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Western Conference Insider: Dirk era nearing end in Dallas?

By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted Jan 21 2009 6:20PM

Will Dirk Nowitzki be this summer's Kevin Garnett, or maybe next February's Pau Gasol? Stay with the premise for a second.

This is not to suggest that the Mavericks are on the verge of trading their franchise player. It's just suggesting that at some point in the future, Dallas may have to consider cutting ties with its all-time leading scorer.

If Mark Cuban's team continues to slide as Nowitzki continues to age, moving the former MVP could become a legitimate option. Nowitzki agrees, pointing to the departures of former teammates and close friends Steve Nash and Michael Finley.

"When Nashy left and Fin left, some guys said they would never trade me and I'm untouchable," Nowitzki told NBA.com. "I said, 'Screw that.' If they can get Kobe tomorrow or Shaq in his prime five or six years ago, you've got to be stupid not to do it.

"Whatever Cuban wants to do, he's running the show, it's his franchise, he spends a lot of money every year on us, and if they can get better by getting rid of me and want somebody else, have a shot at a franchise player, then just go right ahead."

Nowitzki's tone was hardly defiant. He just laid out his thoughts in a matter-of-fact chat after a recent Dallas home game. Nowitzki's contract expires in 2011, though he can opt-out after next season and join the blockbuster 2010 class.

Europe's greatest NBA export is not actively looking to leave Dallas. But the precedents set by a pair of 7-footers who took their former franchises as far as they could go makes the concept, at the very least, viable.

Gasol was Memphis' first-ever All-Star and guided the Grizzlies to their only three winning seasons (2003-06) before growing frustrated. He was traded to the Lakers last February.

Nowitzki appears to have more in common with Garnett. The Timberwolves were a perennial playoff team with KG that peaked in 2004 with a trip to the Western Conference finals. Minnesota's management broke up that team, and three straight non-playoff seasons followed. Garnett was traded to Boston two summers ago.

"I'm sure he was frustrated there when he went to the Western Conference and went backwards," Nowitzki said of Garnett. "They got rid of Sam [Cassell] and Latrell [Sprewell], and didn't make the playoffs for a couple of years. As a competitor that's obviously tough to swallow."

Dallas hasn't sunk to Minnesota's level, but the last two seasons haven't been easy on Nowitzki. After coming apart in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavs have gone through a pair of first-round flameouts. The 2007 team went 67-15 before being upset by eighth-seeded Golden State. Dallas slipped to seventh in the West last year and was ousted by New Orleans.

The Mavs could be in a dogfight just to qualify for the upcoming postseason. Dallas hit the season's midpoint on pace to win 48 games. The franchise last failed to win 50 in 1999-2000, Nowitzki's second year.

Many believe Dallas needs a shakeup before the Feb. 19 trade deadline to jumpstart this season. Last year's Devin Harris-Jason Kidd swap didn't do the trick.

"Maybe one more piece can change our momentum," Nowitzki said. "We'll see what happens until the deadline. If nothing happens, we'll go to war with what we've got."

It was suggested to a team insider that these Mavs could be the Utah/Seattle/Portland teams of the 1990s, teams on the championship brink that couldn't close the deal. His response: "I wish we were that good."

The nagging question around Dallas is this: How many teams in a three-year cycle of diminishing returns suddenly experience a renaissance? Especially one that hasn't made any significant roster changes, other than the much-scrutinized Kidd trade.

Dealing Nowitzki before his contract is up could be a preemptive strike with the goal of keeping Dallas relevant. Considering his $20 million yearly price tag, Nowitzki could fetch considerable talent and draft picks.

Nowitzki has a preference.

"I've been here a long time and I want to win a championship here," he said. "To win it somewhere else probably won't feel the same because I poured my heart and soul out here for the last 10 years. That would be the ultimate to win it here.

"Other than that I can't control anything else. I'd love to play here, I want to make it work here and we'll just see what the future brings. I'm certainly not looking to bail out."

Some close to Nowitzki maintain he's not as tied down to Dallas as those on the outside believe. His closest friends in the organization are staff members, not players. While his relationship to former coach Avery Johnson deteriorated, Nowitzki hasn't connected with Rick Carlisle. Several veteran players are underwhelmed with the new coach's methods, including with practices they say accomplish little.

The Mavs, obviously, aren't shopping Nowitzki. Cuban has said as much, though he did let Nash and Finley walk. "If I could trade Dirk for Kobe, LeBron and someone else, you'd have to consider it," Cuban told reporters.

And a rival Western Conference general manager doesn't think Nowitzki is in Garnett's boat ... yet.

"I feel like he's untouchable," the GM said. "I've never had a sense Dallas would move him. Teams make it known, especially a team like Minnesota that was having lean times. The Mavericks are a good team. If they weren't a good team, then that would be different."

Nowitzki will be 32 before the 2010-11 season tips off. Can the Mavs retool and reopen their title-contending window, as the Spurs have done around Tim Duncan and the Lakers around Kobe Bryant? Is the lure of Nowitzki enough to bring a prized free agent or two to Dallas?

And if the Mavericks suffer another two playoff disappointments, or miss the playoffs altogether, will Nowitzki pack up 12 years of memories and chase the ring elsewhere? Garnett, a former MVP himself, has one now. Gasol could soon follow.

"We'll have to see what's going on the next two years," Nowitzki said. "I think the 2010 class is unbelievable. There are only certain teams that have room, so I don't know if it's worth it. I don't know if I should opt-out and see what's out there or sign here longer for less money. At this point, my [preference] is to make this work."

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