Dirk aiming for bounce back season
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been a painful year for Dallas-area pro sports teams.

In baseball, the Texas Rangers squandered a huge lead in their division before being ousted by the Baltimore Orioles in their first game of the postseason.

In hockey, the Stars seemed to be right on the cusp of reaching the playoffs before dropping their final five contests of the year.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys continue to be haunted by inconsistent play from their star quarterback Tony Romo, who threw five interceptions last week in a loss to the Bears.

With NBA preseason beginning to get underway, the attention now shifts to the Mavericks, a team also coming off a disappointing year.

After hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy as league champions in 2011, the Mavs fell flat during the lockout shortened 2011-12 campaign. They were swept by the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.

A big reason why the Mavericks struggled last year was because of Dirk Nowitzki's inconsistent play. While still among the league's leaders in scoring, Nowitzki didn't look nearly as motivated or prepared as he had been in recent years. His 21.6 ppg and 6.8 rpg were his lowest averages since the 1999-2000 season when Nowitzki was just 21 years old.

Nowitzki's conditioning was so poor last year that he actually sat the bench four games in a row during a stretch in January so that he could get back into playing shape. Nowitzki's 33.5 minutes per game last season was his lowest since his rookie year in 1998-99.

Nowitzki has never been much of a leaper, but even for him, his lift was pretty awful last season and the result was his poorest shooting year in more than a decade. Dirk's 45.7 percent field goal percentage was the second-lowest of his career, while his 36.8 percent success rate from behind the arc was his worst since 2008-09.

Dirk's numbers were especially bad during the first half of the season, when he posted just 19.6 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting. During this period, Nowitzki was remarkably off target from long range, connecting on only 27.8 percent of his three-point tries.

Things turned around for Nowitzki in the second half, giving fantasy owners some reason for optimism heading into this season. After the All-Star game, Nowitzki upped his ppg total to 23.6 a night while significantly improving his three-point percentage (43.4 percent from downtown over his final 32 games).

Even with a strong second half, Nowitzki's final scoring and rebounding averages declined for the third year in a row.

Nowitzki's lackluster season has raised plenty of concern in the fantasy community. Can we chock up 2011-12's poor showing to a championship hangover or has the 34-year-old forward from Germany finally lost a step?

Certainly, Nowitzki isn't in his prime anymore but I don't think age had much to do with his struggles in 2011-12. I believe the real problem was the team around him.

Nowitzki had built chemistry with Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic during the Mavericks' championship run, but none of them returned for the 2011-12 campaign.

Instead, Dallas went with an aging lineup that featured veterans Vince Carter (35), Jason Kidd (39) and Shawn Marion (34). The team was also forced to give minutes to Lamar Odom, a basketball player turned reality star who had absolutely no interest in playing anywhere but Los Angeles and did little to hide it.

The team didn't mesh well and the lack of young talent put more pressure on Dirk than ever to score points. Opponents knew this was the case and designed their game plans specifically to contain Nowitzki, leading to his uncharacteristically weak shooting performance last season.

The hectic schedule that resulted from last year's lockout probably didn't do Dirk and the aging Mavs any favors either.

Dallas retooled in the offseason, adding young blood in the form of former Memphis shooting guard O.J. Mayo and ex-Pacers fireplug Darren Collison. The team also added Chris Kaman, one of the game's more skilled big men, and Elton Brand, who averaged 11 ppg for the Philadelphia 76ers last season.

As always, Nowitzki will be the focal point of the offense. But with the Mavericks' added depth, it won't be as easy for opponents to key in on Dirk as it was last season.

With added breathing room and improved focus (Nowitzki arrived to Dallas camp in much better shape than he did last season), Nowitzki should be primed for a bounce-back season in 2012-13.

Here's another stat that I think will encourage fantasy owners who are still on the fence about Dirk as he enters his 15th season in the league. Though Nowitzki isn't much of a presence on the glass anymore and has never been a big assist guy (career average is 2.6 apg), Nowitzki's turnover rate was actually pretty impressive last season. In 2011-12, Nowitzki gave the ball up an average of only 1.9 times per game.

That's a pretty remarkable feat when you consider how involved Nowitzki is in the Dallas offense. Kevin Durant, widely regarded as the second-best player in the league behind LeBron James, averaged twice as many turnovers per contest as Nowitzki did last season. This shows that even when Nowitzki isn't hitting his shots, he's making smart decisions with the ball and avoiding costly mistakes. Players with high basketball IQs like Nowitzki tend to last a long time in this league.

Will we see Dirk return to the form that made him the league MVP back in 2006-07? Probably not. But I think we can expect him to be a consistent 22- to 23-ppg scorer and among the league leaders in three-point and free-throw percentage. That kind of production can go a long way in fantasy hoops.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.