NEW YORK -- Is Dirk Nowitzki done climbing the list of NBA legends? Will he play long enough and well enough to pass one more legendary big man?
Nowitzki passing Shaquille O'Neal for sixth on the all-time scoring list in Wednesday’s 119-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets was a moment worth savoring, and Dallas Mavericks players, coaches and staffers did, swarming the longtime face of the franchise with congratulatory hugs during the next timeout.
The fact that Nowitzki, an 18-year veteran who has revolutionized the power forward position, continues to score at a historically efficient clip causes one to wonder how many more milestones he might hit.
The sweetest-shooting 7-footer to ever lace up a pair of shoes, Nowitzki is 1,391 points shy of 30,000, which he should hit next season if he stays healthy. He is 2,810 points away from passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the all-time list, a possibility if Nowitzki opts to play at least one more season after this contract expires.
"I mean, 30,000 would be unbelievable, but that's not something that I would strap it on and say I've got to have one more year to get to 30,000," Nowitzki recently told ESPN.com. "I think when it's enough, it's enough, when the body can't do it anymore and it's not fun anymore. The goal of 30,000 or top five is not what motivates me to do another year.
"It's gotta come natural, gotta be fun. I always said, I started this game for fun, and I've got to end it that way. When it's time, it's time."
Nowitzki has fought off Father Time like few others. In fact, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins have averaged more points at age 37 or older than Nowitzki's 17.5 points per game this season. Only Abdul-Jabbar did so with a higher true shooting percentage than Nowitzki, whose .589 is actually a bit higher than his career norm.
Why is Nowitzki aging so well? His initial answer is classic Dirk self-deprecation: "Well, I think it's pretty clear that my game is not based on athleticism."
Yes, it helps that his two best attributes don't really decline with age. He will always be 7 feet tall. And his sweet shooting stroke isn't going to abandon him as he grows older.
"He's a technician," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "Sometimes when he's shooting the ball, it looks so pure that you can't help shaking your head. He'll be doing that when he's 60 and beating up on his kids."
But it's Nowitzki’s work ethic, his fitness fanaticism, that might be the most important factor to maintaining his greatness in his golden years. Nowitzki's unorthodox, ultra-intense workouts with mentor Holger Geschwindner have long been legendary. They're largely a thing of the past at this point. Geschwindner essentially serves as a shot doctor at this stage of Nowitzki's career.
Mavs athletic performance director Jeremy Holsopple and athletic trainer Casey Smith are in charge of the day-to-day maintenance of the Dallas icon. They've taught Nowitzki to work smarter, not harder, taking advantage of all sorts of new-age techniques and products, some of which Cuban has heavily invested in, largely to extend Nowitzki's career as long as possible.
"I like the return we've been getting," Cuban said.
As Nowitzki said, when it's time, it'll be time. His body will let him know. And he'll let the basketball world know, stepping away with dignity but as little fanfare as possible.
That's at least another season down the road, with Nowitzki committed to play through this contract, which expires in the summer of 2017. As much as he still enjoys being part of the game, and even as he is playing as efficiently as ever, Nowitzki acknowledges that it's hard to imagine hanging it up then.
"Yeah, I think 20 years is special, especially with one franchise," Nowitzki told ESPN.com. "So that would mean I at least have to play one more [season after this contract expires], but I think that's something I worry about later. I don't want to look too far ahead because the end is near. I don't want to look too far ahead.
"I want to have fun as I go now and appreciate all the lifting and the practices and the games. It's something I still enjoy and I'll miss once it's over. I'll try to finish this year strong, and we'll go from there, but I always say, as long as I get up in the mornings and it's not a struggle to get out of bed and it's still fun to go to the gym and work with the guys and talk trash and stuff like that, I'll do it as long as I can, for sure."