Here's something I didn't think I would be typing midway through this Mavericks season: Dirk Nowitzki (30,777 career points) still has a puncher's chance of passing Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) this season for No. 5 on the NBA's career scoring list.
And, and at the moment, it appears Nowitzki will finish the season ahead of current No. 7 career scorer LeBron James, though he can feel the hot breath of hard-charging James (29,874 points) on the back of his neck. This conversation likely will heighten in the next couple of weeks when comparative-pup James, at age 33, joins the 30,000-point club.
On Sunday, Nowitzki and the Mavericks reached the season's halfway point with Nowitzki scoring a mere five points in a home loss to the Knicks. But that was an anomaly in what has been a turn-back-the-clock past month for Nowitzki.
In Tuesday's home victory over Orlando, Nowitzki scored a season-high-tying 20 points. In the past 14 games of a season in which, remarkably, he's played all 42 Mavericks games, Nowitzki has averaged 14.8 points on 51 percent shooting. That's even with the Knicks clunker.
In a nearly empty Mavericks locker room late Tuesday night, Nowitzki laughed when I broached the possibility of catching Chamberlain this season. He did, though, acknowledge being aware of Chamberlain's total when the season began. How could he not? The NBA career scoring list has been printed in the Mavericks' media notes every game the past several years.
"I wasn't sure what the season was going to bring," Nowitzki said. "I'm surprised at this point, over halfway, that I didn't miss a game. Even though I didn't feel great at the beginning (of the season) I wanted to be out there as much as I could.
"I didn't really know what to expect, where I could take it. But I'll keep fighting, keep fighting."
At this point, No. 6 all-time scorer Nowitzki would be the first to admit that his pursuit of Chamberlain — compared to No. 7 James chase of Chamberlain and Nowitzki — is a tortoise vs. hare race. But the old turtle, now at the age of 39 years, 205 days, has gathered steam as of late.
Nowitzki began the season 1,159 points behind Chamberlain's 31,419. Nowitzki through 42 games has 517 points this season and has pulled within 642 points of Chamberlain. At this pace Nowitzki would finish the season with 31,257 points — still 162 behind Chamberlain, but closer than many of us would have predicted.
Nowitzki averaged 12.1 points in the Mavericks first 41 games. He would need to average 16.07 over the final 41 — and continue to play in every game — to pass Chamberlain. And he can't afford to have many, if any, more Knicks-like outings.
Though catching Wilt this season still seems unlikely, it's now more possible than many of us fathomed entering the year, with Nowitzki coming off a 2016-17 season in which he played only 54 games and scored 769 points, second-lowest of his career behind his rookie year, the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season.
Nowitzki said last month that he is leaning toward playing a 21st season. If that occurs, he would easily pass Chamberlain, health permitting. But if he stays healthy this season and draws within reach of Chamberlain, well, that would give Mavericks fans something for which to root in lieu of a playoff race. Much like Nowitzki's chase, and attainment, of the 30,000-point milestone last season.
"That was never really a goal," Nowitzki said of catching Chamberlain. "If I don't get him (this year) I'm not going to keep playing just for that."
And don't expect to see Nowitzki dramatically increase his shot attempts, never mind that his field-goal percentage (.468) is his highest in four seasons and — would you believe it? — his 3-point shooting percentage of .421 this season is tied for the highest of his career, so far matching what he shot in 2009-2010.
Yes, he is fully aware of Chamberlain's career point total, but he doesn't regard it as a dangling carrot.
"You see it all the time," he said. "The number was, what, averaging 14 or 15 a game (this season), which is a tough ask, obviously, at 39. And the one thing I didn't want to do is just shoot shots to get a milestone. I want to play within myself and within the team and be out there as much as I can."
No danger of anyone accusing Nowitzki of chasing stats. He has averaged a preposterously low 16.0 shots per game for his career and just 9.0 this season. James, by comparison, averages 19.6 shots per game for his career and 18.7 this season.
Among the top five scorers in history — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Chamberlain — the lowest career shots-per-game average is Malone's 17.8. Jordan and Chamberlain averaged 22.9 and 22.5. The efficiency with which Nowitzki has piled his career point total is nothing short of astounding.
Regardless of when or if he catches Chamberlain, Nowitzki knows he wouldn't stay No. 5 for long. When the Mavericks hosted James and his Cleveland Cavaliers early this season, Nowitzki said of his teammates: "The guys are killing me that LeBron is going to pass me while I'm still playing."
It probably will still happen, but Nowitzki is delaying the inevitable. James began the season 1,473 points behind Nowitzki, but "only" has closed the gap to 903 points.
James has played in all 40 of Cleveland's games this season. He has scored 1,087 points this season. At his 27.2-points-per-game pace, he would score 2,228 points this season, bringing his career total to 30,988. So there is a better-than-decent chance that both he and Nowitzki will finish this season above 31,000 points.
When this season began, I thought there was a chance that James would leapfrog Nowitzki and Chamberlain and into the No. 5 spot before Nowitzki could get there, however briefly that proves to be. Now it's looking more like Nowitzki would pass Chamberlain early next season, with King James' inevitable top-five coronation happening midway to late in the season.
That's yet another reason to hope that Nowitzki returns for season No. 21, for those two opportunities to see a 40-year-old icon and less-older icon on the court together.
"I'm just feeling so much better, honestly, than I did early in the season," he said. "The first couple of weeks were tough to kind of get my legs under me and really get going.
"I guess you can practice all you want and shoot all you want and run on the treadmill all you want. There's nothing like guys pushing on you when you go up and down, showing and helping on pick-and-rolls. There's no way you can simulate that."
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