Dirk Nowitzki is Dallas.
The big German is the adopted son of one generation of Dallas sports fans, the brother of another and the kids' cool uncle. Few athletes anywhere are as beloved as Dirk in Dallas, who ranks right up there with Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith in this football-crazy city.
Dallas has watched Nowitzki grow from a shy, goofy kid experiencing a culture shock and confidence crisis-- the constant comparisons to Paul Pierce, selected a pick later, during Dirk’s rough rookie year not helping matters -- to the epitome of what a face of the franchise should be.
Nowitzki is idolized around these parts due to his no-brainer Hall of Famer credentials -- sixth on the all-time scoring list, 13 All-Star appearances, an MVP and a Finals MVP to start -- and adored because of the charming, self-deprecating, genuine personality that he has steadily grown more comfortable sharing during his 18 years in Dallas.
Yet a significant segment of the Dallas Mavericks fan base believes 18 years might be enough. It’s not that they’ve tired of Nowitzki. That will never happen, not after everything he has done for this city, on and off the floor.
They love him so much that they want to let him go chase a championship in his twilight. And, as much as they don’t want to share him with anyone else, they’d rather watch Dirk make a deep playoff run with another team than see his season end in April again.
Here’s what they really hate to admit: It might be best for the Mavs in the long run if Nowitzki waved goodbye now, at least temporarily, allowing the franchise to hit rock bottom and begin a real rebuilding process, instead of fighting for the right to be first-round fodder again.
Meanwhile, the Mavs’ front office must balance the task of putting together the most competitive roster possible -- which they owe Nowitzki after his many sacrifices -- with serving the franchise’s best interests well into the future. Trying to do both puts the Mavs in serious jeopardy of doing neither.
It has been five long, frustrating years since Nowitzki belted out a wonderfully off-key rendition of “We Are the Champions” from an arena balcony, serenading fans who packed Victory Plaza on a sweltering Texas summer day at the end of the Mavs’ long-awaited championship parade. Five years, and a grand total of five playoff wins.
Sixty teammates -- 60! -- have spun through the revolving doors in the Mavs’ locker room in that span. None have been All-Stars for the Mavs despite owner Mark Cuban’s ambitious annual attempts to acquire a big fish in free agency. Those steep hometown discounts Dirk accepted haven’t paid off, as the Mavs are stuck in the muck of NBA mediocrity, the driving factor in his decision to opt out of the final season of his bargain contract.
That’s how Nowitzki, a man who has made well north of $200 million in his career despite leaving a lot more on the table, has turned into a sympathetic figure.
He’s still more than capable of contributing to a contender, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the most efficient, prolific late-30s scorers in NBA history. Yet Nowitzki has been burdened with dragging so-so supporting casts to one-and-done playoff appearances. It’s hard to see that changing, with or without a potential pick-up like restricted free agent Harrison Barnes (career averages: 10.1 points, 4.6 rebounds per game).
But one minor detail must be noted regarding the #FreeDirk movement on Twitter: He’s free. He can go if he so desires, or at least talk to other teams. It’s not like Cuban and a Mavs contingent have stormed into his house and are holding him hostage. (Sorry, Mavs fans, if that causes you to think about the slightly embellished scene when the Clippers converged at DeAndre Jordan’s house a year ago.)
By all credible accounts, Nowitzki remains committed to staying in the only NBA home he’s ever known, even after another disappointing first wave of free agency for the Mavs. Being a one-team man means more to him than a chance at another ring.
The 20-year, one-team club -- lone member: Kobe Bryant -- means as much to Nowitzki as the 30,000-point milestone he should hit next season.
Nowitzki might have momentarily wavered on his Maverick-for-life stance in the couple months since Dallas was rudely dismissed in the first round again. How could he not briefly ponder the possibility of, say, becoming a Splash Uncle with the Golden State Warriors? It might have been impossible to pass up such as opportunity if he didn’t own a championship ring, but that line in Nowitzki’s legend résumé was filled five years ago.
Nobody with the Mavs would say such a blasphemous thing, but the best-case scenario would probably be for Nowitzki to join a contender for one year and then return to mentor a high lottery pick and retire as a Maverick. That, however, is a hypothetical that isn’t happening.
If the decision were based purely on basketball, it’d be an easy call. However, as competitive as Nowitzki is, he’s even more loyal. He says he belongs to the city of Dallas. He won’t turn his back on his American hometown, even though he’d be welcomed back with standing ovations. He’s also a devoted husband and father who doesn’t want to uproot his family.
Thick or thin, all indications are Nowitzki is still all in with the Mavs.
This creates quite a dilemma for the Dallas front office: How can the Mavs do right by Nowitzki while positioning the franchise to avoid a post-Dirk apocalypse? That’s the subject of some intense internal discussions at the Mavs offices these days.
Some staffers think the franchise needs to take a temporary step back. They look at the loaded lottery in the upcoming draft and want a ticket. They see the talent and depth in next summer’s free-agency crop and want the financial flexibility -- a term that makes Mavs fans cringe after five summers of swinging and missing -- to go on a shopping spree in that market.
(Longtime Mavs fans are well aware that rebuilding isn’t easy, either. They lived through the decade-long playoff drought that ended early in Nowitzki’s career. Dallas dealt with some bad lottery luck and some worse locker room chemistry. Looking at you, Jason Kidd and Jimmy Jackson.)
That means giving only one-year deals this summer unless a player is young and talented enough to be a key piece when Nowitzki retires two or three years down the road. It’s hard to build a playoff team like that, as the Mavs learned the hard way in 2012-13, the only time in the past 16 years they missed the playoffs.
Good luck convincing Nowitzki -- or coach Rick Carlisle, for that matter -- that essentially mailing in a season is the right route.
And Cuban, who has really been unconditionally loyal to only one player, has made it clear that doing right by Dirk is his top priority. At the minimum, every move the Mavs make must be approved by Nowitzki. In some cases, he’s calling the shots, including getting to make as much money as he wants up to the max.
“Dirk gets to do whatever he wants to do, period, end of story,” Cuban said last month. “Dirk gets to do what Dirk wants to do. If Dirk wants to be the head coach, we’ll move Rick over a little bit. Dirk’s [done] so much for this franchise that he’s earned that opportunity.”
If Dirk wants to leave, he’s free to go. That some Mavs fans wish it would happen, out of respect for their NBA legend, speaks to the frustration of the past five years in Dallas.