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Players' vote proves respect for Dirk

A foolish theory about the Mavericks’ failure to hook a big fish in free agency the last couple of summers is that stars don’t want to play with Dirk Nowitzki.

Some speculate that American-born stars don’t relate to Nowitzki because of a cultural gap, noting that he didn’t develop bonds with his peers by playing AAU ball and traveling the summer circuit as a teen. How lazy and ludicrous.

Few players in the NBA are respected as much as Nowitzki or considered more ideal teammates. For proof, look at the results of the voting by players around the league for Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award. Nowitzki finished third, behind Miami’s Shane Battier and Charlotte’s Al Jefferson.

It’s worth noting that players weren’t allowed to vote for current teammates. This voting reflects the perception around the league of Nowitzki, one of the most selfless stars in sports.

Players like Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, and to a lesser extent Chris Paul, considered coming to Dallas in large part because of Nowitzki’s presence. That’s also the primary reason that Jason Kidd forced a trade to the Mavs that was orchestrated by his agent. And Monta Ellis might not have had many suitors last summer, but he was ecstatic about the opportunity to run pick-and-pops with Nowitzki.

The fact that Nowitzki, who is admittedly in the golden years of his career, dealt with knee problems the previous two seasons might not have helped the Mavs’ cause the last two summers. Williams, in particular, voiced concern about the state of the Mavs’ roster if Dirk declined due to health and age.

Those kinds of concerns have been eased by Nowitzki staying healthy all season, earning his 12th invitation to an All-Star Game. Sure, Nowitzki turns 36 this summer, but it seems like a solid bet that he still has two or three very good to great seasons left in him.

And he’ll do it at a drastically reduced salary. Nowitzki has avoided discussing specific numbers – perhaps that subject will come up during the Las Vegas getaway he’s going on with Mark Cuban this week – but it stands to reason he’ll sign for something in the range of a Tim Duncan discount deal. That would more than slash his salary in half after making $22.7 million last season, leaving the Mavs room to add at least one major piece to a core headlined by the Nowitzki/Ellis combo.

Will that piece be a big fish? Probably not. There might not even be one in the pond, depending on whether LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony decide to opt out of their contracts. But there will certainly be several players who could help the Mavs move up from the eighth seed to somewhere in the middle of the West playoff pack.

Those players will be intrigued by the possibility of playing with Nowitzki, who remains the Mavs’ best asset during the season and the summer.