For a solid decade, the Mavericks looked in vain for a starting center. First with two generations of Don Nelsons, then with only one, and always with Mark Cuban signing off on their moves, they acquired galoot after towering galoot to fill the frontcourt spot next to Dirk Nowitzki. They almost never found a suitable one.
June of 2000. Cuban has owned the Mavs for six months. Dirk has just finished his second season and it’s gone a lot better than his rookie year. They’re about to trade Erick Strickland away to the Knicks and let a 26-year-old Steve Nash take over the offense. Michael Finley is the best player on the team, coming off his first All-Star appearance and averaging 22-6-5. It makes perfect sense that Cuban and both Nelsons decide to take Etan Thomas 12th overall out of Syracuse. A pedigreed shot-blocker in the middle—seventh all-time on the NCAA blocks list—should complement the rest of the roster nicely. “We got the two guys we wanted all along,” Nelson Sr. says, referring to the draft night acquisitions of Thomas and Courtney Alexander. “Everything worked out perfectly. I just couldn’t be more pleased.”
Thomas doesn’t play a single game for the Mavericks. He’s sidelined by a toe injury until February, when they trade him to the Wizards for Juwan Howard and Calvin Booth.
With Thomas contributing nothing, the Mavs fill the center spot with Christian Laettner and Shawn Bradley, the latter of whom they sign to a seven-year, $30 million extension in the summer. After the Howard trade, they start most games without a traditional five. The Mavs finish fifth in the West, beat the Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs, and end their season against the Spurs. This is a big deal in Dallas, where they haven’t made the postseason since 1990.
The following year, Nash and Nowitzki find a new level but Howard’s play tails off, so the Mavericks send him, their 2002 first-rounder, and some flotsam to Denver for Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz. Van Exel was an inspired acquisition who would go on to tear through the Western Conference in the 2003 playoffs, but LaFrentz was just okay for the Mavericks. They signed him to a seven-year, $70 million contract during the summer of 2002 and shipped him off to the Celtics along with a 2004 first-rounder for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk shortly before the 2003-04 season began.
The Mavs took several swings at filling the center position during the 2004 offseason. They spent a year experimenting with a Nellieball special—Dirk and Walker in the frontcourt—but Toine was both hellaciously inefficient and defensively inept. That squad got bounced from the first round in five games by the Kings and the front office set about trying to fix their rim protection problem. The smaller solutions: Pavel Podkolzin, a Russian seven-footer acquired on draft night, who played six games for Dallas in two years, and D.J. Mbenga, who escaped political persecution in the Congo, picked up a basketball for the first time at age 19, and couldn’t toss a jump hook into a kiddie pool.
The big solution: Erick Dampier, in a sign-and-trade with the Warriors. In 2003-04, Dampier put in one of those deceptively grand contract year performances (12 and 12 with a pair of blocks per game) that foot some unfortunate team or another with a bill that doesn’t match what they’re ordering. The desperate Mavs turned out to be that team, locking the eventual Weezy punchline into a seven-year, $73 million deal that the organization spent the duration of justifying with unconvincing bromides like “guys who have the experience that he's got are hard to find.”
Dampier clogged the Mavs’ cap for a while, so they were stuck with him as their starting center for a while. He was fine—he could rebound and defend alright, though he did very little to stop Shaq’s creakily effective post game or Dwyane Wade’s speed of sound drives in the 2006 Finals—but severely overpaid. It wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that Dallas made any significant moves at the five, and what they did made no sense. The previous season, Donnie Nelson—now operating alone at the top of the personnel department after his father was fired after the 2004-05 season—had traded away DeSagana Diop and a couple first-rounders to New Jersey as cap filler in what we now remember as the Devin Harris/Jason Kidd swap. Then he brought back Diop, whom the Nets had zero interest in resigning, for the full mid-level exception: five years, $31 million. Diop’s career points per game average at the time was 2.1.
The Mavs quickly realized their mistake and sent Diop to Charlotte for Ryan Hollins and Matt Carroll in January. After that, they continued to search for depth behind Dampier throughout the 2009 offseason. Nelson drafted Byron Mullens 24th in the first round, but flipped him to Oklahoma City for the rights to Rodrigue Beaubois. He tried to pry restricted free agent Marcin Gortat away from Orlando with a five-year, $34 million offer sheet, but the Magic matched. The Mavs ended up settling for Drew Gooden on a one-year contract. It would be disingenuous to say they signed Jake Voskuhl, because he didn’t actually play any minutes for them and was off the team within a month of joining, but it feels worth mentioning, from a cosmic perspective.
A few days before the 2010 trade deadline, Nelson flips Gooden, Josh Howard, and some miscellania for Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson, and Brendan Haywood, whom the Mavs sign to a six-year, $52 million extension that’s so onerous they have to wipe it off their books with the amnesty provision two years later.
If you don’t remember DeSagana Diop, you remember how this ends. In July of 2010 Nelson sends Dampier’s expiring contract to Charlotte for Tyson Chandler and he becomes exactly what the Mavs have been looking for. He’s one of the smartest and most capable defensive players in the league. He’s great on the offensive glass and puts up 10 points per night on nothing but putbacks and dunks. Chandler and Shawn Marion combine to, if not completely stop, then at least bother the hell out of LeBron and Wade and the Mavericks win their first NBA title.
In the afterglow of that championship, Cuban and Nelson curiously chose to punt on the next season. They let Chandler walk in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks, giving his minutes to Haywood and Ian Mahinmi, both of whom barely played in the Finals victory over Miami. (This plan fails as predictably as it sounds like it would.) Eight games into a disjointed post-lockout season, the Mavs make one more move to solidify the frontcourt. He doesn’t play much and he isn’t hailed upon his arrival as the next great Dallas five or anything. You could call him a power forward if you wanted to, but he functions as a useful punchline in this saga. The first seven-footer Nelson brings in after waving goodbye to Tyson Chandler? Yi Jianlian.