Dirk Nowitzki relishing new role as Mavericks mentor

If the Dallas Mavericks don't move up, or down in the lottery they will own the No. 9 selection the 2017 NBA draft. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dirk Nowitzki does not need your sympathy.

As he nears the earlier-than-normal end of his 19th year on the job, the Dallas Mavericks' living legend still enjoys showing up for work.

No, this is not how Nowitzki hoped his NBA twilight would go down. He didn't leave dozens of millions of dollars on the table since the Mavs' 2011 title run -- some of which owner Mark Cuban made up by giving him a $25 million salary last summer -- to never sniff the second round of the playoffs again.

But here Nowitzki is, 38 years old on a lottery-clinched, forward-looking team that has more losses (45) than the Mavs have had in any other season during his tenure. Nowitzki is a natural pessimist, which he half-jokingly blames on his German blood, but he's embracing the positives regarding the Mavs' reality as a rebuilding team.

"It's fun being around guys that want to work, that want to learn, that want to get better," Nowitzki told ESPN after a rough shooting outing Friday in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, a night before the Mavs were officially eliminated from playoff contention for only the second time in the past 17 years.

It reminds him of his early Mavs days with Steve Nash.

"It's fun. It's fun watching these guys and seeing myself in them 15 years ago, when I didn't know if I was going to make it. I was just trying to be in the gym with Nashie at all times -- mornings, nights -- trying to get better."

Oh, Nowitzki laments what might have been had he not missed most of the first two months with lingering soreness in his right Achilles tendon, an issue that suddenly crept up again over the weekend. Never mind that the ceiling for the Mavs would have been fighting for one of the West's final playoff spots, as had been the case since Cuban opted to prioritize cap space over keeping an aging roster intact after the championship run and ensuing lockout. He still craves another crack at the postseason.

But Dallas, which entered the season with dual goals of competing for a playoff spot and developing young talent, was doomed by a 2-13 start and bottomed out at 16 games under .500 since then. The youth movement became more and more of a focus as the season progressed, as the Mavs bid farewell to injury-prone stopgap veterans Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut after the All-Star break, a strategy Cuban has called tanking while trying to win.

Their hopes of pulling off a miraculous comeback to claim the West's eighth seed flamed out in late March, but Nowitzki can still crack a smile while talking about this season. It's invigorating for Nowitzki to go to the Mavs' practice facility and see young bucks like Harrison Barnes, Dwight Powell, Yogi Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith working hard enough to impress even a legendary gym rat like himself. It's encouraging for him to see the production and potential of guard Seth Curry and center Nerlens Noel, a couple of other young Dallas newcomers.

"I think we found some young guys that are real, real interesting," Nowitzki said.

Barnes, who has blossomed as a scorer in his first season in Dallas, tops that list. Mentoring the Mavs' new go-to guy is the role that Nowitzki has enjoyed the most this season. Barnes averages a team-high 19.5 points per game, taking over what used to be considered the Dirk section of coach Rick Carlisle's playbook, and also probably leads the Mavs in Nowitzki punchline targets.

"He's been unbelievable this year. I think nobody saw this coming," said Nowitzki, who privately poked Barnes recently about being concerned the Mavs' maximum-contract free-agent addition was a bust after a miserable preseason.

"He's my guy. We've spent a lot of time together. On the plane, we sit right by each other. He's next to me in the locker room. We go to dinners all the time. Great, great guy.

"You know, I think for a 24-year-old, I've never seen somebody have his stuff together the way he has. Just a really smart kid, wants to work hard, wants to get better. I'm here to help him wherever I can."

Barnes is here to help Nowitzki end his career in dignified fashion and eventually be handed the torch as the face of the franchise.

In one breath, Barnes preaches patience for the Mavs' young roster to grow up. In the next, Barnes acknowledges the pressure to expedite the process to get some payoff while Nowitzki is still playing.

"I'll work out all summer to get my butt in shape like I need to be, and whoever's there, I'll go to war with."
Mavericks F Dirk Nowitzki

"On one hand, obviously you look at the number of years in my contract and some other guys' contracts and say, 'Hey, this is something we can grow for the future,'" Barnes told ESPN. "On the other hand, Dirk's years are winding down, so there's a kind of a sense of urgency to say, 'Hey, let's give it our all. Let's try to make a push here.'

"People talk about, would you rather have a draft pick or go to the playoffs? My perspective is different than his. He's trying to make the playoffs, because he's on the way out. For a guy that's been around this long, you want that for him as well. He works extremely hard. Obviously, he's had all the milestones. You want to make sure that you send a legend out on the right foot."

Nowitzki, whose average of 14.4 points per game is his lowest since his rookie season, will be back for at least one more season. Maybe more, if his body allows. His dreams of bringing another championship parade to Dallas have been replaced by more reasonable goals.

"Still have fun competing and try to win as many games as we can," Nowitzki said. "To turn this around, to be a franchise that plays for the championship, is going to probably take a few years again. I've got to do what I can to keep this thing going and get the young guys to improve and see where we can take this next year.

"There's always so much stuff that can happen. ... I mean, who knows if we have even half the guys back? You really don't. You really don't with our guys. You know Cubes and [president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson] have shown that they'll pull whatever strings they need to pull to do what they believe is the right thing to do. And they take risks, and they go for it. Hey, whatever happens, happens this summer. I know I'll be ready to play again.

"I'll work out all summer to get my butt in shape like I need to be, and whoever's there, I'll go to war with."