DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki waffles between frustration and resignation in probably his toughest season since he was a rookie in 1999.
He was deprived of a realistic chance to defend the franchise's first championship last year, and then the Dallas Mavericks star had to sit out 27 games to start his 15th season after the first knee surgery of his career.
A 12-year playoff streak is in jeopardy and Nowitzki will have plenty of time to ponder the team's chances over All-Star weekend. The 7-foot German is missing the NBA's midseason showcase — just down Interstate 45 in Houston, no less — for the first time since a baby-faced beanpole was getting a rude introduction to the league 14 years ago.
"Basically, my whole career I went," said Nowitzki, a 3-point competition participant in 2000 and 2001 before playing in 11 straight All-Star games. "It's the only thing I know. So this will be something different."
Nothing's been the same since Nowitzki hoisted the trophy and later butchered the singing of "We are the champions" on a hot summer day in 2011. If it seems like more than a year and a half since Dallas beat Miami, here's why.
The Mavericks had to wait two extra months to raise the banner because the NBA lockout delayed opening day until Christmas. Dallas owner Mark Cuban said the new labor deal forced him to dismantle major pieces of the title team, and what was left got blown out in the opener by the Heat. Nowitzki wasn't in shape when the season started and the Mavericks got swept in the first round by Oklahoma City.
After free agent guard Deron Williams spurned Dallas in the offseason and Jason Kidd defected to the New York Knicks, the Mavericks had to put together another collection of potential short-timers. Nowitzki's right knee flared up in training camp, and Dallas was in trouble when it became clear that surgery less than two weeks before the season was the only option.
"When we started this season, we also thought we'd have Dirk the whole time," Cuban said.
The losses didn't stop when Nowitzki returned, and he eventually took a shot at his owner when he said after one game that championships can't be built on hope. It was a reference to Cuban's stance that the Mavericks needed financial flexibility for roster upgrades, which fans took to mean pursuing free agents such as Williams, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
Nowitzki let the word "trade" slip when he was venting, but said later he wasn't asking for one. Cuban made it clear to his star anyway: He wasn't trading him, now or ever. Their relationship was too good, Cuban said, and besides, the owner said Nowitzki had to go through the tough times with him.
"Dirk crushes me every time he opens his mouth and then he comes in the locker room and just laughs at me," Cuban said. "It's kind of a sport."
Whenever the 34-year-old Nowitzki frets about whether the Mavericks can be title contenders again before he retires, he reminds himself that he does have one ring and really doesn't want to play anywhere else.
The Mavericks fell 10 games below .500 earlier this season for the first time since Nowitzki's second year, and they're 4 1/2 games behind the final playoff spot in the Western Conference at 23-29. Still, Nowitzki is pushing hard in practice to get himself all the way back from surgery.
It's hard to know whether he'll get there, and if he does, what his scoring role will be. It's likely Nowitzki won't be Dallas' leading scorer for the first time since 2000 — it probably will be O.J. Mayo. Although he's been a steady scorer, Nowitzki has led Dallas in points just six times in 23 games since returning.
"Moving-wise, I'm decent, I just don't have the touch," said Nowitzki, who had never missed more than nine games in a season.
The modest recovery pace doesn't reflect the rehabilitation work that Dallas coach Rick Carlisle sees between games.
"It's hard to go through surgery in a season and then come back and get back to the level that you're used to, especially if you're a player of his magnitude," Carlisle said. "I still think he's going to get better and feel better."
There were clear signs of progress for Nowitzki before the break. It took him five games to get into double figures in scoring. His first start two games later was his first 20-point outing, and he was more consistently making the one-legged fade-away shots that helped carry Dallas to a title. Then he started making big shots late in close games.
Nowitzki had a season-high 26 points late last month at Portland, but the game ended up reflecting the Mavericks' season because they couldn't hold a lead in the final minute and lost a game they needed in their scramble to keep postseason hopes alive.
"Of course he's frustrated," said Vince Carter, who joined Nowitzki last season after the championship team was broken up. "He's used to dominating. He wants to dominate. He feels like he has to bring it every night and he's going to do that."
For All-Star weekend, though, Nowitzki can play "married guy," as Cuban put it — Nowitzki married art gallery director Jessica Olsson last summer — and maybe get in a little running and lifting.
"It's a little bit of a disappointment not to be going there, but maybe it's not the worst thing, to get away," said Nowitzki, Dallas' franchise leader in just about every category. "I'm going to enjoy a couple of days off and I'll go back to work."