performance last summer that silenced critics and put a ring on his finger. The recovery time for that accomplishment was prolonged, but now he appears back to being who he has always been: Dirk.

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