Center situation only to get more intriguing

This probably isn't how Brendan Haywood expected the start of the season to go down, not after the Dallas Mavericks committed some $55 million to him over six seasons and basically promised him the starting job.

Of course, Haywood's sixth year isn't guaranteed, but that's still $6.9 million in salary this season and it escalates each season to about $9.8 million in the fifth year.

That's a lot of dough for a backup.

Of course, it was Haywood who first acknowledged this summer that the starting job would be his under the current makeup of the roster, and at that time Erick Dampier was still on it. Haywood thought he shouldn't have lost his starting job last season shortly after Dampier returned from injury.

But, since the club swapped Dampier for Tyson Chandler, coach Rick Carlisle has fallen in love with Chandler's enthusiasm, his vocal and physical presence on defense and his high-revving motor.

So much so that Haywood lost the starting job he never had. Carlisle tabbed the 7-foot-1 Chandler as the Mavs' starting center for the opener and there is no reason to believe that's going to change as the Mavs head into Game No. 7 tonight at the Memphis Grizzlies.

As a reserve, the 7-foot Haywood has been less than stunning. He's averaging 3.2 points and 4.3 rebounds -- one offensive board per game -- and 1.3 blocks in 19.2 minutes. Those numbers are very DeSagana Diop-like, who you might recall two summers ago the Mavs showered with more than $32 million over five seasons, only to be so disappointed in him that they traded Diop to Charlotte a few months later.

In the last three games, two against the Denver Nuggets and Monday's big win over the Boston Celtics, Haywood didn't log more than 16 minutes and totaled seven points and 13 rebounds. It must be noted that both opponents were missing multiple frontcourt players. Against Denver at least, the Mavs more often opted to go small to counter the Nuggets' height-challenged lineups.

But, against the Celtics, Chandler simply played so well (12 points, 13 rebounds, two blocks) that Carlisle stuck with him for a season-high 33 minutes, more than doubling Haywood's court time.

After the game, Carlisle said of Chandler: "This guy is becoming one of our heart-and-soul guys."

Tonight's game at Memphis should be an opportunity for Haywood to assert himself. The Grizzlies feature burly 7-foot center Marc Gasol and a powerful load in 6-9 forward Zach Randolph, who seemingly loves to play against the Mavs no matter whose uniform he's wearing.

The Mavs claim their length at center will help them compete against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers' tall frontline if they are to meet in a playoff series.

However, Chandler's emergence could make for some interesting and very difficult decisions before the playoffs ever arrive. Chandler is working on the final year of a $12.6 million contract, a very attractive chip as the February trade deadline approaches. But, why would the Mavs want to deal their impressive, 28-year-old starting center who smiles endlessly when he proclaims that he's pain-free for the first time in two years?

If Chandler (7.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg) remains healthy and puts together a bounce-back season, he will be a highly sought-after free agent by any team missing a weapon in the middle, and that's most. So much so, that with Haywood locked up and a looming CBA battle that could drastically alter the salary cap, the Mavs will be hard-pressed to keep Chandler unless he agrees to take a significant hometown discount.

But, why would a 28-year-old in his first year with the franchise do that? Especially considering that Jason Kidd's career likely has one more season to go after this one when his contact expires, and it's not as though the Mavs boast a young nucleus on the upswing.

Trade Haywood then? Good luck. He'll become eligible to be dealt on Dec. 15, but it would be shocking if team president Donnie Nelson can sweet talk anyone into taking Haywood with the money he's owed.

It leaves the Mavs in the strange situation of embracing an emerging player they probably can't keep, while the one they've locked up settles into a more diminshed role than he envisioned.