Dirk Nowitzki key to this season, beyond

DALLAS -- Has Dirk Nowitzki's decline begun?

That's a question that gets asked when the 33-year-old face of the Dallas Mavericks' franchise struggles mightily by his Hall of Fame standards for the first quarter of the season and doesn't play for a week so he can go through a personal training camp to get his sore right knee and the rest of his body ready for the NBA grind.

"Yeah, he's just done," owner Mark Cuban said, his voice dripping sarcasm and a dose of disgust as he dismisses the idea that the Mavs' magical run to the 2011 championship marked the end of Nowitzki's prime. "We're afraid to admit it to ourselves, but he's just done."

Nobody with a basketball IQ higher than Nowitzki's scoring average -- down to 17.5 points so far this season, the lowest since his second season -- would suggest that Dirk is done. It's silly to discredit a decade-long All-Star, who earned the Finals MVP award only seven months ago, due to a subpar 16-game stretch under uniquely difficult circumstances.

But the question is whether Nowitzki can continue being an All-NBA force, a go-to guy on a legitimate contender, much more than just a good player.

That isn't necessarily a slam dunk for the 7-footer. Just look at the two men who have been Nowitzki's peers as the game's best power forwards of this generation.

San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Boston's Kevin Garnett are still very good, but they aren't the dominant players that they were for so long. They haven't been since around the time they passed the 40,000-minute mark in their NBA careers, including playoffs, a barrier Nowitzki broke en route to finally earning his first championship ring last season.

"I still feel like I can play at this level for a couple of more years," Nowitzki said. And that's the consensus opinion for a franchise that owes him the majority of a four-year, $80 million contract he signed a couple of summers ago.

Of course, the Mavs also don't want to find out just how long Nowitzki can carry a contender. That's why Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson have carefully carved out space under the salary cap to sign a superstar -- or possibly two -- after this season.

But the chances of landing Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard could depend, in part, on how well Nowitzki plays the remainder of this season and especially in the playoffs. After all, the major attraction for an elite free agent to the Mavs would be the opportunity to join an all-time great who was still playing at an elite level and would be perfectly fine with playing second (or third) fiddle.

(A couple of quick asides: If Carlos Boozer was a killer pick-and-pop partner with Williams, how do you think Dirk would do in that role? If Ryan Anderson is lighting it up as a spot-up shooter against Dwight-focused defenses, how do you think Dirk would do in that role?)

Back to the more immediate future: The Mavs need Dirk to be one of the league's elite, at least during the playoffs, to have a realistic chance to defend their title this season.

This week off was basically preventative maintenance to make sure Nowitzki can get to that point after surviving a compressed season that is especially hard on high-mileage legs. Actually, coach Rick Carlisle bristles at the term "week off," pointing out that Nowitzki has been on a two-a-day grind, lifting weights, conditioning and working on aspects of his game that have been subpar so far this season, such as making off-the-dribble moves.

It's likely that Nowitzki will have another layoff at some point before the playoffs, as will likely be the case with Jason Kidd and other Mavs veterans.

But the Mavs don't consider Nowitzki's knee, which he said Thursday feels much better, a long-term concern. Unlike Duncan and Garnett, he's never had knee surgery, and the MRIs keep coming back clean. The Mavs' medical staff has told the decision-makers in Dallas that the soreness is a symptom of Nowitzki not being nearly as prepared as usual for the beginning of the season because of an interrupted offseason routine and the abbreviated post-lockout training camp.

Nowitzki also has the kind of game that ought to age well. He has never relied on ridiculous explosiveness or leaping ability.

That definitely differentiates him from Garnett, who happens to be the only guy Nowitzki memorably beat with a drive this season, blowing by the former defensive player of the year for a game-winning and-1 layup in Boston.

Nowitzki completed his offensive arsenal by developing a post-up game and the ability to create off the dribble when defenders get in his grill, but his claim to fame has always been his sweet shooting stroke.

"When I was 20," Nowitzki said, "I played like a 40-year-old."

The Mavs believe Nowitzki can play that way at an elite level at least through his mid-30s, hopefully with a little lighter workload once some superstar help arrives in the summer. And they're counting on the Finals MVP to revert to form the rest of this season, or at least when it matters most.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.