Dallas Mavericks 2012: Chris Kaman, the Center of Attention
There seems to be some reservation amongst NBA followers concerning the Mavericks' signing of Chris Kaman, or more accurately a giant meh...and yet, Mavericks fans are quietly giddy.
I'm willing to admit it myself and if you don't understand the reasons, a little history is in order.
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
The Dallas Mavericks had their first good center.
His name was James Donaldson, and he was a 7' 2" mountain. The Mavericks had been in existence for five years already without much in the way of a true center, so Donaldson was a welcome addition to an already star-studded cast on the verge of greatness.
Donaldson holds the interesting distinction of possessing the record for most NBA games played, without ever attempting a three-pointer.
But don't hold it against him—from where he stood, not so far away from the basket, he put the ball in it often enough. In fact, his .571 career field-goal percentage is the 7th highest in NBA history, and during the 1984–85 NBA season, he led the league in field goal percentage at 0.637.
He spent seven seasons in Dallas, averaging 8.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game—twice averaging more than ten rebounds per game, including a double-double season in 1986-87.
Until Dirk Nowitzki passed him, Donaldson was the Mavericks' all-time leading rebounder. When you watched Donaldson you were witnessing a bona fide old-school big man, something along the lines of the immovable object.
When Michigan standout Roy Tarpley was drafted a year later, things along the front lines improved even more. Tarpley seemed destined for stardom.
A center in college, Tarpley assumed the sixth-man role and in 1987-88, won the Sixth Man of the Year award while posting 13.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
Donaldson himself earned a spot on the 1988 All-Star Team, and the Mavericks reached the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Lakers. Unfortunately, that would be their peak and the beginning of the drug and injury problems that would destroy Tarpley's career. The team went into a slow decline lasting for years.
Even the worst teams have talented players, but after Donaldson was traded in 1991, Dallas managed to remain devoid of a notable big man for the better part of two decades, through good times and bad. Stars came and went–or came and went and came back, through good times and bad with no one worthy at the 5 despite the outlay of some serious bucks. Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dirk, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison and other All-Stars were on the courts in Mavericks uniforms in every position but center until Tyson Chandler stopped in for a visit and was considered by many to be an All-Star snub in 2011. That's right—20 long years later.
The in-between time was mostly filled with the likes of Shawn Bradley, a consistent shot-blocker and inconsistent everything else, followed by the infamous Erick Dampier era.
One of the more notable contract gaffes in recent history, Dampier had an unprecedented season in 2003-2004, posting numbers far above his career averages, including over 12 points and 12 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks a game. In addition, he cashed in on a 7-year, $73 million contract with the Mavericks.
Unfortunately, as soon as he came to big D, his numbers returned to previous levels and went downhill from there.
Dallas finally appeared to be reeling in a Donaldson-esque big man in Brendan Haywood, whose numbers were not even quite up to Dampier's. Still, after he was traded to the Mavericks in 2010, he signed a six-year, $55 million contract.
That would ironically end up being the payday for a backup, as the Mavericks then traded Dampier to the to the Charlotte Bobcats, along with Matt Carroll and Eduardo Nájera, in exchange for Tyson Chandler and Alexis Ajinça. Dampier was still to have his most memorable Maverick moment, however. After signing with the Miami Heat just in time to play against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, Dampier and other members of the losing team partied with his old buddies after the loss. Party on, Erick!
Chandler of course only stayed a year and Haywood would regain the starting job only to put up very modest numbers and be waived via the amnesty clause in 2012.
With that track record, it's no small wonder that for many reasons Mavericks fans were in disbelief that Mark Cuban didn't make an effort to keep the championship team together—to the eternal chagrin of many.
Generally considered to be the single most important piece of the championship team other than Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler gave the team a defensive presence they never had and much more.
An emotional and intense player by nature, Chandler largely changed the culture in Dallas and was considered instrumental in beating the favored Miami Heat with his stalwart defense of the rim and effective play versus the "Big Three." He was named to the All-Defensive Second Team, and he had racked up a higher scoring and rebounding average than anyone since Donaldson 20 years prior.
