<
>

Schedule spotlights Mavs' summer center soap opera

The Mavs will get a look at DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler right away this season. Getty Images

The NBA schedule-maker must have meant to mock the summer soap opera involving the Dallas Mavericks' center position. How else to explain the Mavs' season-opening back-to-back?

The Mavs open against Tyson Chandler and the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, facing a big man who was undoubtedly the best in Dallas franchise history but not good enough to prevent owner Mark Cuban from trying to upgrade. Twice.

The Mavs will meet the big fish who jumped out of their boat the next night, when they'll try to keep DeAndre Jordan from dominating the glass and adding to his Lob City highlight reel for the Los Angeles Clippers.

It's a harsh reminder right out of the chute about what was and what could have been for the Mavs in the middle. You can imagine how much Dallas folks enjoy discussing that topic more than three months after Jordan suddenly and shockingly cut off communications with Cuban, reneging on his commitment to sign with the Mavs and returning to the Clippers. Chandler was long gone by then, crossing the Mavs off the list of teams he'd consider in free agency as soon as he was slapped in the face with the fact that they were giving him second-fiddle treatment. Again.

"How much more is there to talk about?" Mavs coach Rick Carlisle asked rhetorically. "We moved on earlier in the summer."

It's a little harder for Mavs fans to move on. Jordan will forever be considered a villain in Dallas. As a key piece of the 2011 title team, Chandler will always be considered a legend. He is a center whose number Carlisle believes should one day hang at the American Airlines Center even though he had only two one-season stints in Dallas. That causes a lot of conflicted emotions, including how Chandler feels about Cuban.

"He helped me achieve one of my dreams of winning a championship, and he's done a great job with this organization," Chandler said. "I think he made two mistakes. He made two mistakes."

And, fair or not, the foes in the first two games put the focus squarely on the Mavs' center situation, which is kind of a potluck committee made up of NBA leftovers.

Zaza Pachulia, a solid veteran who has been a backup more often than a starter throughout his 12-year career, begins the season as the committee chairman. He was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks in a salary-dump deal for a future second-round pick that is so heavily protected it will probably never change hands.

JaVale McGee might be the best fit for the Mavs at center because of his athleticism, if he can ever get on the floor. A springy 7-footer, he continues to recover from complications related to a stress fracture in his left leg, an ailment that limited him to 28 games over the past two seasons, and has yet to practice with the Mavs.

"He's made great strides, but we're talking weeks at the minimum, and I don't know how many," Carlisle said of McGee's timetable. "It's not something that's coming around the bend here or coming over the bridge."

Salah Mejri, a 29-year-old rookie from Tunisia who beat out out-of-shape former Mavs starter Samuel Dalembert for a roster spot, enters the season as the backup big. Mejri, a lanky, 7-foot-2 former reserve for Real Madrid in Spain, is a bit of a mystery. Carlisle had never seen Mejri play, other than on the Internet, until two weeks into training camp, when Mejri was cleared to return from a broken leg suffered while playing for his country this summer.

Center has gone from one of the Mavs' biggest strengths, and a position the Dallas decision-makers thought they upgraded for a few days in July, to their largest question mark.

"Obviously, it's not as good as it was last year, when we had Tyson, and it's not what we hoped for," Cuban said. "But I think Salah has been a nice surprise. I think Zaza was a great acquisition. I think JaVale is going to be able to come in and play. So I think when it's all said and done -- knock on wood -- we could end up OK."

The problem is, the Mavs big men probably need to be much better than OK for the franchise to avoid being playoff spectators for the second time in four years. That is especially difficult to stomach in Dallas, considering the 12-year playoff streak snapped a few years ago, when Chris Kaman came through the revolving door in the Mavs' middle.

After all, the Mavs were a dreadful rebounding team last season, even with Chandler relentlessly crashing the glass. Dallas ranked dead last in rebounding margin, at minus-3.8 per game, despite Chandler finishing as the league's fifth-leading rebounder with 11.5 per game. Jordan is the league's best rebounder, averaging 15.0 per game last season.

Pachulia is solid, not spectacular, in that department. He averaged 6.8 rebounds in 23.7 minutes per game as a part-time starter for the Bucks last season.

Pachulia can provide much of the intangibles that Chandler brought to the Mavs' locker room. From an athletic standpoint, comparing Pachulia with Chandler, and especially with Jordan, is like matching up a camel with a couple of racehorses.

The Mavs would obviously much prefer a racehorse, particularly with Dirk Nowitzki, who turned 37 in June, at power forward, putting a premium on rebounding, rim protection and the ability to roll hard to the rim and finish high above it, a critical element in Dallas' offensive spacing.

That might make McGee, who isn't exactly known for his basketball IQ, the best eventual solution as the Mavs' starting center. That's why the Mavs didn't hesitate to keep McGee despite the uncertainty of his health and the fact his two-year, veterans-minimum contract is a partially guaranteed, pay-as-you-go deal.

Pachulia has blocked a shot almost every other game during his career. He had a grand total of 12 dunks last season, a puny percentage of the rim-rattling finishes by Chandler (179) and Jordan (252).

"I have a different game than those two guys," Pachulia said, cracking a grin before pointing out one facet of his game that is better than Chandler or especially Jordan. "I definitely shoot the free throws better."

Pachulia is much more of a pick-and-pop threat than a roll man. (After the trade with Milwaukee, Cuban boasted that Pachulia hit a higher percentage of midrange jumpers last season than Nowitzki, widely recognized as the sweetest-shooting 7-footer in NBA history.) That requires a lot of tinkering to Carlisle's offensive scheme.

"Look, I like our team," Carlisle said. "We aren't perfect. We have a ways to go to get totally healthy, but we're going to find a way to win our share of games and to compete at a high level. We'll figure it out."

Of course, Carlisle would have liked his team with Chandler or Jordan starting at center, but woulda, coulda, shoulda won't help the Mavs win any games this season.

Not like there's anything the Mavs can do to change it now. Plus, Cuban claims he has no regrets despite the disappointing results of his decision to prioritize recruiting Jordan, 27, over retaining Chandler, 33.

"I swing for the fences," said Cuban, who basically flipped his bat and strutted around the bases after Jordan's commitment, only to find out it was just a long foul ball. "That's what we do as an organization. You have to take chances to win. We've done it before, and we'll do it again. Sometimes it works for you, and sometimes it works against you."

And, in this case, the Mavs have to play against the two big men involved in their major summer risk on the first two nights of their season.