NBA / Dec 26, 2012 / 12:30 pm

Dirk Nowitzki Is Facing His Toughest Challenge Yet

Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki (photo. Nike Basketball)

I was always enraptured with Dirk Nowitzki‘s game. Granted, he had moments where I questioned his toughness and hunger. I always said the man was lethargic on the defensive end and was allergic to shuffling his feet. Still at the end of the day, Dirk is Dirk. He’s a cornerstone. He’s a Maverick – literally. For a seven-footer, he always had a hair trigger. His fallaway jumpshot is loved and hated simultaneously. He always fought despite hindrances from Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s a proven winner.

Now Dirk will have to overcome another obstacle. This’ll be tougher than his road to the Finals against the Miami Heat back in 2011. This is bigger than the time he lost his partner – Steve Nash – to the Phoenix Suns in 2004. Just before Christmas, Dirk returned and witnessed a catastrophic blowout, losing by 38 to his home state rivals from San Antonio. He played modestly after returning from knee surgery, scoring eight points and grabbing six rebounds in 20 minutes. But now, for the first time, Dirk will play with a completely different roster than what he was once accustomed to. There’s no Jason Kidd to orchestrate the offense. There’s no Jason Terry to step up and hit daggers when Dirk is facing a double-team. Dirk is now partnered with a younger backcourt in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, and a new center in Chris Kaman.

To Mayo and Kaman’s credit, they shouldered a lot of the scoring load through the first leg of the regular season. Both had dismal seasons last year – Mayo was receiving inconsistent minutes in Memphis while a disgruntled Kaman was constantly on the trading block in New Orleans. Through free agency, Dallas obtained both, and now Mayo is averaging over 19 points while shooting 47 percent from the field – both career highs. Kaman is posting 13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a night while shooting 52 percent from the field.

While these two are both playing at a high level, the harsh reality is that the Mavericks are currently 12-16 after losing three straight games, and are 12th in the ever-competitive Western Conference. Collison, brought to Dallas via trade, is playing inconsistently and lost his starting spot.

But Nowitzki’s return is obviously a positive, and now things will get interesting. With the Warriors streaking, the Lakers finally coming together, and teams like Minnesota and Houston holding on tight to their rankings in the standings, Dirk must make a strong push to promise another playoff berth.

Do I think Dirk has a chance to get Dallas into the playoffs, their 12th consecutive appearance? I think so. Dallas’ success is contingent upon his play. If Nowitzki can recover and play up to par, the Mavericks have a shot at the bottom four seeds. One thing Dirk developed over the years is an ability to muster up the mental toughness needed to win. We all know he can score, but he won’t have to worry so much about getting instant offense. It’s more about gelling together and developing a strong sense of chemistry.

If Darren Collison can somehow find that guy who was balling his butt off in New Orleans when Chris Paul was hurt in 2009-10, I guarantee Dirk’s face will light up faster than my mom’s Christmas tree. You have the pieces in place. You have a strong coach, Rick Carlisle. Shawn Marion has been there before and fought with Dirk through the rigorous battles. Vince Carter came back from the dead, averaging 11.8 points a game. But Elton Brand, Brandan Wright and Kaman need Nowitzki – Dallas is the worst rebounding team in the league (a 47.4 total rebound rate). I know Dirk is up for the challenge. His leadership will rub off on Mayo as well, and the Big German’s presence will make the 49 percent three-point shooter even more of a threat.

On paper, this team looks good. You would have fun balling with these guys in 2K. In reality, we’ll have to wait and see.

Will Dallas make the playoffs?

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