Amidst one of the worst seasons in recent memory, a hint of light is starting to creep into view for the Dallas Mavericks. Oh, what a joyous sight it is! Dirk Nowitzki, the face of the Mavericks franchise, serves as the slight glimmer of hope as he is back on the court playing basketball.
The 19-year veteran officially returned to game action last Friday for 15 minutes in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers (without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin) 90-88. Dirk made an instantaneous impact out on the court, shooting 7 of 12 from the field for 17 points. It was Dirk's first taste of action since getting smoked off the floor in Cleveland 128-90 on November 25th. Nowitzki told the media after the game in Los Angeles, "The Achilles felt fine. Hopefully, we're not looking back from here."
The Mavericks definitely do not want to start looking back. The Mavs last suffered a losing season over 16 years ago, which happened to be the first season with Mark Cuban owning the franchise. At the moment, the Mavs sit one game behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in the NBA. 9 wins in 32 tries. Since the turn of the century, the franchise has been a league staple in terms of a winning culture and organizational stability. It's no secret that this season has been quite the learning process for everyone involved.
As the Mavericks remain focused in on daily improvement to go along with getting better regarding overall health—they certainly welcomed the return of their star veteran forward.
Nowitzki missed a total of 14 games during this most recent injury stint while recovering from soreness in his right Achilles tendon. The Achilles has hampered Nowitzki all year, flaring up after a bone-crushing overtime defeat during the first game of the season in Indianapolis versus the Pacers. His injury has forced Dirk to sit out 24 of the 32 games in which the Mavericks have played. Nowitzki is certainly pacing towards a personal career-high in total games missed in a season. Although the Mavericks remain buried a bottom of the Western Conference standings with that hideous record of 9-23, the most recent stretch of Dirk-less games came out to a serviceable record of 6-8.
As the Mavericks look to stay the course and strive for incremental improvement in a variety of areas on a daily basis—patience is key with Nowitzki. At this stage in Dirk's career, eyeing on the side of caution remains the best course of action for him and the franchise. Longtime Mavericks trainer Casey Smith and Head Coach Rick Carlisle will certainly monitor every move Nowitzki makes—keeping a keen eye on his minutes on a nightly basis. Through the first three games since the return, the Mavericks have restricted Dirk's minutes to the first half only. The big German has tallied a total of 15, 17, and 15 minutes in the three games since returning. As the 38-year-old continues to round into shape—what can we expect from this storied franchise moving forward?
After stumbling out of the gates thanks to injury and poor play, the Mavericks will certainly try not rehash on one of their worst starts in franchise history, rather focus on the daily grind ahead. One of the main areas of weakness for the Mavericks has been the offensive side of the ball. The Mavericks are currently slotted as the 5th worst offensive team in terms of efficiency at 101.4 points per 100 possessions per, ESPN.com's Hollinger NBA Stats. Inserting one of the best scorers of all-time will certain provide some punch to the offense sorely needing it.
During the first two games of Nowitzki's return, Carlisle decided to start Dirk at the center position. Although putting Dirk at the center position can cause all kinds of issues at the defensive end (we'll get to that), having a stretch five with Dirk's perimeter shooting skills is ultra dangerous on any defense today. Check out Dirk laying an excellent high screen on former teammate Raymond Felton, forcing DeAndre Jordan to make decisions out in space on how to defend the pick-n-roll:
Jordan had no chance on that possession. He defended the pick-n-roll with a conservative mindset, dropping back into no man's land which is a no-no against Nowitzki. Dirk flipped the screen and faked the roll, hesitating back to the 3-point line for the open three. Having a center with the shooting ability like Nowitzki is downright impossible to guard at times. Mixing Nowitzki—with a guard like Deron Williams, who is playing some of his best basketball as a Mav—averaging 17.7 points and 7.4 assists over his last 5 games, leaves Jordan faced with tough on-the-fly reads attempting to stop this pick-n-roll.
Dirk will allow for additional spacing out on the court and always demands extra attention which will only further help the Mavericks anemic offense. Tides are starting to change with the Mavericks as they are also now starting to pick up their percentages from behind the 3 point line, ranking 8th in the NBA in 3-point percentage over the last 15 games.
As much as Dirk will help the Mavericks on the offensive side, he will end up hurting the Mavericks on the defensive side of the ball. At this stage in Dirk's career, it's not reasonable to ask him to defend at even an average level. He has never been one to be the quickest on his feet and his most recent Achilles injury reassures the fact that he is slow. Check out Marreese Speights—who isn't the faster player in his own right—beating Dirk off the dribble:
If the Mavericks want to trot Dirk out as a center, he will most certainly have to be paired with perimeter stalwarts like Wes Matthews and Harrison Barnes. I would not be surprised if Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Anderson were out on the floor at times with Dirk in order to mask his defensive deficiencies. Carlisle and his staff know that in order to prevent Dirk from being relied upon to protect the rim, they will have to play athletes out on the perimeter that will make their opponents jobs tougher to get into the lane.
As we creep past a little over a quarter of the way through the 2016-2017 season, the Mavericks are just now starting to look like a traditional NBA team. Their projected starting lineup of Deron Williams, Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut finally made their home starting debut last night (12/27/16) versus Houston.
Players that were looked to be counted upon are finally starting to round into game shape. With Dirk back in the fold, the offense will be rejuvenated with added floor space and hall of fame shooting. Things will get a little trickier on the defense side of the ball as the wings will have to be aligned as a collective unit, but the defense may dip. Ultimately, the team needs to "stay the course" and let things unfold naturally. Despite the struggles having 41 back on the court can make every Mavs fan smile.