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'Body,' not Mavs record, will decide when Dirk Nowitzki calls it quits

Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images

DALLAS -- Even the career of "The Big Mummy" doesn't stand a chance against Father Time.

Dirk Nowitzki has embraced the nickname bestowed upon him by big-mouthed former teammate and current Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Darrell Armstrong, even participating in a spoof video shown on the arena big screens during games earlier this season.

The self-deprecating Nowitzki's stiffness is both a source of comedic fodder and a serious issue for the Mavs and their future Hall of Famer, as there's nothing funny about all the time Nowitzki needs to spend maintaining his body -- stretching regimens, massages, strength and conditioning work -- to get on the floor.

"He's got to do so much to keep himself going to be able to play with us," said Mavs reserve guard J.J. Barea, the only other player on the current roster who was part of the 2011 championship team. "I know he's having a tough time with his body ...

"It's a full-time job."

Year 20 could potentially be it for Nowitzki, who has matched Kobe Bryant's record for longest career while playing for only one franchise. Nowitzki, however, hopes to play at least one more year.

"It's how the body feels," Nowitzki told ESPN, adding that the Mavs' place in the standings won't play a part in his decision.

"I'd love to play every game. I'm not sure how realistic it is, but that's how I approached the season. I want to be out there, want to move and want to be out there with the guys. We'll just have to sit and relax [after] I play through the season and see how I feel. Probably that decision won't be made until the summer."

"He's still complaining like he's 82 years old, still cracking jokes and giving people s---. He's still Dirk."

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

The Mavs hold a team option for the second season of the two-year, $10 million deal Nowitzki signed over the summer. There is zero question about whether Nowitzki, as loyal as anyone who has ever played in the league, would be welcomed back. The Mavs control the contractual option, but the decision is Nowitzki's to make.

"I hope so," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said when asked whether he believes Nowitzki will opt to play next season at age 40. "I think there's a really good chance he is [coming back], because he wants to break the record for years with one team and be that one guy. Not many people have that opportunity.

"He's still having fun," Cuban added.

The camaraderie hasn't changed with Nowitzki as he's gotten older. He remains a relentless trash-talker in the locker room, around the facility, and on buses and planes, and never shies away from poking fun at himself.

Last week, Nowitzki playfully made a spectacle of himself by attempting the dribble moves made famous by Mavs player development coach God Shammgod.

"He's still complaining like he's 82 years old, still cracking jokes and giving people s---," Cuban said. "He's still Dirk."

For Nowitzki and the Mavs, the season hasn't been particularly rewarding so far. It didn't help that the Mavs had a busy early schedule and that training camp was cut by a week to start the regular season earlier, issues that caused grumbling from the 7-footer.

"That week of training camp they stole [from] me, I guess it was good for the schedule, but it wasn't good for me," Nowitzki said after Saturday night's home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, which followed three off days.

"I didn't feel good there the first week, but after that, it's been OK. Just the 11 [games] in 18 [nights] was a bit much. I had some swelling here and there, but this week was good for me."

Nowitzki's numbers -- averages of 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 41.4 percent from the floor -- are down significantly from last season (14.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 43.7 percent) and are the worst since his rookie year. He's playing primarily center instead of power forward as a concession to his increasingly limited mobility, to put it politely.

His mere presence still benefits the Mavs offensively, even though he's almost solely a catch-and-shoot threat at this age, no longer effective on the isolation and post-up plays he scored so many buckets on over the years. Dallas is a defensive disaster with Nowitzki on the floor, bleeding for an average of 117.3 points allowed per 100 possessions.

"He helps us cover some things on offense, and we've got to help him defensively some, too," coach Rick Carlisle said.

"But never underestimate greatness at any age."

The hometown discounts Nowitzki took didn't help the Mavericks land the established superstar(s) they needed to maintain their elite status following the run of 11 50-win seasons, a pair of Finals appearances and a title on the shoulders of the No. 6 scorer in NBA history.

Their misses and punts in the draft delayed the process of developing a core of young talent to give Dallas a chance to extend their winning window into another era, as the San Antonio Spurs did by passing the torch from Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard.

Oh, how things would have been different in Dallas if Cuban had listened to president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, when the Mavs got a lottery ticket after their long run of playoff appearances ended.

Nelson advised Cuban to take Giannis Antetokounmpo, an intriguing but raw Greek prospect, with the 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft, but Cuban's focus was on the salary cap entering the summer free-agency shopping period.

Cuban opted to trade down twice, saving about $400,000 in cap space, needing every penny to make a max run at Dwight Howard. Howard, of course, chose Houston over Dallas (and has made a couple of stops since then). Antetokounmpo indeed ended up being pretty dang good.

The big German passing the torch to the Greek Freak is an alternate reality. In actuality, the Mavs are in the early stages of a rebuilding project in Nowitzki's 20th season, sitting with the league's worst record at 2-12 despite 19-year-old rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr.'s flashes of brilliance.

Nowitzki is certainly not giving up. Dallas stumbled to a 2-13 start last season, with Nowitzki missing most of that time due to Achilles soreness. The Mavs still managed to position themselves as a playoff long shot late in the season, and he's hoping the current Mavs will put up a similar fight.

"As long as we compete, I think we have a decent team," Nowitzki said, noting that guard Seth Curry's return from a stress reaction in his leg will be a big boost.

"We just need to find a couple ways to sneak some [wins] out."