Mavs star shows he'll control ego to pursue the ultimate hardware
The continued maturation of Dirk Nowitzki has nothing to do with scoring points or grabbing rebounds.
It's about Nowitzki's understanding of the game's nuances and how those subtleties will help Dallas win a championship, because that's all that matters this season.
Little things like letting Josh Howard exert himself offensively and develop into a star without pouting, and setting picks to free Jason Terry for open jumpers. Little things like defending the paint and contesting shots and playing well despite sprained ankles and sinus infections.
Last week, Nowitzki sat out the fourth quarter against Portland because he understands that rest is more important. No doubt that rest helped him average 39.7 points in the other three games, including 38 Sunday in a one-point win over Toronto, as the Mavericks won their fourth straight game.
You can take the Mavs' success – at least 50 wins each of the last six seasons – for granted, if you like. You can even take Mark Cuban's willingness to spend money on players and Avery Johnson's success for granted, if you must.
But don't ever take a player like Nowitzki for granted. Ever.
Not in this era of pampered, pompous superstars with bloated guaranteed contracts and egos to match. The 28-year-old German, who's regularly the last player to leave practice, has reached the point in his nine-year career where winning a championship is his sole goal.
Isn't that really how it should be? Do you think there would be all this talk about whether Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson can co-exist in Denver if it were just about winning? In Denver, like a lot of other NBA cities, the team's best players worry more about shot totals and scoring averages than victories.
That's not the case in Dallas, which is why you should be on your knees every day thanking the basketball gods for blessing you with Nowitzki.
Nowitzki, who averages 24.8 points and 9.4 rebounds, has figured out what's important. The NBA is about rings. Russell, Magic and Jordan made it that way. Nothing else matters.
You disagree? Ask Charles Barkley. Ask Karl Malone. Go ahead, ask them what they would've traded for a championship ring. A scoring title? A rebounding title? Cash? Maybe all of them.
Ask any of the Mavericks what they would've traded not to blow a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals last June. Nowitzki wants a title, so he suppresses his ego. Don't be naive. He has an ego. A big one. Every superstar does. You can't succeed without it. Few stars, though, control their egos.
"Dirk knows what he's capable of doing," Johnson said. "When a guy has high self-esteem and confidence, little things don't bother him."
Now you know why Nowitzki is content letting Howard find his rhythm early in games. Nine times this season, Howard has scored 10 or more points in the first quarter. It helps that Dallas is 32-2 the last two seasons when Howard scores at least 20 points.
On average, Nowitzki takes only one more shot per game than Howard. Kobe Bryant takes seven more shots per game than any other teammate, as does LeBron James. Only seven times in the last 18 games has Nowitzki led the Mavericks in scoring, but he can dominate when necessary. Like the 35 points he scored in Phoenix to stop the Mavericks' 0-4 start and the 36 points he dropped in a recent road win over San Antonio.
Dirk Nowitzki leads the Mavericks in scoring and rebounding, but his focus isn't on statistics. In the off-season, the Mavericks solidified their bench by acquiring players such as Devean George and Greg Buckner, who give Johnson the ability to match any style and overwhelm opponents with depth. The Mavs have won 16 games by double digits.
More important, Nowitzki is playing only 35 minutes a game. He's averaged 38 minutes a game in five of the last six seasons. While a reduction of three minutes a game doesn't sound like much, multiply it by 82 games, and it's the equivalent of playing five fewer games.
So when he plays 25 minutes and scores only 11 points like he did recently against Portland, Nowitzki is OK with that. He understands the more rest he gets now, the better he should be in the playoffs. Besides, Dallas is 4-0 this season when he scores 14 points or less.
"When you come in the league, you want to prove yourself," Nowitzki said. "But I've been an All-Star a bunch of times, and winning is the only thing that matters."