The Dallas Donuts

Can Dampier finally fill Mavs' middle?

Let's see, Yao Ming is overrated, Shaquille O'Neal is jealous and Erick Dampier is an All-Star.

Damn. And you thought the Mavericks center wouldn't be ready for the NBA season.

A billion Chinese usually aren't wrong. But Dampier, despite last season's inconsistent and frustrating performance, inexplicably maintains that he's better than Yao, Amare Stoudemire and every other NBA center this side of Shaq.

"I said last year I was the second-best, and I stick by what I said," Dampier said after the Mavs' October 26 practice at American Airlines Center. "Nothing's changed."

If Dampier's right, Dallas will be a legitimate championship threat, and he'll become by far the best center in the 26-year history of the franchise.

If Dampier's wrong-- and of course he is--the Mavs will again be an entertaining 50-win team that underachieves in the playoffs, and he will again be a 6-foot-11, 265-pound punch line.

By having the balls to boast himself in the same ritzy area code, Dampier royally pissed off Shaq. Last season the Heat behemoth called Dampier "soft." During the playoffs, he responded to a question about his health with "I felt like Erick Dampier, and that stinks." And last summer on a TV talk show Shaq said Dampier would be dominant in the WNBA, but not the NBA. "Yeah, I said it," Shaq giggled. "Write it down, take a picture, send it to him."

Dampier took Shaq's flak and has promptly and peculiarly digested it into, um, flattery?

"I don't know, maybe he's jealous," Dampier said without tongue firmly planted in cheek. "I don't understand it. Why would a player as good as he is be focusing on me during the playoffs? I'm not even in his conference. To me, that's crazy. If he wants to take it down to that level, he can do what he wants. I said what I said, I think what I think, and I've moved on."

In the first year of his seven-year, $73 million contract--money that Mavericks fans still feel should've been spent to keep NBA MVP Steve Nash in Dallas--Dampier chameleoned between bona fide and bumbling.

At times both defiant defender and reliable low-post option on a 58-win team, he averaged 11.8 points and 12.8 rebounds during a 12-game stretch in January. He scored 31 points in a game, grabbed 26 rebounds in another and once blocked eight shots.

But mostly Dampier was quieter than Judith Miller, a slow-footed, sloppy-handed big man who fouled too much and contributed too little on a team knocked out of the playoffs by Nash and the Suns in the second round. He missed 21 games with a stress fracture in his foot. Shot only 60 percent from the free-throw line. Turned assists into turnovers with mishandles near the hoop. And, in a paltry post-season, he was shut down by the Rockets' Yao and called out by teammate Dirk Nowitzki after being outscored an embarrassing 40-0 by the Suns' Stoudemire in Game 1.

"It was a learning experience for me," Dampier says. "I'm expecting a lot more out of myself this season. And I know my team is, too."

Despite last year's disappointment, Dampier earned a spot near the top of all-time great Mavericks centers. Which is akin to having the coolest porn collection in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, because the home team and height traditionally co-exist about as seamlessly as sins and psalms. Built more for titillation than titles under Don Nelson, and just plain crappy in the formative years under Dick Motta and the futile systems of Quinn Buckner and Jim Cleamons, the Mavericks' list of All-Star centers reads thusly: James Donaldson, 1988.

While big men like Kareem, Hakeem, Shaq and Duncan lifted trophies over their heads by dominating under the basket, Dallas suited up a collection of Mav-wrecks that produced more uncomfortable lows than Troy Dungan's five-day forecast in February.

Our best guess says 43 players have polluted minutes at center for the Mavericks. A short-cut through the laughable lineage: Scott Lloyd. Kurt Nimphius. Uwe Blab. Roy Tarpley. John Shasky. Radisav Curcic. Donald Hodge. Lorenzo Williams. Loren Meyer. Samaki Walker. Oliver Miller. Shawn Bradley. Chris Anstey. Eric Montross. Hot Rod Williams. Calvin Booth. Wang Zhi-Zhi. Evan Eschmeyer. Danny Fortson.

(Feel free to call a :20. The bag you frantically seek is in the seat pocket in front of you.)

Dampier could arguably rank No. 2 on that list. But second-best in Mavericks' past and second-best in NBA present are about as comparable as rap and humility.

Before Dampier can justify his hyperbole, he first has to ascend to No. 1 in his conference. Or at least his own state. Yao, the 7-foot-6 Greatest Wall of China, was an All-Star last year and produced three 30-point games against Dampier in Houston's first-round loss to Dallas. Stoudemire was one of three All-NBA centers along with Shaq and the Pistons' Ben Wallace.

Dampier claims to be old-school Avis--No. 2 and trying harder--but there are new-age centers from Yao to Amare to Brad Miller to Tyson Chandler to Nenad Krstic with bigger stats and better reputations.

Best thing about Dampier's cockamamie claim? It's irrelevant.

For Dallas to win, Humble Billy doesn't have to go hoarse screaming dam-PEER! Dampier needs to be steady, not spectacular. The offense will run through Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, and the defense will be spearheaded by Josh Howard and Doug Christie.

More traditional and defensive-minded coach Avery Johnson is certainly counting on the 30-year-old Dampier, but the team's culture and identity will be drastically different from when Nellie constantly tinkered with creative ploys for David to outrun Goliath.

Over the last 25 years there's no doubt the Mavericks have the NBA's fewest post-up points. Instead of its first option, passing to a center has always been Dallas' last gasp. But under Johnson's slower tempo, low-block points from Dirk and Damp are a vital part of the equation.

"I'm more comfortable now because Avery's played with big men, and he knows how to use big men," Dampier said. "At the same time, I know I'm not the focal point of the offense."

But starting with Saturday's home opener against the defending champion Spurs, Dampier promises a harder body, softer hands and, gulp, elite results.

"Being an All-Star is definitely a goal, and it's realistic if I play the way I'm capable," Dampier said. "But if not, it won't be the end of the world."

Just the start of more shit from Shaq.

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