Where do the Dallas Mavericks go for the next six weeks without Dirk Nowitzki? Well, they can either sink, and who would blame them if they did, or use this extended break from No. 41 to come out better on the other side.
No team wants to lose its franchise player, and for those franchises lacking a second or third Big Fish, what happened Friday to the Mavs is usually devastating. Nowitzki went under the knife to have his bothersome right knee scoped. He’s not expected to resume on-court activities for about six weeks.
Not only will Dirk miss the first Opening Night of his 15-year career, he’s erased from the starting lineup for the whole of November. That’s a minimum of 16 games or 20 percent of the season before the Mavs hit December.
And don’t necessarily think Nowitzki will be ready to go Dec. 1 when Detroit visits American Airlines Center. He should just be getting cleared then to get on the court then, so there’s the issue of practicing and getting back in basketball shape.
Maybe that process takes another two weeks. Now Nowitzki has missed another seven games – more than a quarter of the season lost – and a good part of December could be gone before No. 41 takes a meaningful shot. Dallas might be buried in the standings in a top-heavy Western Conference.
Losing franchise players have a tendency to cripple rotations, not to mention team psyche. The Mavericks have enjoyed the luxury for more than a decade of not being without Dirk for any significant amount of time.
“We’ve got to really buckle down,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. “Six weeks is a long time.”
Only once has Nowitzki missed more than six games in a season and that was two years ago. The Mavericks also happened to win their lone championship then. It would seem that treading water seems to be the best-case scenario for this extended absence.
But this can also be viewed as an opportunity. For a team with so many new pieces, this time could be used to build chemistry and cohesion for players that could have easily leaned on Dirk in the early going. (Imagine is this team was built around just Dirk and Deron Williams?)
Players stepping up the fill the void is a common them in sports. For newcomers such as Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, this is a chance for the new starting backcourt to take on more of the offensive load without worrying about deferring to Dirk.
Same holds true for the frontcourt. Chris Kaman and Nowitzki’s replacement at power forward, Elton Brand, also have the benefit of having played together for five years as Los Angeles Clippers. As Carlisle said at the opening of camp, if Kaman zigs, Brand knows to zag.
Veterans such as Shawn Marion and Vince Carter can embrace more ownership in the interim. This is an opening for rookie fan favorite Jae Crowder to show off his energy and hustle.
“We’re going to have to make up for it in other areas,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to have to play with grit and guts, and we’re going to have to raise our level of efficiency in all areas.”
A look at the schedule should also give some hope. Eight of Dallas’ first 12 foes were lottery teams last season. Should the Mavericks get through November at, say, 8-8 with Nowitzki on the verge of returning that’s a huge shot of confidence going forward.
If the Mavs do just that and Nowitzki comes back as strong as ever, the Mavericks could be in the enviable position of working Dirk back in slowly with the majority of the season still to come. There’s no reason to believe the 11-time All-Star won’t be healthy. Few players have Dirk’s work ethic.
Much can happen in the next six weeks without Nowitzki. The Mavericks just have to make it happen.