Cuban: Gooden is best fit for present

DALLAS -- If Mark Cuban got what he wanted, Marcin Gortat would have been wearing a Dallas Mavericks uniform during Monday night's preseason opener at the American Airlines Center.

That's not the way things worked out. Gortat remains Dwight Howard's backup after the Orlando Magic surprisingly matched the Mavs' five-year, $34 million offer to the restricted free agent center this summer.

Yet Cuban believes the Mavericks are actually better off for the immediate future, thanks to the addition of Drew Gooden, a guy who wasn't in the team's plans until the possibility of adding Gortat was gone.

That's not sour grapes or slighting Gortat, an athletic, 25-year-old traditional center with a ton of room in his game for growth. It's just that the Mavs believe they're getting a proven player who provides a different dimension in Gooden, a seven-year veteran who started for a Finals team with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We saw Marcin as a great long-term player," said Cuban, who suggested the Magic would have saved a lot of money if they made it clear they planned to match a mid-level offer for Gortat. "But Drew's been through it all and there's a lot to be said for that."

The 6-10, 250-pound Gooden will start at center for the Mavericks most games. The potential exceptions are when Dallas has to deal with bruising, back-to-the-basket big men such as Howard. The plan at this point is for Erick Dampier to start those games, which is what happened in the preseason opener.

However, Gooden showed in the Mavs' 110-105 loss to the Magic on Monday night that he can present problems for traditional centers, too. His 18-point, six-rebound performance in 23 minutes -- the Mavs outscored the Magic by 13 when he was on the floor -- was highlighted by a stretch when he dominated Howard after Dampier fouled out early in the third quarter.

Gooden scored 10 points during that span of just more than five minutes. He knocked down a couple of 20-foot jumpers and displayed his ballhandling by driving for layups. Those skills aren't seen in a lot of centers, including Gortat and Dampier.

"When I saw Dwight on me, my eyes kind of lit up because he was giving me the space to shoot the jumper or I could have drove right past him," Gooden said. "At the end of the day, he's a beast trying to get back down there on defense and trying to hold him up. It's a two-way street."

Gooden more than held his own on the other end during that stretch. Howard had only one point in those five minutes and missed both of his field goal attempts, one of which was a layup that Gooden swatted out to the 3-point line.

The Mavs believe that Gooden is a dependable defender whose finesse offensive game belies his toughness. But it's his skill set -- the midrange stroke, ability to put the ball on the floor, finishing ability on the break -- that makes him such an intriguing fit.

"He provides you with an offensive punch from that midrange that's lacking with Erick," Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson said. "Erick's not known for his long-range jumper. Between Damp and Drew, it's a pretty nice one-two punch."

Nelson agreed with Cuban's contention that Gooden will help the Mavs more this season than Gortat would have. But Gortat would have manned the middle for the foreseeable future, a significant concern with Dampier entering the final guaranteed year of his contract. Gooden has a one-year, $4.5 million deal.

There is a reason the Mavs made Gortat, who doesn't get much playing time behind Howard, their primary target with the midlevel exception.

"When you make those decisions, you're looking at the future of the franchise," Nelson said. "When you've got a young center that's got Finals experience and just coming into his prime, those are all things that are factors. He's a terrific young man who's shown the propensity to get better. He's got real good upside. Obviously, Orlando saw a lot of the same things that we did."

Added Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle: "We liked his size, his ability to run, his strength, his game, his age. We liked everything about him. He's a good player, he's 25 and he's going to get better."

At 28, Gooden is in his prime, but there's no guarantee that he'll stick around his seventh NBA stop for very long. He readily admits that he looks forward to getting another shot at free agency.

"That's a great sign," Nelson said. "Players that aren't afraid of free agency are generally speaking winners that are looking forward to a big year and getting back out onto the market."

Gooden wasn't dealing from a position of power in the free agent market this summer. The economy was awful, many teams were pinching pennies to save up for next summer's star-studded crop and he was coming off a season in which he bounced between three teams and was hampered by a torn abductor muscle that caused him to miss more than 30 games.

Gooden said he could have taken an offer from another team for more than $4.5 million. The Mavs were willing to give him a multi-year deal, but he opted to sign for one season and see what happens after what he hopes will be a long playoff run.

"I wanted to be in a winning situation first of all," said Gooden, whom the Mavs can offer only a 12-percent raise after this season. "I want to win a championship. If I have to sacrifice money in free agency, which I did, so be it. I want to be in the best situation."

The best situation was in Dallas, even though Gooden was the Mavs' second choice. And he was the best fit, at least for now.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.