The Legacy of Dirk Nowitzki

Writer: Caleb Akpan

Dirk Nowitzki may be playing in his final professional basketball games this week. That’s a sentence that feels strange to type out given the longevity of the German’s career, with 16 straight years averaging at least 17 points a game and playoff appearances in 15 of 16 consecutive seasons. For awhile, it seemed like Nowitzki would never stop playing for the Dallas Mavericks, who he has spent all 21 years of his career with (an NBA record), but now more than ever, the end seems to be a reality, and one that is materializing quickly.

If this is it for Nowitzki, he’ll leave behind a legacy in Dallas that no player (not even rookie sensation Luka Doncic) will likely ever supersede, as he leads the franchise all-time in games, minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, and career accolades. Over the last two decades, he’s given the team a countless amount of unforgettable moments, some more significant than the rest, but all adding onto the legend of Dirk Nowitzki that will live on forever in the NBA.

When he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and traded to Dallas, skepticism on Nowitzki's potential was high. At the time, successful european draft picks were few and far between, and Detlef Schrempf was the only known basketball product from Nowitzki’s hometown of Germany. Even with an an excellent performance at the Nike Hoop Summit earlier in the year, Dirk was still a relative unknown to people when he arrived in Dallas, and that led to some now-hilarious criticism of the trade Don Nelson executed to bring him to the Mavericks:

“Tuesday, Mavericks general manager Don Nelson called trading the sixth pick in the NBA draft for Nos. 9 and 19 “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Last night, he might have set a new standard. With potential All-Star Paul Pierce having inexplicably fallen in his lap at No. 6, Nelson instead pulled the trigger on a three-team trade that left the Mavericks with Phoenix Suns third-team point guard Steve Nash, the rights to German wunderkind Dirk Nowitzki and without a No. 1 pick in 1999.”

Richie Whitt (Fort-Worth Telegram)

Paul Pierce would probably be crazy enough to say he had a better career than Dirk, but we all know that the trade was probably the greatest thing to happen in Mavericks history, aside from all of the things Nowitzki would bring to the franchise. Along with Steve Nash (also apart of that trade) and Michael Finley, Nowitzki would bring Dallas back to basketball relevancy in 2001 and for fifteen years following, that relevancy would never fully fade.

Steve Nash leaves to Phoenix? Nowitzki only gets better, posting career highs while putting the team on his back as their sole all-star. Michael Finley ages and leaves to rival San Antonio? Nowitzki has an MVP-caliber season, beating San Antonio and Phoenix on the way to the NBA Finals. Fellow retiree Dwyane Wade would crush Nowitzki's chances of a title that year, but the two would meet again…..

Before that happened, Nowitzki had to go through some of the darker times of his career. Immediately following the ‘06 Finals, Nowitzki led the Mavericks to 67 wins in the regular season, one of the best totals in league history. He was rightfully awarded MVP and the Mavericks were the favorite to win it all, then the unthinkable happened. Nelson, the same man who had brought Nowitzki to Dallas and helped mold him into one of the original unicorns of the NBA led the eighth-seed Golden State Warriors to a six-game upset of the Mavericks in the playoff’s opening round, highlighted by a 25-point win in the series’ final game.

Nowitzki had choked and he still had to accept his award for the league’s Most Valuable Player days later. What should’ve been an unforgettable day in Mavericks history was blanketed by a sense of melancholy, but words from owner Mark Cuban restored reasoning for why Nowitzki was handed the trophy on that day:

“What he does on the court everybody gets to see. What he does in interviews everybody gets to see, but not everybody gets to see him off the court and how hard he works. Dirk winning this award isn’t a testimony to the NBA, it isn’t a testimony to our season. We’re proud of both and we’re proud of what we’ve done as a team, but it’s a testimony to his hard work.

