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How Will the Dirk Nowitzki Era End?

After Germany lost to Spain and was eliminated from EuroBasket 2015, Dirk Nowitzki took a bow and soaked in what was most likely his last game in Germany and his last game for the German national team. At 37, Nowitzki may be done with his international basketball career, but not the NBA. Amid all the questions about retirement, he’s repeatedly said he intends to play out the final two years of his contract with Dallas before retiring. As the 2015-16 season approaches, one thing is for certain: Nowitzki will be returning to North Texas for at least one more year.

When he does hang up his sneakers, Nowitzki will be synonymous with the Mavericks. He turned around the fortunes of the franchise and brought them their only championship in 2011. He’s a 13-time All-Star, former Finals and NBA MVP, and arguably the greatest European basketball player of all time. Still, as he enters his 18th season, the question remains, how much does Nowitzki have left in the tank?

Last season was Nowitzki’s 17th season in the NBA, and by all accounts his worst season statistically since first breaking into the NBA in the 1998-99 season. He posted the lowest points (17.3), rebounds (5.9) and minutes (29.6) per game totals since his rookie season. The advanced metrics agree as well. Nowitzki’s 19.2 PER, 56 true shooting percentage and 7.2 Win Shares were the lowest he produced in any season in over a decade and a half (not counting the 2012-13 season in which he played just 53 games and posted 5.0 Win Shares).

Undoubtedly, the over 50,000 minutes of NBA basketball he’s played are catching up with the seven-footer. The numbers may be a bit disappointing, but when put into context with his age, Nowitzki is still performing at a remarkably high level.

With his average of 17.3 points per game in 2014-15, Nowitzki joined an elite list of players who put up 17.0-plus points per game at age 36 or older. He was also only the second player, along with Alex English, to post those numbers while playing less than 30 minutes per game, per Basketball-Reference.com. Impressive company, but when the playoffs came, Nowitzki took his game to another level.

Despite losing to the Rockets in five games, Nowitzki did all he could to extend the series and move Dallas on to the next round. He logged a 34-point game and two 13-plus-rebound efforts as he tried to will the Mavs to victory. In fact, his 21.2 points per game average made him only the fourth player in NBA history to average 20-plus points per game in the playoffs at age 36 or older. Add in his 10.4 rebounds per game and Nowitzki ranks as the only player over the age of 36 to post a 20/10 line in the playoffs. So how has he managed to stay relevant?

As Nowitzki has gotten older, he’s tweaked his offensive style to compensate for his declining skills. During Nowitzki’s prime (age 26-35), he could create more of his own shots as he backed players down or beat them off the dribble. Present day, Nowitzki is more reliant on his teammates to create his opportunities. From 2005-14, nearly half of his two-point shots were unassisted, while more than 71 percent of his field goals came off of teammates’ passes last year. His evolution into a secondary scoring option is also evidenced by his drop in usage rate from 29.2 only three years ago to 24.9 last season.

Even as his athletic ability fades, Nowitzki still maintains his shooting touch. One of the all-time best shooters, as evidenced by his membership in the 50-40-90 club (players who’ve shot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the line), Nowitzki is still a dangerous offensive weapon. He’s still able to connect on fallaways, step-back jumpers and set shots. He’s also taking more three-pointers. Only 16 percent of Nowitzki’s shots were three-pointers during the last decade while, in comparison, last season, 26 percent of his shots came from beyond the arc.

Despite his inefficiencies, and to his credit, Nowitzki has managed to maintain a prominent role in one the most efficient NBA offenses. Dallas ranked third in points per game (105.1) and fifth in offensive efficiency (109.5) last season. 2015-16 will not be much different, and Nowitzki will still be a big part of that, albeit as a complementary scoring option.

Nowitzki’s minutes in 2015-16 will likely not exceed 30 per game, as Dallas would like to keep the veteran fresh. Although with young guns Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews being eased back in from offseason surgeries and probably limited early on, Dallas may need the power forward to carry a bigger role the first quarter of the season. With Parsons and Matthews on the sidelines, Deron Williams and Devin Harris are the only players on the roster other than Nowitzki to average double-digit points in their career. That’ll lead to Nowitzki possibly being the top scoring option the first month or two of the season.

As we go deeper into the season, and Parsons and Matthews assume the primary scoring options, Nowitzki’s role on the court will lessen, but his off-the-court responsibility will grow. Much like he did with the German national team, Nowitzki will serve as a mentor for his younger teammates. Parsons, Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell will be able to pick the brain of the future Hall of Famer, much like Dennis Schroder and Tibor Pleiss did in Germany. While Nowitzki is the Mavericks’ past and present, he’ll also play a big part in bringing along and developing the Maverick stars of the future.

Much like Tim Duncan in San Antonio, the best statistical days are behind Nowitzki. While we may not see many more 20-point nights in Dallas, we’ll see one of the all-time greats fight to do everything in his ability to keep Dallas in its winning ways. The Mavericks will lean on him as a leader and mentor more than a scorer in 2015-16.

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