Mavs hope newest big man fills void

DALLAS -- Seven years and seven teams into his NBA career, the fourth overall pick of the 2002 draft might be best known as the guy who once sported a four-pronged, spiky goatee.

Suffice it to say Drew Gooden doesn't take himself too seriously.

Gooden, who is goatee-free for the time being, has a bit of goofball in him. He's a good-natured guy who smiles easily. At least until he's asked whether he's physical enough to be a force at center.

"My opponents, they feel Drew Gooden," he said. "They feel me."

The Mavericks hope Gooden can fill a void at center that has existed since the day James Donaldson left Dallas. The 6-10, 250-pound Gooden certainly isn't a traditional center, but toughness is one of the reasons coach Rick Carlisle rattles off when discussing why Gooden will probably open the season as the Mavs' starting center.

Not that Erick Dampier, who manned the middle for the Mavs most of the last five seasons, comes up short in the toughness department. Dampier has always done the dirty work well. He just isn't an offensive threat and has trouble matching up with the new-age centers who are more likely to face up than post up.

That's why the decision-makers in Dallas are optimistic that the 28-year-old Gooden will be an upgrade, although Dampier could still start when the Mavs face the endangered species of back-to-the-basket big men.

"If we were to publish a depth chart right now, I'd tell you that it was his job to lose," Carlisle said. "There's a good chance we'll do some platooning because of bigger centers, etc., and there's a long way until Oct. 27. But we brought him in there with the idea that he'd give us outside shooting ability at [the] 5, rebounding, toughness, some dynamic athleticism at that position."

Gooden, who has averaged 12.0 points and 7.9 rebounds during his career, wasn't the Mavs' first choice among free-agent centers this summer. He signed a one-year deal worth $4.5 million plus incentives after Orlando surprisingly matched an offer for the full midlevel exception the Mavs made to Marcin Gortat.

However, the Mavs are confident that Gooden is a good fit despite his short-term contract.

Mark Cuban was willing to sign Gooden to a multiyear deal. Gooden, who explains his NBA odyssey by saying he's "been a victim of the business of basketball," wanted to be able to test the potentially rich free-agent market next summer.

There is a clause in Gooden's contract that guarantees him only $1.9 million if the Mavs trade or release him before Jan. 10. Cuban said that was suggested by Gooden's agent, Dan Fegan, just in case the fit isn't right. But Cuban can't envision a scenario in which getting rid of Gooden in the middle of the season would be in the Mavs' best interests.

"He's a guy that gives us a different look at the center," said Donnie Nelson, the team's president of basketball operations. "Erick is the aircraft carrier, the shot-blocker, rebounder. Drew comes in with a different skill set. He gives you a guy that can run like a deer, get out on the floor and guard, and he's got the toughness and the tenacity that can get the job done at that position."

Gooden would be the fourth offensive option in a starting lineup that wants to run as often as possible. But his presence could be a key in creating space for Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Shawn Marion to operate in halfcourt sets.

Carlisle wants to exploit the size advantage that Howard and Marion will have on many wings by frequently feeding them the ball on the block. That won't work if the opposing big man can play worry-free help defense. If his defender sags off him, Gooden is capable of draining open jumpers or cutting to the rim for easy baskets.

"He's got a deceptively good feel for the game," Carlisle said. "He can make the midrange shot. I don't want to pin too much on him in terms of he's going to have to carry the team or anything like that, but he's one of our key guys. He's going to have to be."

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.