Commentary

'Elite' expectations are unfair

Mark Cuban needs to realize that age is chipping away at superstar Dirk Nowitzki

Updated: March 22, 2013, 9:24 AM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

So Mark Cuban believes Dirk Nowitzki can be an elite player for another three years.

He must think we're clueless. No other explanation makes sense.

Dirk is one of the best to ever play the game. Ask anyone. They'll tell you.

Just the other day, Dirk became just the 10th player in NBA history, including playoff games, to score 24,000 points and grab 9,000 rebounds.

Some of the others? Wilt. Kareem. Shaq.

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDirk Nowitzki needs help, and Andrew Bynum could go a long way to help him.

Impressive.

These days, though, Dirk is no longer an elite player. There's certainly no shame in that for a 34-year-old dude in his 15th NBA season. We're talking about a guy who has played more than 40,000 minutes and 1,200 games, while winning an MVP and leading the Mavs to a title.

We're just now seeing Father Time land an occasional jab.

Elite players get their points every single night -- and there's nothing the defense can do about it except hope he misses. Players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and a few others fit into that category.

From 2001 through last season, Dirk belonged in that category too, because when he had the ball at the free throw line, every defender was at his mercy. That's because Dirk could drive left or right and get to the basket. Or he could hit the step-back, one-legged fadeaway.

These days, Dirk gets his points some nights. He is averaging 16.4 points per game, his lowest average since his rookie season, and has scored more than 20 points just 12 times in 39 games.

There will be some nights when Dirk reverts to being a superstar, such as when he had 30 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and followed it with 21 points and 20 rebounds against Milwaukee.

And he's played well lately, making eight of 10 shots in two of the past three games, with a 7-for-11 performance between them. If the point guard play were better, Dirk could be even more effective.

"What we're seeing now with Dirk is what we can expect to see next year and the year after, if he stays healthy," Cuban told reporters recently. "And the year after that.

"Is Kevin Garnett a role player? Is Tim Duncan a role player? Do you think Tim Duncan is going to be a role player next year? You think Kevin Garnett is going to be a role player next year? And those guys are based more on athleticism than Dirk is, you know?"

Whatever.

The Celtics don't ask Garnett or 35-year-old Paul Pierce to be their best player. Point guard Rajon Rondo owns that title.

The Spurs don't ask Duncan or 35-year-old Manu Ginobili to be their best player. For now, point guard Tony Parker is the Spurs' best player.

At 34, Kobe Bryant remains the Los Angeles Lakers' best player, but he is surrounded by Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol -- not that it really matters.

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Jerome Miron/US PresswireDirk Nowitzki can still be "elite" on some nights, but this season has shown that he can no longer do it on an every-game basis for the Mavericks.

Kobe, like Michael Jordan, who averaged 20 points and shot 45 percent at age 40, is an exception.

Mamba blood courses through Bryant's veins. He's not normal.

As great as he's been, Dirk is as mortal as most players.

Wilt Chamberlain averaged 13.2 points when he was 36 years old. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 12.0 when he was 37.

Garnett is averaging 14.9 points, down from his career average of 19.1. Elvin Hayes averaged 12.9 at 37, down from his career average of 21.0.

Only Karl Malone, who averaged 23.2 points at age 37, maintained his peak performance almost until the end of his career.

Plus, Dirk has had injury issues each of the past two seasons. He missed the first 27 games of this season. Old players get hurt and take longer to recover. You should expect him to miss some games each season because of injury.

That's among the reasons why it's patently unfair to the greatest player this franchise has ever had to suggest he should still be one of the NBA's best players at the end of his career.

Remember, the narrative last summer was that the Mavs were going to get a "big fish" so Dirk wouldn't have to be the Mavs best player anymore. That's almost as bad as Cuban spending all summer pursuing free agent point guard Deron Williams then saying he really wasn't sure adding the point guard was a good idea.

That makes no sense.

Neither does putting unfair expectations for Dirk to be as good at the end of his career as he was in his prime.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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