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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Importance of Erick Dampier

Taking a step away from the perpetual articles on the NBA Finals, I’d like to spread some love on one of the most hated Mavericks, Erick Dampier.

After averaging a surprising 12/12/2 season in 2004 with the Warriors, Dampier was a hot commodity in the free agent market – teams such as the Knicks and Grizzlies were fighting over him. Ultimately, Dallas organized a sign and trade for a 7 year / 64 million dollar contract and many fans thought Cuban had done it again, tried to mess with the chemistry and just overpaid a lackluster player. Not only that, but Dampier’s signing meant the end of the Steve Nash/Big 3 era in Dallas – a team that consistently averaged more than 50 wins a season but consistently were exposed for what they were in the playoffs.

Dampier was hailed as the first great center for Dallas since the James Donaldson era. The front office had hopes he’d replace the woeful memories of Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz with new defensive memories of monster blocks and ferocious dunks not seen since Finley’s prime. But alas, as Nash went on to win MVP and the Suns eliminated Dallas, Nowitzki was calling out Dampier – who averaged 7/7 – for his nonchalant effort and continued lack of enthusiasm.

The Mavericks then signed supposed-project DeSagana Diop in the hopes he could turn into a serviceable backup. Midway through the season, Diop replaced Dampier in the lineup (and Dallas subsequently went on a 14-0 streak) – since then, neither have looked back. Damp has come off the bench with an abundance of success, he’s fought the opposing bench players with new-found determination that was definitely missing last season. The benching acted as a catalyst to revive his motivation. You can see it in his eyes, his gestures, his yelling, his expressions clarify that this is the Damp that was playing for a big contract.

Looking at his stats, he seems worthless. Why pay a big guy $8 million a year to play 23 minutes and score a measly 5 points and grab 8 rebounds? Luckily, there’s more to basketball than statistics. Dampier boxes outs, and rebounding has been one of Dallas’ most successful categories (they were out rebounded for the first time in the playoffs against Miami). He manages his turnovers when holding the ball, he sets strong picks and he is the banger inside the blue paint in the American Airlines Center. His rebounds per 48 minutes are two and a half higher than last year, rivaling 2004 for his best numbers ever.

Everyone who’s watched a single Mavericks game this year knows the most relayed stat in the NBA, the Mavericks are 25-0 when Josh Howard scores over 20 points. Well here’s an interested stat, Dallas is 32-6 when Dampier grabs 9 or more rebounds.

Since Erick Dampier arrived here, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks are having two of the best seasons in franchise history. Nowitzki has established him as one of the best in the league partly due to the ability of Dampier. Damp allows Dirk to roam the perimeter which helps the defensive matchups. He keeps defenses honest and forces opponents to guard the Diggler with a power forward since he is capable of scoring. He creates space on offense for teammates who drive, something the Mavericks have relied upon since Johnson became coach. Another great thing about Dampiers game is his improved offensive rebounding, he consistently allows Dallas to have the opportunity for second chance points.

His defense is relatively astounding as he can mark the premier centers in the league (to a certain extent). But most importantly, he can play Shaquille O’Neal as good as any other big man in the league. His fast paced footwork and huge frame provide the basics for stopping one of the most dominant players ever, who hates to admit it, but knows Damp can do a good a job as anyone against him. Since Dampier’s arrival in Dallas, they have gone 5-0 against Shaq and his Miami Heat (I added this now, because it will be dispelled soon). His one play against Tim Duncan won us that series, and if Dallas wins the title – is his contract worth it?

Someone reading this article may think he urinates holy-water the way I’ve been raving on about him – but he’s not. There’s a reason he was relegated to the bench and there’s a reason he’s one of the most hated players in Dallas – he can’t hit his freethrows (on the bright-side, at least he did not go 1-9), his offensive repertoire is redundant (at least he has one, Diop) and he picks up ticky-tack fouls which generally set the Mavericks off for a sub-par game. He only played in 2 games in the Phoenix series, but even with these shortcomings, Erick and DeSagana form one of the best center pairs in the league.

