Dirk on his contract, 20th season: ‘My time to show again that I love being here’

Among all the faces of all the NBA franchises, Dirk Nowitzki stands alone. He’s about to become just the second player ever to play 20 seasons for the same team, joining only the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. And, like Bryant, Nowitzki would sooner hang ’em up than play for another team.

The German legend, who during his 19th season became just the sixth player in NBA history to score 30,000 career points, became an unrestricted free agent once again this summer as the Mavericks declined his team option for the second year of a deal he agreed to last summer that reportedly paid him $25 million annually.

Nowitzki and the Mavs then agreed to another two-year contract, but this one will reportedly pay him just $5 million annually. Based on production he might have been slightly overpaid last season, but his deal for this season can only be called a bargain on the Mavs’ end, and even that’s an understatement.

On a conference call from Johannesburg, South Africa, where Nowitzki will co-captain Team World in NBA Africa Game 2017, Nowitzki said the “discount” he agreed to is all part of the mutual respect and loyalty he shares with Mavs owner Mark Cuban.

“Mark and I obviously have a close, close relationship,” Nowitzki said. “Since I think last year he really, really took care of me as we all know. That was well-documented. It was my time to show again that I love being here, and he did that last summer. Now I gave him a little bit of a deal, maybe, and that’s how that ended up. I really signed for two years, so we’ll see how the next year goes. But obviously we all know that I wanted to end my career (in Dallas), and I’m glad we got it in that position now.”

Nowitzki has reportedly signed several consecutive contracts for below-maximum value, all as part of an effort to give the Mavericks as much flexibility as possible to assemble a playoff-caliber team around him. That speaks volumes of not only his loyalty to the Mavericks, but also of his desire to win games and continue competing at a high level. As much as fans want to make this team about him, Nowitzki wants it to be about the team. The way he sees it, he’s made plenty of money in his career, and he’d rather go out on a high note than become even richer while playing for a losing team.

The Mavs, however, finished last season 33-49 and outside the playoff picture, although it’s unclear how much of that is due to talent vs. injury. Dallas began the season 4-17 largely in part to Nowitzki’s absence, as the Big German battled a nagging sore Achilles for much of the 2016 portion of the schedule. At one point Dallas was 11-27 before launching a 17-9 spurt to come to within 1.5 games of eighth place. That gives the legend hope that his historic 20th season will go much differently than his 19th.

“I think mainly that was some injury problems we had,” Nowitzki said. “Not only was I out for a while, but D-Will at that time went down, and J.J. played unbelievable basketball while D-Will was out, but it was just a little too much for his little body, and his calves gave out. That was unfortunate that we just started the season behind the 8-ball a little bit. I actually think we put up a heck of a fight after that to even make a run, or even sniff the playoffs after the 4-17 start we had. I think that was a great fight we put up, it just wasn’t enough.

“But hopefully if we start the season off a little better, then everybody stays more engaged. Hopefully we stay a little more injury-free, and we’ll try to make a run.”

That will be no easy feat in the loaded West, however, as Minnesota acquired Jimmy Butler and Oklahoma City acquired Paul George. “It’s not getting any easier, that’s for sure,” Nowitzki said. Still, the Mavs can return up to 11 players from last season’s roster, so that continuity in combination with better injury luck could lead to a much brighter November.

2017 NBA Awards Red Carpet: Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki meets the media before the 2017 NBA Awards Show.

Also of note in Nowitzki’s 20th season is his climb up the all-time scoring list. At 30,360 points, Nowitzki is currently within striking distance of Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) for fifth place all-time. He’d need to average a hair over 14 points for 82 games in order to pass him, which would be a remarkable feat at his age. The German, however, isn’t paying attention to that — although he’s leaving the door open for a potential 21st season, should he still feel good at the end of the year.

“That’s actually not something I still play for,” Nowitzki said. “If it happens, I’ve always said it’s great and amazing, but if it doesn’t it’s fine too. If next year that doesn’t happen and I don’t feel like my body’s holding up, then I’m not just gonna keep going at the end of my career just to get more numbers. That’s just not what I play for. That’s not why I started to play. I love to compete, I love the sport, I still love playing the game. That’s the fun part, and if the fun is going away or my body’s not holding up, then it’s time to go. We’ll just see how next year goes, and hopefully maybe even another year after that, and we’ll see how far I can go up.”

These are not things that athletes say. They’re supposed to chase money, power, and glory. Athletes aren’t supposed to leave money on the table, and they’re certainly expected to be aware of approaching records. But that’s just not how Nowitzki operates, and anyone who’s followed this team for as long as he’s been in the league has known that. It might confuse and confound people around the country, but Mavs fans understand what he’s saying.

Those of us who have been in Dallas this long are lucky to have seen Nowitzki’s career. There haven’t been many similar players in pro sports to come before him, and by the time he’s done playing he might have done enough to ensure there will never be another one.

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