For years critics have harped on the Mavericks' failure to acquire a dominant big man who could help them succeed at grind-it-out playoff basketball. The seven-player sign-and-trade with Golden State for Erick Dampier may quiet that chorus. "Dampier is the best center I've had since Bob Lanier," says coach Don Nelson. (Maybe the critics have a point: Nellie has spent 18 seasons on the bench since last joining forces with Lanier in Milwaukee.)
The 6'11", 265-pound Dampier has his naysayers as well. They wonder if he was only motivated to average career highs in points (12.3) and rebounds (12.0) last year because his contract was up. (Dallas will pay him $60 million over six years.) But Dampier insists that his numbers had more to do with increased playing time and the presence of veteran teammates who knew how best to exploit his skills--trends that should continue in Dallas. Says All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki, "He's very physical down there, he's always available and he's going to finish [the play] for you."
Nellie believes the addition of Dampier will especially help Nowitzki, who had to play some center last season because of a glut at the four spot (since eased by the trades of Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker). But will the Mavs, who lost free-agent point guard Steve Nash to Phoenix, be better? While Nelson expects his team to have more turnovers, he is excited about having an improved man-to-man defense. "We have five guys who have a 7'5" reach or more," Nelson says. "We have four shot blockers who can play center, so we'll always have coverage of the rim, which allows us to move out a little more, be a bit more aggressive. I think we'll stub our toes early, but by midseason or a little after we'll probably be a really good playoff team." --I.T.
ENEMY LINES an opposing scout sizes up the Mavericks
"They may win fewer games without Steve Nash running their offense, but over the long haul they'll be a better playoff team because they have a true center in Erick Dampier. Though Dampier is never going to be dominant, he's a shot blocker, he comes out to defend the pick-and-roll, and he's capable of grabbing 20 rebounds on a given night.... Now that Dirk Nowitzki knows he'll play mainly at power forward, he needs to take responsibility and become a better defender, especially in the post. At the other end he's going to miss Nash on the pick-and-roll.... I just don't see Jason Terry getting it done after he failed to handle point-guard duties well for Atlanta, which was always a turnover-plagued team. It's hard to understand why they were willing to pay Terry and not Nash. You'll see Marquis Daniels handling the ball along with Devin Harris, the rookie from Wisconsin, who has an excellent future and will be given a chance to learn from his mistakes. What they'll miss is the way Nash brought order to their offense and spread the shots fairly evenly.... They're going to need especially strong leadership from Michael Finley in order to win on the road and to get back on defense, which is the toughest thing for a team that runs hard to the basket on every possession.... Their bench should be strong with Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse, who knows how to get to the line as well as anyone in the league.... They need to play more aggressive man-to-man because the good teams looked forward to attacking their passive zone. Can they jell enough in the second half to earn home court advantage? That's asking a lot of a team that's undergone such a big change of chemistry."
The Mavs can become the first team to lead the league in scoring four straight seasons since the Nuggets did it from 1980-81 through '84-85.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
with 2003-04 statistics
Record: 52-30 (5th in West)
Points scored: 105.2 (1st in NBA)
Points allowed: 100.8 (28th)
Coach: Don Nelson
(eighth season with the Mavericks)
ERICK DAMPIER [New Acquisition]
JASON TERRY [New Acquisition]
C SHAWN BRADLEY
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (statistics for final college season) *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)