A dignified twilight, a la Tim Duncan, isn't likely for Dirk Nowitzki

DALLAS -- It feels strange, unsettling even, to watch the San Antonio Spurs face the Dallas Mavericks with neither Tim Duncan nor Dirk Nowitzki on the floor.

But it will soon be the norm.

Duncan, of course, is done for good. His No. 21 jersey will be raised to the AT&T Center rafters on Dec. 18, months after he announced his retirement in typical Timmy fashion, which means minimizing the fanfare as much as possible.

The end is near for Nowitzki, who watched Wednesday's 94-87 loss to the Spurs from the end of the Mavs' bench, wearing a gray suit instead of his white No. 41 jersey. Nowitzki has missed all but five games this season, his 19th in the league, as he has been nursing a sore right Achilles tendon since the season opener. He hopes to complete the two-year, $50 million contract he signed over the summer, which would allow him to join Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in the 20-seasons-with-one-team club, but Nowitzki has always said he will listen to his body and hang up his Nikes when basketball is no longer fun.

Right now, the 38-year-old Nowitzki is mired in basketball misery. His Mavs (3-14) have the NBA's worst record, and Nowitzki can do nothing to help, as he is sidelined for at least the rest of the week.

"It's hard to listen to him," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "The dude bitches like a m-----f-----."

Can you blame the big German? The Mavs' bottoming out and the bummer of his bad health follow five frustrating years of mediocrity, which featured a grand total of five playoffs wins for the franchise, after Dirk finally delivered an NBA championship to Dallas.

Cuban's goal when he made the controversial decision to strip down that title team, valuing the potential offered by cap space over the PR play of keeping an aging roster intact, was to give Nowitzki a chance to contend for championships until the end of his career. The Mavs fell well short, despite Nowitzki's taking a steep hometown discount, which Cuban made up for with the Kobe-esque contract this summer.

Very few legends are afforded the luxury of ending their careers on contending teams. Duncan was fortunate to be on that very short list, never playing for a team that didn't have legitimate title hopes. The Spurs exited the playoffs earlier than expected, when they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West semifinals last season, but Duncan's final squad won 67 games. The Mavs might not win that many in two years of Nowitzki's contract, even if he sticks around next season.

There will be no farewell tour for Nowitzki -- he will make sure of that -- but he appears likely to have an exit more along the lines of Bryant, who went out with a 17-win Lakers team. The Mavs are limping along at a 14-win pace, which in a twisted way is a testament to Nowitzki.

"Guys are learning to play in an environment that is very realistic, as opposed to the nirvana that he's provided here for close to two decades," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "The one thing that I think this period should point out to historians of the game is his level of greatness. It's just another strong indication of how great he has been [and] is and the kind of impact he has. When he's out there on a consistent basis, it's a game-changer."

There is plenty of proof of that. Start with the Mavs' 15 playoff appearances, 12 50-win seasons, two Finals trips and one title during a stretch in which Nowitzki had more than twice as many All-Star selections as all his teammates put together. Nowitzki, the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history, ranks seventh in win shares, one spot behind Duncan.

Or just ask anyone with a wise basketball brain, such as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who gushes about Nowitzki as a "beautiful player to watch" and a "class act" with "infectious" competitiveness.

Nothing that happens in the next year or two, or however long Nowitzki keeps playing, will diminish his legacy. Just as Duncan's legacy didn't take a hit when he struggled throughout the final playoff series of his career, including being rejected by Serge Ibaka on a dunk attempt that was his final shot.

"What they've done is iconic, unique," Popovich said. "They deserve whatever accolades they get from whatever source. If each of them played seven more years and couldn't do anything, they still deserve it."

Cuban noted that "99.99 percent of fans" won't remember the final games five years after a great is gone. Kobe's 60-point swan song is certainly an exception, but the point is that the last few ugly seasons in L.A. didn't dent his legacy.

"Dirk is dignified, no matter what he does," Cuban said. "He doesn't need any help. Everything about his career, everything about his personality, everything about who he is, there's going to be dignity no matter what the circumstances. So I don't worry about that."

With a 3-14 team, Cuban has plenty of reason to worry. He can save the sentiment for when it's time to unveil the one-footed fadeaway statue outside the arena, which, sadly, is coming sooner than later.