Unless you’re in Dallas or live and die Mavericks basketball, you’re probably not hearing or reading much of anything about Dirk Nowitzki these days, positive or negative.
Compared to his MVP season just two years ago, however, Nowitzki’s individual stats are quite comparable. His per-game minutes, field-goal attempts, offensive rebounds, and points are all up through the first 27 games of his 2008-09 campaign; field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists are down a bit. In other words, Dirk is for the most part still playing like the Dirk we’ve seen over the better part of the last decade. He’s currently the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer at 26 points per and remains one of its most consistently lethal offensive weapons.
So why does he feel like more and more of an afterthought in talks about the NBA’s premier players? And considering all the hype about the Summer of 2010 when guys like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade will potentially become unrestricted free agents, why isn’t Dirk’s name floated in that discussion more often since he, too, could be on the market if he chooses to terminate his $21.5 million player option? All indications are that he prefers to finish out his career in Dallas–and might even take a pay cut if it means surrounding him with more marquee talent–but a lot could change between now and then.
A few possible explanations for why Nowitzki is having a “quiet” season thus far:
– As I mentioned in last week’s Blogger Power Rankings, the Mavericks just aren’t generating as much buzz as they have in recent seasons. They’re off to a relatively slow start at 16-11, the luster has long since worn off of the Jason Kidd trade (especially with Devin Harris thriving in Jersey), and in general there simply isn’t much talk about this team legitimately competing for a title as presently constituted. When there’s not much excitement about a team, oftentimes there’s not much excitement about its top-tier players, either–just ask Allen Iverson.
– One of the main reasons why few think the Mavs will make a deep run in the playoffs is because of what’s happened in the past two postseasons; that is, two consecutive first-round eliminations after posting a combined 118-46 regular-season record. Of course, those two finishes followed the franchise’s most exasperating end of all, when in 2006 they blew a 2-0 series lead in the NBA Finals and winded up losing four straight to the Miami Heat. Though these postseason collapses can hardly be pinned on Dirk, I suspect some of that residue of disappointment remains stuck to him, as so often happens with a team’s best player, and that he has not been able to shake the notion that he’s a playoff choker.
– And speaking of postseason defeats, Nowitzki’s MVP acceptance “ceremony” may stand as one of the most somber in NBA history for a long, long time. Days after his top-seeded Mavericks were taken out by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, a subdued Dirk had to stand up and accept recognition as the league’s most valuable player. Though this honor is solely awarded based on regular-season play, it was almost like he, David Stern, and the rest of the NBA was ashamed of themselves, embarassed, and wished they could do a re-vote. That’s absolute nonsense, of course, and Nowitzki was nothing short of amazing that year, but that loss to the Warriors clearly diminished the moment.
– Finally, as we move deeper and deeper into the NBA’s new Golden Age, more and more young stars are emerging and demanding their share of the spotlight. Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant, Danny Granger, O.J. Mayo, Rodney Stuckey, Al Jefferson… they’re all applying for membership to the league’s Class of Elite, and unfortunately that means that some of the league’s more established stars not named Kobe, LeBron, or Garnett are at times playing second-fiddle in the Great Hype Machine. Nowitzki seems to have lately fallen into that category.
There’s one surefire way for The Great Dirk Diggler to make headlines, though: lead his team (whichever one it may be) to a NBA title. He turns 31 next summer, so the clock is ticking.