A couple of days ago, a couple of losses ago, Dirk Nowitzki tried to put some “pep in the step’’ (a favorite slogan of his) of MFFL’s by announcing that “It’s too early to hang our heads.’’
OK. But how about now? Can we drag-asses, slack-jaws, droop-shoulders, hang-heads NOW?
The Dallas Mavericks are 1-5, and they teeter on that dangerous cliff upon which it doesn’t matter how they got here — doesn’t matter that guys have been injured, doesn’t matter that two of their losses came on the road, one in OT, one by a point, doesn’t matter that this last two weeks represent only the first step across the starting line of an NBA marathon — because apathy looms and lethargy looms.
Maybe they win at the Lakers tonight. (A 9:30 tip on Fox Sports Southwest and 103.3 FM and we discuss it all here.) Would that cure the ailment?
“Apathy’’ is the dirtiest word in Mark Cuban’s dictionary. Of all the under-the-hood repairs he did on this jalopy of a franchise almost two decades ago, luring Mavs fans in DFW and across the country and really, across the planet, to engage in Dallas Basketball remains the grandest. … bigger even than the NBA title in 2011, because winning was simply a joyous offspring from the investment of caring, from the opposite of apathy.
But in a standings hole, and with Dirk now sidelined with an Achilles problem that will limit him to expensive size XXXXXX-long suits for the next week or more? I cannot blame you if you fail to watch replays of the games as I know you do when Dallas is winning. (Yes, I’ve seen the TV ratings and having been a part of the FOX Sports Southwest telecasts for five seasons, and now part of them anew as I'll be broadcasting Texas Legends games there, they pain me.) I cannot blame you if you opt to not buy a ticket, if you let yourself get caught up in Cowboys or Stars, or taking up knitting or rearranging your sock drawer.
I cannot blame you if you are less enthusiastic about Mavs Donuts at DB.com than you've been at most times in the last 17 years, because you know they might be all about "12 Reasons We Sucked Last Night.''
But “apathy’’ is about you. “Lethargy’’ is about them.
Coach Rick Carlisle insists his team has the right stuff.
“We’re having struggles, but when you’re down some guys, and guys are banged up and so on, this is what happens and just every day is a 'Circle-The-Wagons' day,” Carlisle said in between the sandwiched loss to the Blazers on Friday and Sunday's OT win over the Bucks. “It’s 'hold the line and find a way.' I like our locker room. Our guys, to me, categorically, are fighters. And we’ll fight our way through this.”
But even “fighters’’ need something to fight for.
And now they don’t have their leader to help them fight … which leads me to wonder about Dirk Nowitzki and his Point of No Return — literally, what and when is his “point of not returning’’?
Nowitzki is the pride of DFW, the best of us, and not just in a sporting way. He’s Staubach with an accent. But Staubach isn’t still playing football, is he?
And so I wonder if we are getting a glimpse of the end … the point of no return for Dirk’s season, and maybe, for his career.
“It’s been the same for a week now,” Nowitzki said of the lack of progress with his sore Achilles. “I gets better on days off. And as soon as I go out there, push off, try to show on pick-and-rolls or run backwards, all that stuff is uncomfortable and sore, so we decided to shut it down. It makes no sense to keep dragging this for weeks. It really hasn’t gotten better, so we’re going to take a few days off, not get on the court and not do the things that make it sore. Hopefully it will be better in a couple of days and I can ramp it back up. But for now, that’s where we’re at.”
Dirk said something else, though.
"I'm already, at 38, not moving great as it is. To be out there on one leg is really not helping myself. It's not helping the team."
Ah, 38. Playing on a contract ballyhooed as being “two years and $50 million’’ when DallasBasketball.com has tried to explain that it’s not that at all, that is includes escape hatches for the team financially … and the same escape hatch for the player, too, should he decide that maybe, just maybe, playing in 2017-18 and 2018-19 — as much as his head and his heart might wish that — wouldn’t “really be helping myself or helping the team.’’
We'll learn more about the truth of Dirk's contract this summer.
But before we leap to the future: What about 2016-17? At what point does Dallas’ “circling of the wagons’’ become so obviously ineffective, record-wise, that the organization is forced to consider alternatives?
The Mavs Triangle of Trust, Cuban, Carlisle and Donnie Nelson, are not “Team Tank’’ advocates. But sometimes, these things occur on their own, gradually, naturally. I coined the term “Organic Tanking’’ for the 2015 Cowboys, a true Super Bowl contender until they lost Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. By December, their fate was clear. They could measure the heart of their roster, discover the talent of their youngsters and offer rehab to the oldsters.
The Cowboys finished 4-12, a mirror image of their record the previous year. Their reward for Organic Tanking? The drafting of Ezekiel Elliott, the single greatest reason the Cowboys are back atop the NFL heap.
Tanking in the NBA doesn’t work the way it does in the NFL. The pain (featuring apathy and lethargy) are more intense and the rewards are more vague. How many Ezekiel Elliotts do you think exist in the 2017 NBA Draft? How many Joel Embiids do the Sixers have on their still lousy roster?
So before I go there … I want the Mavericks to make a true assessment of what they are and where they are going, with Dirk playing eventually healthy, with Dirk playing not fully healthy and with Dirk not playing much at all for 2016-17.
I don’t yet have the answer, but I know I’ve got the question: If more “hanging heads’’ are in the Mavs’ future, should Dallas consider Dirk’s “Point of No Return’’ to be … now?