Dirk Nowitzki, time, and the price of loyalty

Apr 30, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks player Dirk Nowitzki (41) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs forward Matt Bonner (15) in game five of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 109-103. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Every fan has the same fantasy: they want their team to draft a top pick, they want that player to lead them to a championship (or five, or six, or seven), and then, when the time is right, they want that player to retire in grace and shed a tear after their jersey is raised to the rafters.

The reality, as we’re reminded over and over, is very different. While Paul Pierce will always be a Celtic for life–in our eyes and likely his, that–doesn’t change the fact that he’s suiting up for the Brooklyn Nets these days.

Moses Malone on the Spurs? Hakeem Olajuwon on the Raptors? Patrick Ewing on the Magic? Michael Jordan on the Wizards? We can convince ourselves that these things never happened, but sometimes our basketball heroes don a different cape in their twilight years. Sometimes they choose to; other times, it’s not their choice.

Dirk Nowitzki is one of those heroes who will never wear another cape. From draft day until the day he leaves this league, he’s going to sport his blue and white (and sometimes green) uniform, throw on an oversized ten gallon hat, and unleash his special power of beautifully-arced-elbow-above-his-head jumpshot.

It’s almost a shame, however, that Dirk only has one championship to his name. The Mavericks famously spent gobs of money during Mark Cuban’s tenure, and they produced a high-quality and consistently-competitive team, but they were only able to bring in one championship during this era. Why only one? Because championships are hard to get, and you have to have everything clicking at the same time, PLUS a great roster, PLUS great matchups in the playoffs, PLUS health, PLUS a million other things you can’t foresee:

“If you’ve got even a 5 percent chance to win the title — and that group includes a very small number of teams every year — you’ve gotta be focused all on winning the title,” says Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Mark Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, agrees: “One sprained toe or two, and the competitive landscape changes,” he says. “You don’t want to miss that opportunity. You should always put the best team you can on the floor within the parameters you have set for yourself.”

Cuban should know: His 2010-11 Mavs are widely cited as the best recent example of an unlikely champion that went for it anyway, reached a new level at the right time, got a few breaks, and suddenly found themselves holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy.3 Cuban allowed for the possibility that the new collective bargaining agreement, with its roster-building restrictions for taxpayers, will force some teams to open the vault only when they think an extra bit of spending will get them into that 5 percent group. But that’s a different sort of caution than surrendering to the Heat.

That title run wasn’t all that shocking. That Mavs team had a fantastic record and an elite point differential when Dirk Nowitzki was healthy, and it played very well that season against top teams. Even so, Dallas got a number of “breaks” any title team needs: the sudden implosion of the Lakers during a sweep in which the first three games were essentially toss-ups Dallas won in crunch time; random timely contributions from Brian Cardinal and Peja Stojakovic that kept Dallas afloat when Nowitzki sat; very good health among their core; the injury to Manu Ginobili and the early elimination of the Spurs; and whatever the hell happened to LeBron in the Finals.

“The 5 percent theory,” Zach Lowe. Grantland.

Ten 50-win seasons in a row? Check. Butts in seats? Check. A vocal owner who wasn’t afraid to get fined while echoing the voice of the fan? Check. A bunch of seasons where they could have won a title but were instead booted out of the playoffs? Checkmate.

But sometimes, it’s not just about winning championships. One could argue that Mark Cuban’s cap management is wasting Dirk’s final years in the league, as Curtis recently did. But what if Dirk doesn’t think they’re a waste? What if he got everything out of his career that he wanted, and now he just wants to put in some solid years to pay back the team and the city that have treated him so well for over a decade? “Cubes has been great to me and been loyal to me for a long, long time,” Nowitzki recently said. “I’m sure we’re going to find a great solution for everybody.”

And maybe that solution isn’t just about the money or the title or the city. Maybe, as part of the “5 percent theory” dictates, it’s about maximizing your title chance at just the right time. This summer, there are a lot of solid free agent prospects on the Mavericks’ radar, namely Tyson Chandler (reunited and it feels so good?), Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, and Larry Sanders. Any of these free agents would shore up Dallas’s front-court defense, and all of them would open up the floor for Dirk to be Dirk and let his superpowers take over.

Amin Vafa

Amin grew up in Cleveland, lives in DC, and somehow still manages to love watching professional basketball.