Forgotten but Not Gone: The Dallas Mavericks and the Afterlife of NBA Reputations

There are two separate timelines in the NBA: one for a basketball player’s career, and another for the things people say about a basketball player’s career. The second one moves much faster than the first, which is why the Eastern Conference finals feature former MVP LeBron James, age 26, trying to reclaim his status as the league’s best player from reigning MVP Derrick Rose, age 22—a series pitting the seven future titles James’ Miami Heat have been built to win against the four titles Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has predicted for Rose.

Meanwhile, over in the Western Conference, in slow time, Dirk Nowitzki—after 22,000 points scored and 10 consecutive All-Star games—has the Dallas Mavericks one win away from the finals. Alongside him is Jason Kidd, who leads all active players 11,578 assists and 2,477 steals in his career, the second and third most all-time, respectively.

It’s not just that Dallas is a haven for aging players; it’s that it’s a haven for forgotten story lines. Kidd took the New Jersey Nets to the finals two years in a row, when Kenyon Martin was still a plausible superstar and before Facebook existed. Who’s that springing out to double-team Oklahoma City’s 22-year-old superstar Kevin Durant, as Kidd forces him to his right? Shawn Marion, of the now-disbanded Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns. Back when the Suns were maybe going to sprint to a championship, Marion was supposed to be the next coming of Scottie Pippen.

There’s Peja Stojakovic, formerly of the Chris Webber Sacramento Kings. And DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood, last seen as role players on Gilbert Arenas’ up-and-coming Washington Wizards*. And coach Rick Carlisle, under whom the Indiana Pacers cryptodynasty collapsed in the 2004 brawl at Auburn Hills.

Or there’s the Mavericks franchise itself—owner Mark Cuban’s brash, new-money operation, bent on forcing its way into the league’s elite. Flat-screen TVs in the lockers, remember? But the Lakers and Spurs kept winning titles anyway, and the Mavs blew a lead in their lone finals appearance, and everybody stopped caring.

Yet the Mavericks never stopped winning 50 or 60 games a year —57 this season, not that anyone was counting. That gave the old people a better record than the 23-and-under Thunder, who were already crowned the next great team in the NBA.

The new thing is always more interesting than the old thing, and the game right now—even though it only has 10 players in it at once—seems bigger than its overall context, let alone the vague sweep of history. This is what made people say Rajon Rondo was the best player on the Celtics, more important than the three future Hall of Famers beside him. (Really? Give him John Wall’s minutes in Washington and see how that goes.) Tony Parker was the most unstoppable player on the Spurs. Chris Paul is the most dominant player in the NBA, when the Hornets are playing. Zach Randolph, two weeks ago, was the best power forward in the league. Sure, it helped that he had the now-formidable Marc Gasol beside him. ( Marc Gasol is totally better than Pau Gasol. )

You can come up with new ideas about reputation every day. Watch Oklahoma City’s point guard Russell Westbrook: a triple-double to close out Memphis…a fourth-quarter benching as the Thunder won a game against Dallas…a 30-point game in a loss to Dallas. What do you say about how good Westbrook is?

Or about Nowitzki? His coach, Carlisle, said after the Mavericks swept the Lakers that he was “a top 10 player in NBA history.” Well—WiltMagicJordan…RussellKareemBirdDuncan…OlajuwonShaq—mmmaybe? Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, yeah, no. History is long. But the thought does count. Nowitzki has led a historically worthless franchise to the playoffs year after year. Measuring him game by game is silly. Forty-eight points* in game one: an unstoppable scorer . Then 29 in the game two loss: he can’t carry a team alone . An awful start, then a flurry of points in the final minutes to win game three: the will of a champion .

Here’s what can be said about Dirk Nowitzki: if he wins five more games, he gets an NBA championship. The same goes for LeBron James.

 [*Corrections: I originally put an extra A in “Arenas” and wrote that Nowitzki had scored 41 points rather than 48.]