When Dirk Nowitzki began his NBA career, nobody thought the seven-foot German with long blonde hair would become the league’s sixth-highest scorer all-time and redefine the stretch forward position – least of all, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban spoke with members of the media courtside before his Mavericks faced the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In that huddle, I asked him what were his first impressions of a young Nowitzki.
“I came in right after him and I beat him one-on-one, and I’m like this guy’s a burger,” Cuban replied with a smile.
Cuban claimed there was video footage of him beating the future Hall of Fame forward, 2-0. However, Cuban took a more reflective tone when asked if Nowitzki is synonymous to the Mavericks in the same breath as Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs.
“Dirk is everything for the Mavericks,” Cuban said. “We are who he is. We’re the house that Dirk built. You can’t play down everything he’s been to this organization. We’ll see it for another 10 years and we’ll see how he does.”
Nowitzki is Dallas’ all-time leader in games played, minutes played, overall field goals, three-point field goals, free throws, points, offensive win shares, offensive rebounds and PER. On the defense, he leads the Mavericks in defensive rebounds, total rebounds and defensive win shares.
“Dirk, I think, deserves credit for defining what a stretch four can do,” Cuban said. “Not just shooting threes but being able to be physical, rebound, pass and shoot. For Dirk it’s not even about the threes, it’s about how well he shoots the ball from anywhere on the court. That ability to draw a double-team away from the basket is what was unique. You really didn’t see guys on the elbow drawing a double-team before Dirk.”
Nowitzki, 38, is nearing the twilight of his career. Cuban knows he’ll need to find a new face of the franchise to carry Dallas for the future.
“That happens to every franchise,” Cuban said. “Father Time is undefeated and we’ll have to deal with it. I think Harrison [Barnes] is showing a lot of signs that he can be that person. Not to try to put too much pressure on him, but it’s a job he wants and he’s willing to work for it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to add other pieces that are on the same plane.”
Barnes replacing Nowitzki – a former league MVP and 13-time All-Star – is a tough act to follow. However, Barnes has shown the offensive firepower that made him the top high school recruit in 2010.
“Harrison definitely has that quality,” Cuban said. “He has that gene. He’s focused, he’s intense, he works hard. He works as hard as Dirk. I think in the system he’s played in, though, he’s played to the system and now he’s got to be the system in a lot of respects. That will be his challenge. Does he have that ‘f— you’ [attitude] in him?”
Barnes is averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game on a career-high 49 percent shooting from the field.
“We felt like he was a system player that when you gave him the opportunity to be himself, he could be much bigger and much better,” Cuban added. “If you look at his first year and his first playoff run as a rookie against Denver I think it was, he was dominating. He was their best player. We thought that was still there, we just had to take the opportunity to bring it out of him.”
While Nowitzki has been out with a sore right Achilles, he’s had a seat on the bench to watch Barnes’ exponential growth in Dallas.
“He’s been phenomenal for us,” Nowitzki said. “We isolate him some and we post him some. He’s been shooting the ball well. He’s been the real deal for us, and he’s only 24. He’s a workhorse. We’ve got to lock him out of the gym, at times, he’s in there so much. He just works it all the time and it’s paying off for him. On top [of that], he’s a nice guy, wants to get better, wants to help the team. We’re all happy for him and we’re happy with his play, obviously, and he’s got to keep it going, obviously, especially now.”
The Mavericks are in a transition period with Nowitzki in the twilight of his career and fellow starters Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut and Wesley Mathews all over 30 years old. There has been a more concerted effort to play young talent such as Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Seth Curry while continuing to try and win. Granted, some of that is out of necessity due to injuries to Nowitzki, Williams and Bogut.
“I think we’re still not all the way there in having an identity as a team,” Cuban said. “Three of our top guys are hurt, but it’s given a lot of time to our young guys, which will hopefully pay off dividends over the course of the season. There’s a long way to go. The last couple years, we started fast and then faded a little bit. Now hopefully we’ll do the opposite and have more momentum going into the playoffs.”
At 2-7, Dallas is currently second to last in the Western Conference ahead of only the equally underwhelming New Orleans Pelicans.
“If you fall behind too early in the West, it’s going to be tough to recover,” Nowitzki acknowledged.
Despite the sluggish start, Nowitzki believes his eventual return will lead to better offensive production for the Mavericks.
“We go through stretches where we just make some mistakes and I feel like we’re stagnate a little bit, we can’t score enough,” Nowitzki said. “Obviously, that’s the one thing I can still sort of do. I might not be good at many other things anymore, but I can still score a little bit and help the team spread the floor and just help offensively as much as I can, so it’s tough. It’s tough to sit over there and watch us go through stretches where just nothing really goes.”
The Mavericks appear to be headed for the lottery due to the aging roster, as I noted in a previous Basketball Insiders video. With that in mind, the Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season when he’ll be 39.
Last summer, Miami Heat franchise star Dwyane Wade left to join the Chicago Bulls in free agency over a disagreement regarding his value. Would Cuban be willing to pay a 39-year-old $25 million?
“Did you see what I paid him this year?” Cuban said. “He got maxed out except for one contract and then he opted out of that contract and more than made up for it. He is the franchise. Any money I didn’t give to him, I put in my pocket so I was fine with giving it to him.”
I asked Cuban if there was any doubt in his mind whether Nowitzki would ultimately retire in a Mavericks uniform?
“No,” Cuban replied. “I don’t see why it would be any other way. He’s had plenty of opportunities to leave and he’s chosen not to.”
“I have all kinds of pictures and dirt on him that would probably be very uncomfortable if he did [leave]. And vice-versa,” he joked.
Cuban believes Nowitzki should be held in the same regard as a long-time in-state rival when he retires.
“I think he and Tim Duncan are very similar in a lot of respects,” Cuban said. “We had such a great rivalry over all those years. Steve Nash, same thing. Michael Finley. Those are guys that stop to take pictures and realize the value of nice. They aren’t self-promoters and they don’t have to be. They let their game speak for itself. I think more guys are like that now. When you walk on the court, it’s scoreboard. When you walk off and have the satisfaction of winning and playing the way you feel you should have played, what more is there? Being appreciated by your teammates and your fans. Dirk never tried to get big endorsements or be a big make-money-off-the-court type of guy. He just wanted to play, win, enjoy himself and just be Dirk. He did it on his terms and that was more important than anything.”
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