When a young German forward named Dirk Nowitzki got drafted in 1998, he knew very little about the Dallas Mavericks.
Dallas: “The only thing I knew about Dallas is watching the TV show with my parents.”
Mavericks: “I knew that they had been through tough times in the 90s.”
Dallas was still a relatively new NBA city. The Mavericks launched only 18 years earlier, and after a decent first decade in the shadow of the Showtime Lakers, Dallas fell on hard times. Between the 1990-91 and 1997-98 seasons, the Mavericks won just 27% of their games. That remains one of the worst eight-year stretches in NBA history.
Then, Nowitzki – through talent, personality and will – redefined the Dallas Mavericks.
Nowitzki announced his impending retirement yesterday. He’s the only player to spend 21 seasons with a team, but longevity doesn’t nearly capture his impact in Dallas. Nowitzki was an all-time great player and culture-setter. The Mavericks went from lousy to champions back to lousy as Nowitzki entered and exited his prime. Whatever prestige they hold, a huge amount of it rests on Nowitzki’s shoulders.
If the Celtics didn’t have Larry Bird, they still would have had Bill Russell. If the Lakers didn’t have Kobe Bryant, they still would have had Magic Johnson. If the Spurs didn’t have Tim Duncan, they still would have had David Robinson
The Mavericks had Nowitzki. Without him, their history might rank among the league’s saddest.
Using a player’s win shares and his team’s all-time win total, Nowitzki alone accounted for 13.1% of Dallas’ victories. That trails only Kevin Garnett’s 14.5% with the Timberwolves.
Here are each franchise’s leader in percentage of wins accounted for by their win-share leader:
In the playoffs, Nowitzki’s mark was even higher – 25.4%. That trails only Kevin Garnett (31.1% with the Timberwolves) and LeBron James (25.5% with the Cavaliers).
Here are each franchise’s leader in percentage of playoff wins accounted for by their playoff win-share leader:
In an era of super teams, the accepted wisdom says stacking stars is necessary to win a title.
Nowitzki won without another star.
The Mavericks built a nice supporting cast in 2011: Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and even J.J. Barea. But none of them were stars. Yet, Nowitzki led Dallas over the LeBron-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat – to that point, the most super-charged of all super teams.
Nowitzki brought the Mavericks into the pantheon of franchises with a championship and forever altered his own reputation. Tagged soft earlier in his career, Nowitzki proved his mettle on the biggest stage.
It was an incredible reward for a player and franchise that believed in each other far longer than most would. Nowitzki won his first title in his 13th season. Nobody else has ever stayed with his original team that long then won his first championship.
Jerry West won his first title in his 12th season with the Lakers – after they added Wilt Chamberlain.
Garnett, the only player who ranks ahead of Nowitzki on both those percent-of-win charts, didn’t win a championship until leaving Minnesota for the Celtics. He remains pivotal to the history of the Timberwolves, but a large part of his legacy lies in Boston.
There’s no such debate with Nowitzki. He’s a Maverick, through and through.
Of course, Nowitzki’s legacy extends far beyond Dallas. He was a pioneer who changed perception of international players. It doesn’t seem coincidental the Mavericks are building around Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis as Nowitzki exits. Even on a global scale, Nowitzki’s impact returns to its local influence.
Nowitzki wasn’t the greatest player of his generation. That was LeBron.
Nowitzki wasn’t the greatest power forward of all-time. That was Duncan.
Nowitzki wasn’t the great international player ever. That was Hakeem Olajuwon or, depending how you’re counting, Duncan.
But Nowitzki was the best franchise player the Dallas Mavericks ever could have asked for.