Punk’d

Dirk Nowitzki is feeling left out. The Dallas Mavericks debuted Jason Kidd in a return to his original team, albeit in a different shape than it once was. Dirk has been known in different forms throughout his career. Jason Kidd has (mostly) been known in one form: the staid, dishing, defensive guard from California who could find a way to win everywhere he went. Despite public dust-ups with both teammates and wife, Kidd could produce a triple double on a slow night, even while laboring in the swamps of the Garden State. Vince Carter’s star had long its iridescence when he arrived to the New Jersey Nets. Richard Jefferson’s bright promise never matched Jason’s expectations. Sadly, the Tall German won’t match them either. Dirk Nowitzki, since Steve Nash’s link with the Phoenix Suns, has been a player lost. When he ran with Nash and Finley, before they had been scooped up by other Western Conference giants, he remained idyllic and carefree. Don Nelson made sure that his only obligation was to his shot and the purity of the game. Nellie asked for him to be a guard in Frankenstein’s body, to remain svelte enough to beat forwards off the dribble, to rebound and defend at his leisure. In other words, keep the game simple and within your personal boundaries. Of course, billionaire Mark Cuban grew impatient with his green squad, and decidedly dispatched free-wheeling in favor of methodical.

Dirk wilted even as Most Valuable Player of the Association. Although long-time critics professed that his game had improved, (read: he traded some offense for occasional defense and intimidating grand-stands) his latest version was unable to produce the coveted chip. No ring for the Euro player quite yet. He was still “soft” supposedly. Adding Kidd as a companion is meant to instill some tenacity, but Dirk Nowitzki is not lacking for it. Any 25-point scorer with a rebounding appendage is tough. He inspires empathy, however, in the failure on the mountaintop. Pairing him with a lone gunmen doesn’t speak to the function of his game one bit. Kobe Bryant’s self-containment will absolutely suit Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, whose skills favor missed shots and inside presence. His egomaniac sprints and zigzags mold their straight-on bounds neatly. Although Jason Kidd and Steve Nash do similar things on the court, their attitudinal differences are too many for Dirk to ignore. Nash seems as if he could make a joke of The Game. It doesn’t wear capital letters when he plays. That is partly why he and Dirk were best friends and winners together: because neither of them would let that majestic specter of winning interfere with life itself. Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal would part with their loved ones for a cherished win. Dirk, for all his intensity, would not like to join that fraternity. Avery Johnson sees it another way. Mark Cuban sees it another way. Ironically, since Kidd bolted in the nineties, this has been Dirk’s team with no one content to defer to him. Josh Howard is incidentally good in the grand scheme of things, playing foil to Dirk’s tragic hero, but even he creates an impenetrable sphere in the process. Dirk stands thus alone. Two recent Dirk moments that stand out to me follow:

1. Dirk Nowitzki cannot muster twenty points against the stalwart Detroit defense. It bothered me because, as celebrated as Detroit’s defense is, the epitome of Playoff Basketball, they are not invincible. Kobe netted 39 against them; Joe Johnson, Antawn Jamison and Kevin Garnett all tallied at least twenty. Dirk Nowitzki has averaged 28.5 points and 24 points against them in the last two seasons respectively. He was timid, diffident in their encounter this year, barely getting to the level he’s accustomed to.

2. LeBron James does this.

Dirk Nowitzki’s half-hearted attempt at a block makes no sense here. He is not better than Dwight Howard at patrolling the painted area on defense. Why not let the young Superman handle that job? It’s like watching a little boy playing against an older sibling, almost sure he won’t alter the inevitable but earnest as hell. The past would’ve seen Dirk careering to the wing before that play even developed. Now, he’s occupying a role he cannot fathom.

FreeDarko and their legions have lamented this new Dirk Nowitzki out of sympathy. We do not tune in to watch him block shots, nor does his entertainment value sprout from being a deer in headlights. The upper limits of Dirk’s ferocity were reached when he drove into the lane on Spurs Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili, shedding them both with the ball passing through the hoop on a layup. The same year he had quieted the presumptive Tim Thomas in the Suns-Mavs series by outscoring him, not by shutting him down. It’s as if he doesn’t feel adequate following his loss in the 2006 Finals. He had never let his will to score overpower his preternatural smoothness until 2008.

Dirk Nowitzki somehow found himself on the MTV vehicle Punk’d three years ago. The show’s producers found the perfect way to crumple him. An actor who played an overzealous fan hounds him for autographs until he’s forced to refuse. There is no time lapse at screen bottom but we assume that after the lad trots out about 30 items for him to sign from a stuffed bag, that he’s endured about forty minutes of this ruse. To think, the way to get Dirk riled was to shove a signature seeker in his face and force him to say “no.” It seems his managers in Dallas are doing the same.

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