With grandiose dreams of signing Dwight Howard or perhaps Deron Williams, of course, the Mavericks allowed Chandler to leave for the New York Knicks, where he improved in nearly every single statistical category. Chandler finished the regular season with a 67.9% field goal percentage—the third highest in NBA history—and won the 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award while Brendan Haywood racked up about the same numbers he had coming off the bench the previous year.
So basically, in the post-Donaldson era the Mavericks survived and in the second decade even excelled, despite continually starting overpaid, underachieving centers—that is, until Tyson Chandler, with whom they won the NBA Championship and then sat by as he left for the Big Apple.
Is it any wonder someone didn't open a vein?
Back to the present, the NBA community is subject to the daily drama of What "Will Dwight Do?" and whatever it is, it might not be this year. But with a chance to right at least one wrong by releasing Brendan Haywood via amnesty and to peruse the free agent market, other options were on the table.
So Dallas signs Chris Kaman to a reasonable one-year $8 million dollar contract and most of the world yawns—except of course for Dallas fans.
Are the faithful simply too scarred from watching Hakeem Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson, Yao Ming, David Robinson and TIm Duncan just down the interstate, including teams with All-Star Twin Towers while Dallas was lucky to have one guy in the paint flirting with double figures? Are Mavericks fans simply so deprived and devastated by the years devoid of of any kind of passable center and the loss of Chandler that all objectivity has been lost?
Well, haters gonna hate and OK, Kaman isn't a sprout. He is < gasp > thirty years old. He's had some injuries and probably a few bad hair days. He isn't Dwight Howard. Got it.
But he is Chris Kaman. That means someone who hasn't been signed to a multi-million dollar long-term contract after one career season. That also means someone who signed a reasonable one-year deal after not just one year, but many years of solid play and consistency.
There isn't much to call spectacular about Kaman, but on the other hand, there is very little he doesn't do well.
He is not the defensive standout that Chandler is, but he is competent and his offensive skills outshine Chandler by a long shot. With capabilities that range from scoring in the paint to hitting the mid-range jumper, Kaman is easily the best offensive center the Mavericks have had in the history of the franchise. I'll still miss the alley-oops but at the end of the day, there will be more points on his line of the box score. That's the bottom line.
Kaman's average may not reach what it has been in the past, for the simple reason that he has never been surrounded with several other potent scorers.
Make no mistake, though, he is one of those himself.
For the first time in the Dirk Nowitzki era, Dallas will have numerous scoring options in the paint to supplement strong outside shooting. When you consider how that can open up the floor for other shooters and burn teams who try to double-team Dirk or O.J. Mayo, the possibilities are intriguing.
It also doesn't hurt that Kaman has played with both Elton Brand and Dirk in the past, teaming with Brand to help the Los Angeles Clippers to their only recent playoff appearance prior to the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era and alongside Dirk on the German national team.
Finally, getting Kaman to ink a one-year deal again gives Dallas maximum flexibility for the following year. The Mavs were both skilled in negotiating with him and fortunate that he has an affection for both Dirk and the Mavericks organization.
Mavericks fans started last year with much hope after a summer of disillusionment, only to endure a frustrating season and to begin this summer with a few more kicks in the stomach.
Obviously, the front office has gone a long way to turn things around, and this next season should provide some exciting basketball that is very likely to surprise the doubters.
This offseason, Dallas had focused on the superstar dujour Deron Williams and possibly Steve Nash, which was understandable considering the Jason Kidd situation. However, I had argued on more than one occasion that Dallas' #1 priority should be help down low, both defensively and offensively.
Kaman's arrival does exactly that.
He literally gives the Mavericks something the team has never had—a legitimate seven-footer who is solid in every aspect of his game on both ends of the floor. He ranges from competent to superior in scoring, rebounding, defense, shot-blocking and even passing.
All those qualities in and of themselves are noteworthy, but adding them into the mix of a Dirk Nowitzki-led team that has never been so blessed is just a little more than fantastic.
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