Criticism of Dirk Nowitzki misses mark

DALLAS -- After the Dallas Mavericks dismantled the Phoenix Suns last week, the usual media contingent huddled around Dirk Nowitzki at his locker.

There was one non-regular media member who waited for an opening and tossed this question at Nowitzki: "How do you feel about the national media" -- in particular TNT analyst Chris Webber, who ranted after the Mavs were throttled by the Los Angeles Lakers a couple of weeks ago -- "calling the Mavs soft?"

The 7-foot Nowitzki recoiled at the tired assertion. He pursed his lips and stared daggers into nothingness over the heads of the media throng.

Softly, he said, "Next."

The loaded question was veiled as criticism of the Mavs as a whole. But make no mistake, it was aimed directly at Nowitzki. He is the face of a franchise that boasts a streak that now stands at 11 consecutive 50-win seasons. But the gracious, unassuming superstar also sits at the turbulent epicenter of disappointment and disillusionment that comes with being the leader of a team with no rings and has suffered some of the most ignominious playoff defeats in NBA history.

And thus, there are those who contend such defeats have cemented Nowitzki's legacy in a category he would prefer to change.

"You think about Wilt Chamberlain's legacy," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "You think about legacies after they retire. He's still young. People talk about him like he's 45 years old. There's a lot of guys a lot older playing on other teams that haven't won championships."

The fact is that Nowitzki, 33, is one of the game's premier playoff performers -- one of four players in history to average 25 points and 10 rebounds -- yet he is arguably the most underappreciated player in the game because his teams have failed to convert marvelous regular seasons into postseason parades.

"I can't really change peoples' opinions. I'll try to win it for me and to kind of top it off with the career that I've had. That's why I'm trying to win it," Nowitzki said. "I'm not trying to win to shut anybody up. I'm trying to win for myself and this franchise, which really deserves it; for Cuban, who's been amazing since he bought it, and for all my teammates. And if I don't, it just wasn't meant to be.

"The only thing that I can tell myself is that I left it all out there. Every summer I tried to get better. I play hurt. I play sick. I try to be out there for my teammates and for my team and ultimately win it all."

Nowitzki is a 10-time All-Star and an MVP and has led his team to the playoffs for 11 consecutive seasons. He scored 50 points against the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 2006 West finals. That was after he poured in 37 points in the Game 7 conference semifinal win at San Antonio.

He's averaged a double-double in eight of 10 postseasons. Yet his name is never first, second, third, fourth or even fifth off the tongue in the discussion of great playoff performers of the past decade.

"What are you basing that off of?" asked teammate Shawn Marion, who faced Nowitzki and the Mavs twice in the playoffs as a member of the Suns. "He's a hard guard for anybody. A lot of times it's not really him. He's going to get his numbers. It's not about him. It's about containing everybody else really. If everybody else isn't going good, you're not going to win."

And there it is. Despite all the great regular seasons, Nowitzki's teams haven't won it all because ultimately he hasn't had enough help. Instead of being hailed for carrying the 2005-06 Mavs to the franchise's first NBA Finals, even though he was that team's lone All-Star, he is chided for its collapse after taking a 2-0 lead on the Miami Heat.

That disappointment from five years ago still lingers.

"We were so close in '06, up 2-0 in the Finals," he said. "You've got to find a way to win that series. It's still unfortunate, but hopefully we're going to have another chance."

His best chance before or after the Finals flop was the 2003 Western Conference finals, when the Mavs, who benefited greatly from the toughness of Nick Van Exel, one of Nowitzki's favorite teammates, lost in six games to the Spurs. Nowitzki sprained his knee in Game 3 and controversy ensued as then-coach Don Nelson refused to play him and risk further injury while Cuban badly wanted his star on the floor.

The Mavs led Game 6 by nine points and were 12 minutes away from forcing a do-or-die matchup back in San Antonio. But Steve Kerr went crazy from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter to carry the Spurs to the clinching victory with Nowitzki on the bench, helpless.

"Who knows," Nowitzki said, "maybe I would have tried to play in that Game 7. Who knows? I still think back."

As the Mavs look forward to yet another title quest, few rank as believers outside of Charles Barkley and the Dallas locker room. Even the hometown fans seem prepared for a first-round exit. Nowitzki is again the undisputed leader on a team that boasts several former All-Stars, but no current ones other than himself.

In fact, since Steve Nash left town for Phoenix after the 2003-04 season, only twice has Nowitzki had company on All-Star Weekend, and both carry asterisks. Josh Howard was an injury replacement in 2007 and Jason Kidd was an honorary pick/injury replacement for Kobe Bryant in the 2010 game played at Cowboys Stadium.

None of the Western Conference's other top four seeds claim just one All-Star -- not the Lakers, not the Spurs and not the Thunder.

"Dirk's a superstar. He's a legend," Cuban said. "He'll go down as one of the greatest superstars in the game by anybody who pays attention. The reality is, most people don't pay attention."

Cuban has certainly spent millions of dollars on player salary and paid millions more in luxury tax to try to surround Nowitzki with enough talent to win it all. Unable to land a complementary superstar again last offseason, the Mavs' approach has been to do it by committee with a deep, veteran roster.

Dallas looked great early this season until Nowitzki sprained his right knee on Dec. 27 and missed a career-high nine games. That was followed by Caron Butler's season-ending knee injury, creating a hole that has been problematic to fill.

The Mavs have looked ragged and at times discombobulated in the final month of the season. Dealing with minor injuries and working in returning and new players (Rodrigue Beaubois, Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer) have thrown the rotation out of whack.

Still, the Mavs wound up with their most wins since the 2006-07 season, when they won a franchise-best 67 games. They followed up that brilliance by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 in the era of best-of-7 first-round series. Nowitzki's 19.7-point average in that series against Golden State is the worst of his postseason career.

It might not be right, but Nowitzki knows it will take a championship for perception of him outside of Dallas to change.

"Who cares? He doesn't care," Cuban said. "If you're in the business of trying to change perceptions of what people think, the sports business is the wrong business."

Maybe this is the year. After all, it's been one strange season. The Spurs, Lakers and Mavs have all had losing streaks of at least five games. The two-time defending champion Lakers arguably look more vulnerable now than at any time during the season.

And the Mavs embrace any series showdown with the rival Spurs.

"I still think it's all wide open," Nowitzki said. "You got to think that when the Lakers go for it and with Bynum being a factor, they're still the heavy favorites. … Other than that, everything is open."

So, too then, is Nowitzki's legacy.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.