Commentary

Five years later, Dirk's got new PG bond

Originally Published: May 31, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Dirk Nowitzki and  Jason KiddStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDirk may poke fun at him for his age, but Jason Kidd could be the Dallas star's best running mate ever.

This assemblage of Dallas Mavericks has no long-term future. Not when a 38-year-old is arguably its second-most important player.

So the first season of Nowitzki's four-year contract already feels like a last hurrah in a lot of ways, because getting to the Finals with a one-star construction is cake compared to sustaining success that way.

Not that you should expect to hear much pining from Dirk over the next two weeks for a superstar sidekick. He'll need one sooner rather than later for those next three seasons, with his 33rd birthday less than three weeks away, but he's going back to the Finals with a real running mate this time. Something he noticeably missed in 2006.

"He's been great, man," Nowitzki says of Jason Kidd. "He's been a blessing.

"I'm serious. His willpower and his competitiveness reach a level that not a lot of guys reach in this league."

Nowitzki and other Mavs love to kid about Kidd's age in public. Example: On Monday afternoon in Miami, at their first Finals session with the national media on the eve of Game 1, Shawn Marion joked that Kidd is "almost 50" and Dirk couldn't bear to leave the podium without wedging in a crack about how his point guard is "a fossil."

But Nowitzki was indeed serious when he said he feels blessed to be chasing that elusive ring with another Hall of Fame-bound point guard, even if Kidd is in his twilight years. Maybe he can't carry a team like he did in 2002 and 2003, powering the previously woebegone New Jersey Nets to back-to-back Finals appearances, but this Kidd can still keep a team from unraveling. Which is pretty key.

"The big thing is just [helping] my teammates understand the moment and stay in the moment," Kidd said. "That's my biggest role."

One of Nowitzki's greatest personal achievements has to be keeping the Mavs in the West elite even after best friend Steve Nash's free-agent departure in the summer of 2004. Maintaining the close relationship he's had with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, given the messy manner of Nash's departure, is likewise one of Dirk's (and Cuban's) best-ever tricks.

Yet it's evident pretty quickly that Nowitzki views Kidd with the same reverence, despite the fact that Kidd's first two and a half seasons at Nowitzki's side netted just two first-round exits and an early coaching change, with Rick Carlisle replacing Avery Johnson shortly after the trade when it became apparent that the Mavs -- even with the addition of Kidd -- needed a new voice.

"It didn't pan out right away with the J-Kidd thing," Nowitzki said of Dallas' first major personnel move in the wake of the '06 collapse. "But I think now we see what kind of leader he is on and off the floor, what kind of floor game he plays on both ends of the floor, and he's been phenomenal."

Although he stops short of saying Kidd's arrival at the 2008 trade deadline was a direct response to Nash's exit -- "We didn't get Kidd 'til way later," Nowitzki point out -- it's telling that pretty much nothing else gets Dirk to open up like Kidd questions do. Having an equal in locker-room stature, as well as another original Maverick to share the emotional and mental burdens of the journey, has undoubtedly made Nowitzki's daily life easier. They've both clung to the belief that the lone-star Mavs were never far away from contention, despite their 10-21 nosedive in the playoffs since taking a 2-0 lead over the Heat in '06 … until this spring's 12-3 run.

"He is one of the fiercest competitors I've ever met," Nowitzki said. "I've never seen a guy that can leave the court with two points and be the guy who gets the game ball.

"If there's a scrum for the ball and Kidd gets his hands on the ball, it's his. He's got unbelievably strong, quick hands. If we ask him to guard Kobe [Bryant] or [Kevin] Durant, he can do it. His ability to guard people at 38 is insane."

Said Carlisle: "On our team, he's a superstar. That's how important he is to us."

Kidd can't live up to that label statistically any more, with averages of 9.9 points, 7.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Yet you'll also note that he's the last name point guard standing in these playoffs in what was supposed to be the Year of the Young Speedster QB.

If you do what Nowitzki won't do and go back and watch, say, Game 5 of the '06 Finals, you'll undoubtedly come away with a men-against-boys vibe when crunch time hits. Let's just say that Dallas faces lots of potential problems in this series, with LeBron James in the zone of his life at both ends, but coping with the size of the moment won't be one of them.

Not with the battle-hardened Kidd about to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the only starters in Finals history in the 38-and-over club. The previous oldest starting guard in the Finals was Ron Harper, who was 36 with the Lakers in 1999-2000.

"Smartest guy in the locker room and on the court," said Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. "The age thing? He might be playing the best basketball of his career at 38. I do know this: In the fourth quarter, when he's got the ball, we got a chance to win."

Said Kidd: "It's been a long journey. We all expected things to happen a little quicker [after the trade in 2008], in the sense of maybe being more competitive and being in the Finals … but, again, patience is one thing. And also just understanding the game of basketball can be very nice and also cruel at the same time."

It's a shared understanding with Nowitzki that, flanked by younger unreliables like Devin Harris and Josh Howard five years ago, Dirk was largely shouldering alone.

Different Dirk: Backbone | Backup | Bandwagon | Bond | Brain power


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Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics