Erick Dampier: The Cause of and Solution To The Mavericks' Center Woes

Alex McVeighSenior Analyst INovember 14, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 30:  Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket against Erick dampier #25 of the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on October 30, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Erick Dampier. An enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a headband. No Mavs player has caused fans more disgust, delight, optimism and pessimism in the past five years.

And now, as his tenure with the Mavericks comes to a close, he is in position to help the team more than he ever did wearing the blue and white.

You see, Erick Dampier is the most valuable commodity in the league entering the vaunted free agent summer of 2010. An expiring contract worth $16.4475 in savings.

The details can be found here , but allow me to summarize:

Due to a minutes clause in his contract, Erick Dampier's contract will not be guaranteed for the 2010-2011 season unless he averages 30 minutes per game in 70 games, which he hasn't done since his first year in Dallas

What does this mean for the summer of 2010? Well, a team (say the Raptors, Cavs, Hawks or Heat) who is about to lose their superstar (Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Joe Johnson or Dwyane Wade) for nothing in free agency can instead exchange their superstar for a massive amount of cap space, perhaps to offer to one of the other premium free agents in the class of 2010.

So why would a free agent like James choose Dallas over New York (besides the obvious) when it appears Dallas was never in the picture for any of these free agents?

Simple. Since the superstar would be technically resigning with their old team in a sign-and-trade, salary cap rules for a max contract come into effect.

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A max contract for a free agent next season will be something like five years, $96 million. For a team resigning its own player, a max contract would be worth something like six years, $125 million.

Quite a difference.

Add to the fact that Dallas has A) Jason Kidd, who everybody wants to play with; B)Mark Cuban, who has proven willing to spend to win, unlike a lot of other owners; C) Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and a cast of other players that are vastly superior to (especially) the New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, or any other team that would re-sign its own superstar.

Now, I'm not putting Dallas out there as a likely destination for James, Wade and co., but the Dampier factor sure makes it interesting.

But here's where it gets a little sticky.

More than any other player in sports, Erick Dampier defines the phenomenon known as the "contract year."

In 2003-04, Dampier was playing for the Golden State Warriors and entering the last year of his contract. He put up a career high 12.3 points per game and 12 rebounds per game on a then-career high 53.5 percent from the field.

His play that year made him one of the most sought-after free agents that summer, finally landing with Dallas with a seven-year $73 million contract.

Since then he's shown flashes of brilliance and been a serviceable center. But you would like more from a center who makes that much money, especially when you know he's capable of it when properly motivated.

Which brings us to this year, another contract year for Erick Dampier.

And, what do you know, he's been a machine this year, shooting a career-high 65 percent from the field (good for 2nd in the NBA), and averaging 2.22 blocks per game (6th in the NBA).

Last Tuesday against Houston, Dampier took advantage of the Rockets' lack of size, and submitted a 14 point (on 6-6 from the field, 2-2 from the line), 20 rebound, three block performance.

Sounds like Dampier's back in contract year mode.

Now here's where things get a little sticky for the Mavericks. With Drew Gooden's underwhelming start, combined with Damp's success, especially on the defensive end, what if the Mavs have to play him more than they were planning to, especially in a Western Conference where a single win can be the difference between a three-seed and a six-seed?

Before the season, it was made pretty clear that Rick Carlisle and GM Donnie Nelson were going to keep a pretty close eye on Dampier, but I hardly think they'll sit him just to save on his contract, especially if the Mavs are in position to make a deep playoff run.

Now, this could cost the Mavs a shot at landing a big fish this summer (though with Josh Howard, Drew Gooden and others expiring, they could still land someone, though not necessarily a top-tier guy), but stick this one in your thought-box and turn it over a bit:

What if the Mavs could get two contract years from Erick Dampier?

It's pretty clear that the window for the Mavs are currently constructed is going to be about two years. Jason Kidd probably has two seasons left where he can be effective as a starter, Dirk maybe three, and the Mavs only have three players under contract for 2011-12, Kidd, Marion and Carroll, adding up to a little less than $20 million.

For a long time, the holes in the Mavericks' lineup have been at center and shooting guard. Well, with Dampier playing motivated, the center position might be okay for the next two seasons.

At shooting guard, there's Joe Johnson (my secret hope for the summer of 2010), and the Mavericks have about $14 million in expiring deals this summer with Howard and Gooden to chase him with.

A lineup of Kidd, Johnson, Marion, Dirk and a motivated Dampier (for the second year in a row, because his contract is definitely done after the 10-11 season) isn't too shabby going into next year.

Dampier has been pretty reliable when it comes to staying healthy (he's only missed 17 games in his 13-year career), and since he's not particularly athletic, his game shouldn't decline too much.

Sure, I know many a fan has had their hopes crushed by counting on a player's motivation to help the team, but the possibility of getting two seasons of a motivated Dampier is reason enough to get optimistic.