SLAM Top 50: Dirk Nowitzki, No. 38

Every single year, we have the same discussion with Dirk Nowitzki. He keeps getting older, and he keeps having big years. Sure, he’ll show the occasional sign of slowing down, but Dirk just churns out big seasons and carries the Mavs to the postseason.

But like clockwork, all anyone ever wants to discuss during the lead-up to the season is whether this is it for Dirk. They’ll say he’s getting older. They’ll say his team is getting worse, and he can’t carry a team like he used to when he was one of the best basketball players on earth. They’ll point to the fact that his minutes are declining, that his shooting numbers from the field keep going down little by little, all that stuff.

So instead, let’s talk about why we think Dirk is the 38th-best player in the NBA heading into this season.

Dirk rules. Dirk has always ruled. Even though, yes, his numbers aren’t what they were a decade ago, he still gets buckets—his 18.3 points per game were the most on the Mavs by a pretty comfortable margin last year. Hell, prior to 2014-15 when Monta Ellis was Dallas’ highest scorer, the last time someone other than Dirk led the team in scoring was Michael Finley in 1999-00. Dirk still averaged 17.5 a game that year.

He just keeps producing, even as the dudes around him in Dallas fluctuate. He never complains about the team’s lack of a second star as he gets older and his window for winning another title keeps closing—if anything, he wants to do everything he can to help the Mavericks win a title, as evidenced by the fact that he always takes less money so the team can go get other players (Dirk got paid this offseason, and when asked about it, Mark Cuban said, “Dirk gets to do whatever he wants to do, period, end of story…Dirk has done so much for this franchise that he’s earned that opportunity.”

And really, why is this supposed to be the year that Dirk falls off? Take a look at his per-36 numbers for the course of his career, this dude has been a model of consistency since he stepped into the league. Plus part of the reason that people are so bearish about our favorite 7-foot, bucket-getting German is that he has to “carry his team” because the dudes around him are so…not great.

Well, that argument is kind of off the table this year. It’s usually off the table because Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the NBA when it comes to getting the most out of his players, but let’s take him out of the equation. Dirk’s supporting cast this year includes a rejuvenated Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut.

That’s the best starting five around Dirk since the year Dallas won the title, no? That’s not to say that the Mavs are destined for a Championship this year, but it does mean that some of the pressure to carry Dallas is off of Dirk. Instead, he can just focus on scoring (which he does really well), shooting the ball better than any 7-footer ever (ditto), and rebounding (he pulled down 7.4 per 36 minutes last year, his highest mark since 2012-13).

Oh, and being the 38th-best player in the NBA. But let’s face it: It’s Dirk. Knowing him and knowing how this whole thing usually works, he’ll end up being in the top-20, because just when you think he’s cooked, he does something incredible.

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

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