The Dallas Mavericks are more or less LukaWatch this season. Rick Carlisle’s offenses are never strictly boring, and the squad is sure to be much more than that next year when the just-imported Kristaps Porzingis returns to full health, but the Mavs are, at the moment, medium-lousy overall, the bulk of their games against the league’s better teams getting out of reach by the fourth quarter and creating consequence-free playspaces in which their talented rookie can experiment without catching himself on any sharp corners. Dallas games are often strangely, meditatively pointless. They can field their best lineups and play hard, safe in the assumption that they’re going to forfeit their first-round pick to the Hawks, but those lineups and that effort are only sometimes effectual, which doesn’t particularly matter either. Fat contracts are coming off the books this summer; Doncic isn’t even 20 yet. There’s plenty of time to figure out the big picture. For now, it’s simply a gas to watch him work.
The only other thing that’s going on with the Mavs this year is that Dirk Nowitzki is clearly right at the end. Really, if the organization were not so indebted to him for his many seasons of excellent service, or were he not so beloved by the team’s fanbase, he would already be past it, a year or two into retirement or else finishing things up in some cosmically incorrect Hakeem-on-the-Raptors scenario. That they’ve kept him around is not, all things considered, anything like a favor, but he does play the game at charity benefit speed, his seven-foot frame not quite handling 40 years of age. The footwork is there, but the feet are heavy. The shooting touch hasn’t left, but there’s no space in which to shoot. This isn’t tragic; it’s just what happens. Perhaps it’s easier to witness because Dirk isn’t publicly melancholic about his decline. He cracks jokes about how ancient he is, appears grateful to get whatever court time he’s allowed. He’s got perspective and a ring. There’s nothing left for him to accomplish, so he only tries to have a good time.
All of which help make a one-night Dirk Nowitzki quasi-resurgence such a joyful event. His 14 points at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening represent the 1,150th-best regular season scoring performance of his career. During his 2005-06 MVP campaign, he didn’t play a single game in which he didn’t score at least 14. The number is merely a season-high in a well below-par season and it cannot be emphasized strongly enough how putridly the Knicks stink, but whatever: it’s midwinter, the Mavs are 23-and-27, fun had is the only metric that matters.
And it is a great deal of fun to see Dirik get anything out of the rickety popsicle stick sculpture he calls a body, doing a preposterous impression of his past self. My aunt used to have an old cocker spaniel who thought he was still young, and when he met you at the door, he would try to jump up onto your legs but only get a quarter-second of airtime on each leap. His claws sounded like rain against the linoleum. This wasn’t a defect so much as another reason to love him. Anyway, that one-footed fadeaway Dirk used to shoot, where he seemed to reach a 45-degree angle with the hardwood before releasing it, now resembles a dictator’s statue wobbling right before the rebels tear it down.
He hit two of those on Wednesday, and there was no better place for him to do it, because the MSG crowd spilled beer and popcorn on itself celebrating each one. Knicks fans, especially when they have nothing more concrete than lottery odds to root for, are famous for cheering opposing greats when they go off. That Dirk was only kind of doing this rendered their adulation more endearing. For anyone who’s been watching the NBA for a while, the big German does feel, perhaps more than any other star of his era, like he belongs to all of us. Nobody outside the state of Florida was unhappy about his title in 2011, and nobody’s pleased to see him go, though he’s doing it with admirable grace considering he moves like he’s made out of bone bruises.
Maybe it would be nice if the Mavericks were a little bit better, but it’s probably preferable that Rick Carlisle doesn’t have to make any decisions re: how much he can afford to play Dirk while still competing for a playoff spot. Let the old fella get some run and applause, let the press capture a few on-court moments of him high-fiving Luka Doncic, who is for all intents and purposes his son. The leisurely exit suits Dirk, as he’s a star who loves to compete and win but can also read the situation and realize that, hey, it’s okay just to play some hoops, goof around in the locker room, and collect a paycheck.
He’s got perspective and a ring. There’s nothing left for him to accomplish. Which doesn’t mean the work isn’t enjoyable, or that he doesn’t savor it, at this late stage. 14 points in the Garden, the warm affection of a New York crowd? Sure, that’s worth getting out of bed for. That process itself is longer and more arduous than it used to be. But perhaps that makes you appreciate what happens afterwards, what you can still do. After all, even a magnificent career is made up mostly of minor achievements.