By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Dirk Nowitzki may be in the twilight of a remarkable career but the 35-year-old German giant continues to put up statistics that reflect his stature as the best European to play in the National Basketball Association.
The 7-foot Dallas Mavericks forward has long been renowned for his shooting accuracy and unique one-legged fadeaway, and ranks 13th in the league's all-time scoring list with 25,882 career points.
Nowitzki scored a team-high 27 points for Dallas in a wild 129-127 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday and his fellow players expect him to be a significant and inspirational presence in the NBA for at least another four or five years.
"He really changes the game," backup forward Brandan Wright, 26, told Reuters about the influential German after scoring 13 points on six-of-seven shooting against the host Clippers at a packed Staples Center.
"He's seven foot and shooting the ball like that, he has to be accounted for. He can fill it up and score from anywhere on the court - from three-point range, going to the block and he can work the mid-range really well.
"When he's stroking it in with the (three-pointer) and the deep two-point shots, he's pretty much unguardable. And even better, he's a great teammate. Superstars can be a little different but he's a guy that you want to be around."
Asked how long he expected to see Nowitzki continuing to flourish as a top NBA player, Wright replied: "I think he can play to a high level for another four or five years.
"If he takes care of himself, I think he can play as long as he wants. Obviously Father Time catches up with all of us. He still has a nice chunk of career left if he wants it."
Nowitzki, the ninth player chosen in the 1998 Draft, is an 11-time All-Star who was awarded the league's most valuable player award for the 2006-07 regular season.
Once derided as a 'soft' player for plying his trade away from the basket despite his size, the jump-shooting German has established an enviable reputation in the league because of his all-round skills.
"Well he's seven-foot with a jump shot! What more can you say?" forward Shawn Marion, a four-time All-Star who has played for the Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Mavericks during his 14-year NBA career, told Reuters with a broad smile.
"He's consistent with it, and he has a sick, one-legged fadeaway as well and it's hard to stop it. He opens up a lot of different things for us, the way teams play us. I don't think they know what to do or how to deal with it.
"He spreads the floor, and not being a traditional big inside the paint, all of his perimeter mixes are hard to guard. With (opposing) bigs, sometimes it can take them too long to pick it up and figure it out that he's on the perimeter."
Nowitzki, the NBA's first European winner of the league's MVP award and the first to surpass 20,000 career points, has played a huge role in defining the Mavericks' culture, according to the team's billionaire owner, Mark Cuban.
"He is a special player not only because of what he does on the court but because of who he is to the team off the court," Cuban told Reuters in the visiting team's locker room at Staples Center.
"There's a lot of players who over the course of their career put up stats, win championships but they may or may not have defined the culture of an organization.
"Just what he does in terms of the videos for the fans, his interaction with the fans and the tone he sets here with the players speaks just as strongly as what he does on the court because culture in a team is everything."
While most of Nowitzki's teammates say that the German is that rare breed, a super-star player without an ego, Cuban disagreed.
"He's got plenty of ego but he also understands that, a, he wants to win more than anything and, b, he doesn't take himself too seriously," said Cuban whose entertainment vehicles include the AXS TV television channel and the Landmark Theatres chain.
"His ego is big enough to strive to be the best but he doesn't think, off the court, that he is anybody that he's not. Some people want accolades just for the sake of accolades and they want people to acknowledge those accolades every time.
"But Dirk doesn't care about the awards, Dirk doesn't treat anybody any differently than he expects to be treated. He's just like a regular person, and I think that sets him apart."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)