Last summer, whenthe Mavericks signed free agent DeSagana Diop--then a 7-foot, 310-pound projectwho had spent the previous four seasons rooted to the Cavaliers' bench--fewfigured he would make an immediate impact. Though he was being paid $6.48million over three years, the doughy Diop hadn't even accepted the idea ofbasketball as a full-time career. "People here dream about being in theNBA," says Diop, who grew up in Senegal and only started playing hoops at14. "It still wasn't the biggest deal to me."
Once in Dallas,however, Diop (pronounced Jopp) became a big deal. He shed 40 pounds anddiscovered newfound quickness and agility, and by midseason had earned thestarting nod at center over veteran Erick Dampier; the team promptly went on a13-game winning streak. "We just explained to him what his role wouldbe," says coach Avery Johnson, "and it kind of evolved fromthere."
The Mavs improvedfrom 14th to seventh in scoring defense and made their first trip to theFinals, thanks in part to Diop's 7'6" wingspan: His 4.59 blocks per 48minutes ranked seventh in the league, and in the conference finals he wasfairly successful in stepping out on the Suns' Steve Nash on the pick-and-roll.This summer Diop lost the remaining baby fat on his body and tweaked hisoffensive game. After averaging just 2.3 points last season, he added a 15-footpick-and-pop jumper and a pair of new post moves. Now he might be able to makea dent on the offensive end as well.
Projected StartingLineup with 2005--06 statistics
Record: 60--22(2nd in West)
Points scored: 99.1 (9th in NBA)
Points allowed: 93.1 (7th)
Coach: Avery Johnson
(third season with the Mavericks)
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Mavericks
They didn't makeradical changes, which shows how much they like their chances of taking thefinal step and winning a championship. But the guys they did bring in are allbetter than the ones they got rid of.... It seems like every year Dirk Nowitzkigets better at figuring out how to take advantage of the defenses that arethrown at him. But I also think that he's close to maxing out his talent, so ifthey want to take the next step, they're going to need improvement from youngstars Josh Howard and Devin Harris.... I'm not a big fan of Jason Terry. He'llhave stretches when he gets hot offensively, but frequently he doesn't do alot. They ranked 29th in assists last year, which means that they rely on a lotof one-on-one play.... Their bench is outstanding. Jerry Stackhouse gives thema big-time option, Greg Buckner and Devean George can be excellent from thethree-point line while upgrading the defense, and Austin Croshere can shoot ittoo. Because of their depth they should be able to survive a short-term injuryto anybody except Nowitzki.
Only two (Keith Van Horn and Pavel Podkolzin) of the Mavs' 16 players didn'tstart at least one game last season, when coach Avery Johnson used 17 differentstarting lineups.
Learn about new trends, read up on the latest gossipand weigh in with your own thoughts in Mike McAllister's blog, atSI.com/nba.
CAPTAIN DIRK Nowitzki, who averaged a career-best 26.6 points last season, is the one player the deep Mavs can't afford to lose.