NBA Finals: Mavs-Heat

From One Hot Extremity to another

The last time Miami beat Dallas was in the 2003-04 season, thanks to a lucky three by Rafer Alston. Dallas has beat Miami 10 out of their last 12 matchups, and they are 2-0 this season, including a 36 point victory.

But if there's one thing the Heat have proven these playoffs, it's that the regular season does not mean anything.

Both teams have flexed their muscles over their, in superhero terms, arch nemeses. The Heat defeated the Pistons emphatically, four games to two, and Dallas has overcome not one, but two rivals – the Spurs in 7 and then the Suns in 6. The matchups will prove to be intriguing and entertaining, as playoff experience will come in handy – both teams are NBA Championship virgins.

It will be a battle of superheroes, and the most fitting way to end one of the greatest NBA playoffs in years. So, what does Dallas have to do to win the debacle?

First and foremost, there’s a little matter of Shaquille O’Neal, who has no nice feelings for opposing center Erick Dampier. As the Big Aristotle said himself, “Dampier is soft. Quote it, underline it, tape it and send it to him.” Damp will need to have a big series, as he rarely played against Phoenix. However, a tactic Avery Johnson wisely uses is bringing in Keith Van Horn to draw Shaq out of the post. Dallas will need to contain a motivated Shaq, who is trying to bring true on his promise to win Miami a championship.

Secondly, Dirk Nowitzki needs to continue to pump out Larry Bird-like performances in order for Dallas to win. He is averaging upwards of 28 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in the playoffs, dispelling all theories that he struggles during the playoffs – many thanks to his recent 22 point fourth quarter / 50 point game in game 5. We are all Nowitnesses to Dirk’s clutch performance, and a big NBA finals will push him further into superstardom. Look for Antoine Walker or James Posey to attempt to guard the real MVP.

Josh Howard needs to continue to step up and score over 20, as Dallas is yet to lose this season when he reaches that mark (25-0). Howard also needs to stay on top of his defensive game – Dwyane Wade lives for the limelight and will be looking to carry Miami.

As one can tell – the series will be filled with interesting matchups, but the coaches gameplan will be equally important. Dallas should look to the opposite of what they did against Phoenix, and try to force Antoine Walker and company into longer shots. Dallas should try to avoid letting any Heatians (I’m looking at Wade) walk through the defense. If worse comes to worse, Dallas should employ the infamous Hack-a-Shaq, but with a defensive tandem of Diop and Dampier, Dallas is as set as they ever will be to take on Shaq.

Dallas also needs to go back to their Nellie roots and be able to stroke the 3 consistently – Jason Terry needs to step up and get back to performing consistently. In its two games this season, Dallas hit a combined 19 three’s out of 30 which paved the way for easy drives. The X-Factor for Dallas will be Devin Harris whose speed will have Payton or Wade gasping for breath. If he can drive and get Shaq (like he did to Duncan) in foul trouble, then Dallas is in a good position to bring home the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Dallas needs to watch out for Miami’s equally-deep bench. Players like Walker, Posey, Payton and even Williams will all be looking to get some recognition by playing their hearts out. Dallas needs to reply to them with guys like Marquis Daniels, Keith Van Horn and Jerry Stackhouse stepping up and giving 100 percent effort. They need to make smart decisions (Mr. Stackhouse…) and have an equal balance between threes and driving.

First it was Michael Finley, then Steve Nash. Now look for Dallas to leave behind Antoine Walker – Mr. Detrimental in 2004.

“I think for the first time in my life I'm speechless,” said Mark Cuban, something I don't believe.

I have correctly predicted Dallas over Memphis in 4, San Antonio in 7 and Phoenix in 6. If Dallas wins in 6 again versus Miami, I will consider becoming clairvoyant. Dallas will need to play their best and get the little important things done correctly; make free throws, offensive rebound and control the ball.