DALLAS -- Overpaid or underappreciated? With Erick Dampier, it depends on whom you ask.
The big man has been a punching bag for Mavericks fans since soon after he signed a seven-year, $73 million contract to come to Dallas. The primary complaints about the stoic Dampier: not enough production and a perceived lack of passion.
But Dampier's bosses and teammates are quick to point out all the things he does that don't show up in the box score. Dirk Nowitzki, in particular, mentions how much easier Dampier makes his life by defending opponents' top interior scorers and serving as one of the NBA's best screen-setters.
"If you take him off this team, we're not going anywhere," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said. "I know in the locker room and in 29 other front offices he's appreciated. He's a true big man who can rebound and block shots. Those guys who have the experience that he's got are hard to find."
It's hard to find centers who have been better than Dampier five games into the season. The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Dampier leads the league with 2.8 blocks per game. He's averaging 9.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
"Listen, Damp's been a constant here for many, many years," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I don't think anybody should be surprised that he's playing well and playing effectively."
OK, but Dampier hasn't come close to averaging a double-double during his previous five seasons in Dallas.
In fact, if Dampier manages to continue producing at this pace, it'd be the second-best season of the 1996 lottery pick's career. He averaged 12.3 points and 12.0 rebounds for the Golden State Warriors in 2003-04.
That, of course, was a contract year. Coincidentally, so is this season, since the seventh year of Dampier's contract is completely nonguaranteed unless he achieves certain incentives.
But the big man bristles at the suggestion that he's more motivated this season than the previous five with the Mavericks. Dampier points out that he's made more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life.
"It's not on my mind, because I don't have to do anything else," Dampier said. "If I don't want to play anymore, I can go home and sit and watch TV. Obviously, I'm going to continue to play, whether it's here or somewhere else."
Dampier is a significant part of the Mavericks' long-term plans, but that doesn't mean he'll stay in Dallas next season. The vast majority of the incentives that would guarantee his $13.1 million salary for 2010-11 are unattainable at this point. The only possible exception: averaging 30 minutes per game this season, and that's a slim chance at best. He's averaging 30.6 so far -- an increase of more than seven minutes per game from last season -- but that's with Drew Gooden (rib cage injury) missing two games and Tim Thomas (knee surgery) still a couple of weeks away from his Mavericks debut. Those two will see significant playing time at center once they're healthy, especially against small-ball lineups.
Dampier's value to the Mavericks beyond this season is probably as trade bait. A team can deal for Dampier next summer and cut him without paying a penny because of the creative wording of his contract, making him a valuable commodity in the NBA economy. Essentially, Dampier's contract provides the Mavs the flexibility to be significant players for an impact free agent via the sign-and-trade route.
"He's a smart guy. He knows how to do math," said owner Mark Cuban, who insists that Dampier has fulfilled his expectations. "I don't think there's any reason to have to go in and discuss it with him."
The Mavericks' brass did see fit to discuss the team's evolving center position with Dampier after this summer.
They tried to sign Dampier's long-term replacement, but that plan was foiled when the Orlando Magic matched an offer sheet to restricted free agent Marcin Gortat. The Mavericks responded by signing Gooden and Thomas to one-year deals.
Before the beginning of training camp, Carlisle said he expected Gooden to replace Dampier as the primary starting center. Dampier has started every game so far, but the plan is still to have Gooden match up against the new-age, face-up type of centers. There will be games when Dampier doesn't get on the floor much.
Dampier understands the situation. He doesn't have a problem with it.
"The fire is always there, no matter who they bring in," Dampier said. "Drew is a good player. We get along fine, talk to each other, work, try to make each other better. I don't have any bad feelings about it.
"To me, it really doesn't matter who starts. As long as we win, that's really all that matters. I'm obviously older now. I've been in the league for a while. I want to have an opportunity to win a championship."
Who can't appreciate a dirty-work-doing big man determined to finish strong?
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.