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Dirk Nowitzki.

Dirk Nowitzki gears up for his last ride round the NBA

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One shot from the left corner. A couple from the top. Then a miss from the right.

“One more go,” Dirk Nowitzki demands.

A make but a miss. So the shooting challenge must reset again with Harrison Barnes and a clutch of the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff on the receiving end of what is now a more finely-tuned trash task than the German could manage when he first arrived in the NBA 19 years ago.

“They still can’t stop me,” he laughs as his former but long-retired running mate Michael Finley urges him on. They can - almost an hour after official practice has ended – but it requires player development coach Brad Davis to tell the ball boy to take the rack away so that Nowitzki, wringing with both sweat and a seemingly boundless energy, is compelled to relent.

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies

He has gone above and beyond. Whatever it takes to get ready for a game, a new season, a new crop of younger hopefuls intent on cutting the man now regarded as Europe’s finest-ever basketballing export down to size.

Eight months away from his 40th birthday, Nowitzki jogs up and down the floor with the gait of someone entering their 24th professional campaign but the dedication to the craft has kept any degradation in his skills to an absolute minimum.

Competition

It is a 365-day a year effort now, he concedes. However not a huge burden, the future Hall of Famer proclaims, while the enjoyment remains.

“The competing is still fun,” he told GiveMeSport on the eve of the 2017-18 campaign. “Obviously the summer workouts sometimes are not. There is some frustration involved if the body doesn’t come along like you hope.

“But all that is behind now. I’m feeling fine and looking forward to any other season. And once the games start, there are fans in the stands. That will always be fun.

“Some of the other stuff: the stretching the weights, the work-outs, stuff like that can get a little old in the summers. But the season is still fun.”

Enough that he has resisted retirement. Or the potent lure of chasing a second NBA title elsewhere when the offers would have flooded in, embracing instead a loyalty which is increasingly scarce in today’s NBA of superteams and superstars swapped around.

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks

It is one which will see him eventually walk away having played for a single team during a career in the league which began when he arrived as the ninth overall Draft choice in 1998, virtually unknown outside of Wurzburg, the hometown club where he was nurtured and shaped.

Improvements Needed

It seems a certainty that the Mavs, fresh off a 33-49 season, will not be contending before he calls it quits, not in a Western Conference stacked beyond belief.

But that should not mean settling for the hallmark of a total rebuild, he affirms, that accepts defeat as a route to a brighter future that is never guaranteed.

“We have to be a little more consistent on both ends of the floor,” Nowitzki analyses. “Especially as we lost a lot of close games last year. There are going to be a lot of close games again this year and the little things make the difference.

“One little playcall offensively or defensively execution-wise can means a win or a loss. You have to pay attention to details.”

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks

A mantra echoed by his long-time head coach Rick Carlisle who can point to his veteran totem any time he views anyone sacrificing individualism for collectivism when their 13-time All Star has shown a willingness to adapt to whatever is required.

Moving position, for one.

“He played 95% of his career at the four,” Carlisle relates. “And he was a ridiculously difficult match-up because of his size, shooting ability and how he can stretch the floor. But the game is evolving all the time.

“As he’s getting older, the last couple of years playing the five has been a better situation for him and our team.”

Evolution

Evolution is a necessary constant. The Mavs are high on the abilities of their rookie point guard Dennis Smith – like Nowitzki, chosen ninth on Draft night – and the teen’s arrival will likely raise the tempo and provide rejuvenation in Dallas.

His athleticism, the German says, can be explosive. An ability to finish with either hand supplemented by a developing floor game that should served Smith well.

But, he adds, “it’s hard for any position coming into this league but as a point guard, everything’s thrown at you. Not only do you have to know your own position but the point guard has to know the whole flow of the game.

“He has to know where every position is moving whereas everyone else needs to know your spot. We’ve thrown a lot at him in three weeks but he’s responded well. And I think if he stays healthy and he keeps working, the sky is the limit for him. He’s only 19. He’s only going to get better."

The Euros are Coming

Just as Nowitzki did during an uncertain first NBA term before he broke out into the mainstream and then rose above.

Back then, lest we forget, Euro ballers were still thin on the ground. Regarded suspiciously as soft or slow, huge risks with no evident reward.

A full generation later, he has helped to rewrite the narrative in collaboration with the likes of Pau Gasol and Tony Parker.

More have crossed the Atlantic since, many inspired by a trio who proved themselves as good as any America could produce.

The future, Nowitzki says, is in safe hands with the Old Continent in plentiful supply of candidates to take the torch onward.

”Giannis (Antetokounmpo) is probably as good as it’s going to get. What an unbelievable player. Athletic. Length. He can basically play 1 through 5 all in one game. That’s how talented he is.

“And then there’s plenty more coming. Even (Lauri) Markkanan looks great in Chicago. (Kristaps) Porzingis in New York is already on his way to being a star in the league. European basketball took huge steps since I came into this league.

“20 years ago, we had a few. Now basically every team has one (player) – but it’s not only Europe. All over the world, basketball is growing – it’s been fun to watch.”

Yet if you want to witness the end-product of the European influence on the NBA, then arguably it nestles on the west coast of the USA with a distinctly American accent.

Ball movement, jump shooting, finesse were all concepts recently observed more commonly in Belgrade and Vilnius rather than in Boston or Los Angeles.

The Golden State Warriors are the genesis of the revolution, deserved favourites to retain their NBA title and admired by so many for fusing A-List talent with top-class creativity.

New York Knicks v Cleveland Cavaliers

Nowitzki, once thought unconventional but now a prototype for the Dubs’ fluid cast of weaponised performers, can stand back and appreciate what they have become.

“They’re the perfect team for our rules now,” he proclaims. “Maybe 20 years ago, when there was more hand-checking, more physical play, more bigger guys, I’m not sure if they wouldn’t have fared that well.

“But in this game in this day and age, when you can’t touch anybody, it’s all perimeter, it’s all spread, they are as good as it gets. They’ve got amazing shot makers from anywhere close to half-court. Once they get across half-court, they can make shots.

“They’ve got the right mix of size and guys who can switch. They’re right up there with the greatest teams I’ve ever seen.”

And they seem poised to enhance their legend for a good few years yet. Probably past the day when Nowitzki eventually calls time on his compulsion to keep pushing himself through one further drill or one extra season and chooses a next life with other distractions.

What's Next?

He signed a two-deal contract worth a reported £7.5 million ($10m) this past summer. It will likely be his last. But what happens when the shoes are packed away remains something to consider on a different day.

“I’m going to stick around basketball somehow,” he confirms. “I’m not sure what, when and where.

“I think I’m going to enjoy my family for a few years first – we have little kids. I’m going to enjoy spending some time with them and raising them. And then eventually though something has to come.

“You can’t just sit around at home all the time but I’m going to stick around basketball. I just don’t know what function yet.”

Until then, he’ll keep sweating. Keep talking. Keep trying.

And stay poised for one more go.

Topics:
NBA
Western Conference
Dirk Nowitzki
Dallas Mavericks
Southwest Division

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