He’s the guy that you don’t have to encourage him to get in the gym, he’s the guy you have to lock out of the gym. He’s not the guy where you wonder if he cares, he’s the guy that hurts so much when things don’t go the way he wants…...and that’s what makes him an MVP of this league. Just the fact that he’s relentless. And he’s an example, not just to kids who might play basketball, but he’s an example to every single one of us in our professions and in our lives that you don’t have to fit a certain role, you don’t have a fit a certain model, but if you work hard enough and care enough, anything is possible.”

The drive to win that Cuban alluded to would lead Nowitzki and his personal coach Holger Geschwindner to Australia shortly after that ceremony. In the seclusion of the Australian Outback, two trained intensely for the 2007-2008 season, only to have the Mavericks knocked out again in the first round by a young Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets, even after the Mavericks acquired Jason Kidd in a trade. In 2009, the team would advance past the first round, but lose to the Denver Nuggets in the semifinals, despite Nowitzki going toe-to-toe with Carmelo Anthony throughout the series.

In 2010, desperate to put the Mavericks back into true contention, GM Donnie Nelson executed a trade for Washington all-star Caron Butler, helping the Mavericks to get the second seed in a loaded Western Conference playoffs. Facing San Antonio in the first round, Nowitzki and the Mavs had the upper hand, but were upset in six games. Four years after almost winning the Finals, the team had one win outside of the first round of the playoffs. Nowitzki was labeled soft and a choke artist. The Mavericks were untrustable in a playoff series. Then everything changed...

2011. A year in basketball history now symbolized by Nowitzki himself. With no believing in himself or his team, Dirk would lead Dallas on an improbable playoff run, beating Portland in a first-round series that many experts didn’t have them getting out of. With the Mavericks’ recent history, there was no way they were supposed to defeat the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, but the Nowitzki's team would not only beat LA, but sweep them in dominating fashion. A young Oklahoma City squad had no match for Nowitkzi’s greatness, as the German star had one of the best games of his career to open the series and never looked back.

Dirk had put the Mavericks back in the Finals and a familiar foe was the only thing standing in the way of a title: Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. Only this time, Wade was joined by all-time reinforcements in LeBron James and Chris Bosh, both still in the primes of their careers. Beaten convincingly in Game 1 and down again in Game 2, Dallas looked to be no match for Miami, before they continued to shock the world, coming back from down fifteen to win the game.

Jason Terry and Jason Kidd would do their parts in bringing the Mavericks back within four, but at that point, everyone on Dallas’ side knew where the ball needed to go. Nowitzki would hit a jumper, put in a layup to tie the game, hit a three to take the lead, and make a now iconic left-handed layup to win the game. Those four consecutive baskets likely saved the Mavericks from a fifth consecutive year of playoff embarrassment and put them on track to do the unimaginable. Four games later, the Mavericks would be crowned NBA champions. Nowitzki would retreat to Miami’s locker room, unable to fully comprehend what had just happened. After years of scrutiny and doubt, he was a champion. A winner. A legend.

Dallas has not made it out of the first round since. Cuban disbanded most of the championship team that offseason in hopes of acquiring a big-name free agent. The Mavericks are still waiting on such a signing seven years later, but it’s unlikely that anybody will carry that as part of Nowitzki’s legacy. They’ll remember that champion in 2011. That MVP-caliber player from the mid 2000s. That iconic one-legged fadeaway that so many of the league’s best players attempt to copy. The player who reached 30,000 points in front of a raucous crowd even as his team didn’t have much to play for. Nowitzki’s lasting impact on the NBA is almost immeasurable, whether you look at how he changed things for europeans, shooting big men, or what his loyalty meant to his franchise.

Nowitzki could have left Dallas multiple times, but he never gave up on trying to win one for the team, for the city. Because of that his name will never be forgotten in Dallas. His name will never be forgotten in the NBA. His name will never be forgotten in basketball circles around the world. Whether it’s for his play or for the person that he is, Dirk Nowitzki is simply unforgettable.