By Tim MacMahon
DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki now ranks 20th in NBA history in scoring and unofficially holds the league record for honesty.
How many legends months removed from carrying their team to a championship would openly admit that their performance hadn’t merited an invitation to the All-Star Game?
Dirk did just that in advance of the votes being submitted for All-Star reserves. The Western Conference coaches opted to ignore him, awarding Nowitzki his 11th consecutive All-Star appearance despite his struggles in the first third of the season.
There should be no more questions about whether Nowitzki’s trip to Orlando this weekend is justified, and that has nothing to do with a lifetime achievement award. Just look at his production the last 10 games, when he’s averaged 25.4 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 55.5 percent from the floor.
Any doubt about whether Dirk belongs among the West’s best dozen players? Didn’t think so.
“I think everybody knows if I would have been healthy all year, it would have been a lock,” Nowitzki said after his 26-point, 16-rebound performance in Monday night’s blowout of the beat-up Boston Celtics.
Hey, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.
“But I wasn’t [healthy],” Nowitzki continued. “If you judge it by first third of the season, whatever they judged it on, I still say there were some guys that deserved it over me, but it is what it is. The coaches showed me a lot of respect.”
Nowitzki, who passed Robert Parish for 20th on the all-time scoring list in the first quarter, earned that respect over the last 13 years.
There’s never been a 7-footer with his skill set. He started with one of the sweetest jumpers in the league and developed an arsenal that includes a quality post-up game and dangerous off-the-dribble attack, both featuring variations of a one-legged leanaway that is the most uniquely unblockable shot since Kareem’s sky hook.
There’s never been an NBA superstar whose toughness has been so readily dismissed. So many soft-Euro stereotypes were shattered during the Mavs’ championship run, when the world finally began to understand and appreciate that a finesse game and intense competitive fire aren’t mutually exclusive.
That skill set and that toughness isn’t diminishing any time soon. Despite what you might have heard from Charles Barkley, one of few power forwards in NBA history who can claim to be in Dirk’s class, Father Time has no better chance of stopping No. 41 this season than Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O’Neal did Monday night.
“It’s hard to be great in June and then in December, your career is over,” Mavs big man Brendan Haywood said. “In June, you’re the greatest player on the planet! In December, your career is over! That’s laughable.”
It’s something Nowitzki can laugh about now that he’s got his game back.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” the 33-year-old Nowitzki said, flashing a grin. “No, I knew eventually once the swelling in my knee went down and I started feeling better that I can still play on a high level. I was just struggling physically the first month or so with the short camp, but I had confidence that eventually, once my leg strength came back, I can still compete at a high level. I think I’ve still got that in my tank for hopefully the next two years and then we can go from there.”
His immediate focus, of course, is on finishing this season strong. He has reason to believe that the Mavs, who are 21-12 at the midway point despite a slow start, are a legitimate threat to repeat.
There’s no question in Nowitzki’s mind that he’s back to being the kind of player that can put a team on his back during a playoff run.
“Once I get my game back, I can attack off the dribble, post, do all those things,” Nowitzki said, recapping what’s happened over the last few weeks, “I think there’s not a lot of power forwards in this league who are better than me.”
That’s an honest statement from Dirk, and it’s about as close to boasting as he’ll ever come.
It could also be considered humble.
The whole truth is that there aren’t a lot of power forwards in NBA history better than him. And there aren't a lot of players in this league, period, who are better.
There were none last summer, and at the halfway point of this season, it suddenly doesn't look like a lot has changed.