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Nothin' but Net: All hail the mighty Dirk

<p>After his prayer, bank-shot buzzer- beater to top the New York Knicks on Monday night, it seems an appropriate time to pay homage to Dirk Nowitzki.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After his prayer, bank-shot buzzer- beater to top the New York Knicks on Monday night, it seems an appropriate time to pay homage to Dirk Nowitzki.

The German stud, destined to the Hall of Fame at his earliest convenience, is enjoying yet another All-Star campaign, his 12th in the last 13 seasons. The only absence occurred last season, when a knee injury limited him to only 53 games.

That's right, folks, a 35-year-old, one year removed from knee surgery, is still one of the game's 10 most dominant players.

The idea that Nowitzki is still so good is not an unprecedented phenomenon. Tim Duncan, one of only two men, alongside Kevin Garnett, who can call themselves a contemporary of Nowitzki's at the forward position in this era, was first-team, All-NBA last season when he was 36.

Duncan didn't have major knee surgery before his career renaissance. Duncan also didn't have to do all of the heavy lifting Nowitzki has. Sure, Dirk has played alongside future Hall of Famers, like Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, but neither was truly still in his prime.

Duncan has a pair of all-timers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili by his side. Parker is still a top-10 player in the NBA when healthy, so Duncan hasn't had to shoulder the load Nowitzki has.

Nowitzki also hasn't enjoyed the team success Duncan has. "The Big Fundamental" has four championship rings. Nowitzki has one.

As for Garnett, he became primarily a defensive force his third season in Boston. Garnett still has a big place in this league, but not nearly at the level Nowitzki still occupies.

No comparison was brought up to rank Nowitzki versus Duncan or Garnett. Nowitzki was never, not on his best day, the defensive player either of his peers were, or still are.

But neither of those players is as vital to the current form of their team as Nowitzki. Garnett is a part-time player at best for the Brooklyn Nets and Duncan is still pretty awesome, but it's Parker's team. Both Garnett and Duncan get time off from their coaches. Nowitzki doesn't.

Those are just the forwards of Nowitzki's era still kicking. Kobe Bryant's season was six games. Steve Nash should retire immediately. All of these players except for Bryant are older than Dirk, but Dirk's season following the knee injury hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Probably because it much of the same from the unflashy, yet somehow exquisite Nowitzki.

Nowitzki's game was never as physical as Duncan's, Garnett's or even Bryant's. The first two players were bangers, but also had above-average perimeter games. Bryant's game was based on superhuman athletic ability.

Nowitzki was the guy who knew how to maximize his physical ability. He was never the strongest man in the fight. He was not quicker than your grandmother's bingo competitors.

Nowitzki shoots the ball from so high up, he's impossible to block. His jab step moves are legendary, creating just enough space so that his fadeaway is completely indefensible. Just ask Carmelo Anthony.

That's perhaps why Nowitzki has stood the test of time so well. He uses his body so effectively that defenders still can't contest anything he does legitimately. And that one-foot jumper step back is the most graceful thing to watch since Fred and Ginger.

Take Monday's game-winner. Anthony did a perfectly acceptable job defending Nowitzki, but at 7-feet tall, Nowitzki just shot it over him.

"He just hit a hell of a shot," Knicks coach Mike Woodson. "I mean, what can you say?"

Nothing at this point. Once Nowitzki gets the ball near the top of the key, shut out the lights. It's going in more frequently than not.

This is not Nowitzki's best season statistically. At 35, can you blame him? But he is averaging 21.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 49.4 percent from the floor, 40.4 percent from long range and 91.5 percent from the foul line.

His career averages are 22.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 47.6 field-goal percentage, 38.3 percent from 3-point land and 87.9 from the free-throw line. There is decline in Nowitzki's numbers, but he's only playing 32 minutes a night, which is almost four minutes less than his career average. We'll call that head coach Rick Carlisle's allowance for Nowitzki's age and knees.

And here's one for the analytics guys - his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is ninth in the NBA, ahead of Blake Griffin, Steph Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Nowitzki still has his Dallas squad in the playoff race. Last season, the Mavs missed the postseason for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, which was Nowitzki's second in the league.

During that playoff run, Dirk led the Mavs to 620 regular-season wins in 11 seasons, or an average of 56 wins a season. He misses significant time in one season and the Mavs fall all the way to the lottery. That's no coincidence.

This season, the Mavs are 35-23 in the preposterously difficult Western Conference. They are the seventh seed and four games out of a home first-round series. If Dallas was in the East, management would be printing home playoff tickets.

It would be far too simple to say that Nowitzki's return is the only thing that has taken a 41-41 team a season ago to a dozen games over that mark now. Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon get some credit, too, but Nowitzki is still the best player and the one called upon to put the team on his back.

It will be an interesting summer for Nowitzki. He's a free agent at season's end. This season and last will net the German over $40 million.

It's 50/50 who'd leave Dallas first, the Cowboys or Nowitzki. Will he go the Duncan route and take a team-friendly $10 million per with a three-year deal or the Kobe route and take Mark Cuban for another $40 million or so?

The Mavs haven't been able to attract free agents as they thought. Dwight Howard and Deron Williams passed through, so maybe Nowitzki should pocket a $20 million-a-year deal as a pre-retirement gift.

Or maybe, with his devastating array of slow, yet brutally effective ball fakes and juke moves, he's around a lot longer.

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