- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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No offense meant to the big man, but Tyson Chandler's arrival disappointed a lot of people in Dallas.
The July deal with the Charlotte Bobcats represented the Mavericks' failure to really cash in on the vaunted trade chip of Erick Dampier's instantly expiring contract. After all, the Mavs started the summer with hopes of packaging that unique commodity with other assets in a sign-and-trade deal for one of the free-agent superstars.
Those far-fetched plans fizzled once the SuperFriends settled in South Beach. The Mavs could have pulled the trigger on a trade for proven double-double machine Al Jefferson, but they didn't want to part with the multiple first-round picks Minnesota wanted. Instead, the Mavs settled on a veteran big man who missed 68 games the previous two seasons due to toe and ankle injuries, dumping the longer-term but lesser-money contracts of Eduardo Najera and Matt Carroll in the process.
For the jaded -- and count me among the guilty -- Chandler wasn't much more than a financial placeholder, a $12.6 million expiring contract the Mavs might be able to deal for a difference-maker before the trade deadline.
"There were plenty of skeptics -- and some internal," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "But those guys are now certainly singing the praises and understanding the value that he brings."
It's funny what fitting in perfectly for a 14-4 team will do for the perception of a fella. The high-flying Chandler has quickly become a popular man with the Mavs, who are in Utah to face Jefferson's Jazz in a Friday night showdown between Western Conference teams with matching seven-game winning streaks.
Now the biggest question about Chandler, a favorite of everybody from the front office to the fans, is whether the Mavs can make him a piece of the franchise's foundation for the future.
"I mean, I'd love to," owner Mark Cuban said before acknowledging that the looming labor negotiations could play a role in whether Chandler returns next season. "We have to see what the rules are, so we'll see. Obviously, he's a big bonus for us."
The 28-year-old Chandler has started at center since the season opener despite the Mavs re-signing Brendan Haywood this summer to a contract that could be worth up to $55 million over six seasons. It took all of a few games before coach Rick Carlisle began describing Chandler as a major part of the Mavs' "heart and soul."
His numbers (9.2 points on 67.6 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 27.3 minutes per night) are impressive but not indicative of how great an impact Chandler has made for the Mavs.
"All he wants to do is help the team win," said face of the franchise Dirk Nowitzki, whose finesse game is complemented well by Chandler's aggressive, athletic style. "If that means he has to set a good pick or get 20 rebounds or take a couple of charges, he does all the little things."
Nowitzki notes that what Chandler often does after the pick -- roll hard to the hoop and finish lobs with acrobatic authority -- opens up space for the Mavs' shooters. But Chandler's presence is felt much more on the other end of the floor.
The 7-foot-1 Chandler has been the high-energy force behind Dallas' defensive improvement from mediocre to one of the league's statistically stingiest teams. His mobility gives the Mavs a dimension they've never had in the middle and makes many of their zone schemes work. His infectious passion and intensity set the tone. His communication skills are the key to a cohesive unit.
"He's the leader of the band, baby," Cuban said.
Cuban is not among those surprised by Chandler's instant impact. While Chandler's short-term contract provided insurance of sorts, especially compared to Jefferson's long-term deal, Cuban made the trade with the expectation that Chandler would be a significant contributor to a championship contender.
That's because Cuban had inside information about Chandler. Mavs trainer Casey Smith had been working with Chandler on Team USA.
When asked by Cuban last summer, Smith stated strongly that Chandler had a clean bill of health and had regained the explosiveness he had when he averaged a double-double for the New Orleans Hornets. Smith also raved about Chandler's impact as a role model for the young players on the USA squad.
"He didn't play a lot, but he had a leadership role," Cuban said. "What's that tell you? When Casey is saying guys are listening to him and respecting him, what's that tell you?"
It told Cuban all he needed to hear to call Bobcats owner Michael Jordan after Charlotte's deal to send Chandler to Toronto fell through.
By that point, the big fish in free agency were out of the water and the Mavs had decided they weren't willing to pay what the Timberwolves wanted for Jefferson, whose defensive deficiencies were also a concern considering he would have played a lot of minutes next to Nowitzki. Dallas didn't want to get stuck holding onto the Dampier chip.
The worst-case scenario was that Chandler's expiring contract would be an attractive asset in the trade market. The best-case scenario is happening -- and hopefully will continue for years to come.
"I love it here. I love it here," Chandler said when asked whether he envisions staying in Dallas after this season. "I love this city. My family has already adapted and we all appreciate everyone here and everything everyone has done for me. The organization is obviously incredible. I think we all know that. And I love my teammates. But that's so far in the future. We'll just let that be."
Chandler's arrival was considered a disappointment, but his departure would really sting. At the very least, he's appreciated now.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
5dMatt Walks, ESPN.com