Dirk Nowitzki does not need your sympathy.
As he nears the earlier-than-normal end of his 19th year on the job, the Dallas Mavericks’ living legend still enjoys showing up for work.
No, this is not how Nowitzki hoped his NBA twilight would go down. He didn’t leave dozens of millions of dollars on the table since the Mavs’ 2011 title run — some of which owner Mark Cuban made up by giving him a $25 million salary last summer — to never sniff the second round of the playoffs again.
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But here Nowitzki is, 38 years old on a lottery-clinched, forward-looking team that has more losses (45) than the Mavs have had in any other season during his tenure. Nowitzki is a natural pessimist, which he half-jokingly blames on his German blood, but he’s embracing the positives regarding the Mavs’ reality as a rebuilding team.
“It’s fun being around guys that want to work, that want to learn, that want to get better,” Nowitzki told ESPN after a rough shooting outing Friday in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, a night before the Mavs were officially eliminated from playoff contention for only the second time in the past 17 years.
It reminds him of his early Mavs days with Steve Nash.
“It’s fun. It’s fun watching these guys and seeing myself in them 15 years ago, when I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was just trying to be in the gym with Nashie at all times — mornings, nights — trying to get better.”
Oh, Nowitzki laments what might have been had he not missed most of the first two months with lingering soreness in his right Achilles tendon, an issue that suddenly crept up again over the weekend. Never mind that the ceiling for the Mavs would have been fighting for one of the West’s final playoff spots, as had been the case since Cuban opted to prioritize cap space over keeping an aging roster intact after the championship run and ensuing lockout. He still craves another crack at the postseason.
But Dallas, which entered the season with dual goals of competing for a playoff spot and developing young talent, was doomed by a 2-13 start and bottomed out at 16 games under .500 since then. The youth movement became more and more of a focus as the season progressed, as the Mavs bid farewell to injury-prone stopgap veterans Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut after the All-Star break, a strategy Cuban has called tanking while trying to win.