DALLAS — Samuel Dalembert retreated into a doorway with a high ceiling as he glistened with sweat beads following Monday’s short, but intense practice in the basement of the American Airlines Center.
The 6-foot-11 center, in his first season with the Dallas Mavericks, raised both arms, turned his massive palms outward and pushed them against each wall as if to hold them in place. His ridiculous 90-inch wing span resembled goalposts.
It becomes obvious why the Mavs, after missing out on Dwight Howard and equipped with only undersized hybrids in the middle, had to sign Dalembert, even as the Haitian-born center had presumably fallen off the NBA cliff.
Who else was going to protect the rim and rebound?
“You’ve seen Sam, he’s not only working hard in practice, but he’s coming in early,” said owner Mark Cuban, who committed $7.6 million to the 32-year-old over the next two seasons. “If he can’t come early he stays late. He’s getting in the extra work. He was coming in at eight in the morning. He’s really working. He knows he can be a special part of the team.”
Dalembert recognizes the opportunity. To seize upon it after being reduced to an afterthought in Milwaukee last season, he concluded that he had to change how he trained during the summer. For one, Dalembert was never going to win any offseason workout warrior awards, so his regimen had to ramp up. Second was a philosophical change to his approach. Standing tall in that doorway, he motioned to his practice jersey dangling from his torso.
“I’m lighter. Way lighter,” Dalembert told NBA.com. “In the past I trained to put a lot of weight on, lifting a lot of weight. This summer I was more into keeping the cardio going to be more agile and slim. I was able to accomplish that. I’m about 248 [pounds], 250. I was like 268, 270. So I changed that.
“Huge difference. I’m lighter, I bounce better, I’m going to be able to do multiple things on defense.”
It would be great news for Dallas, which will need him to play serious minutes. And considering the potential perimeter shortcomings of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, Dalembert figures to be an extremely active defender, sliding and rotating and tracking back and rebounding in a high-traffic painted area.
How ironic then that coach Rick Carlisle charged Dalembert with being out of shape in front of teammates and then the media after the first preseason game? Dalembert says it was all a misunderstanding. He pulled a hamstring while running track, part of his new regimen, and it set him back about a month before training camp. Feeling good when camp opened, he fell hard on his back during the first practice and he said it led to a bust of an opener — four points, two rebounds and four fouls in 11 minutes.
He closed out the next seven games averaging 7.4 ppg and 7.7 rpg in 21.4 mpg, plus 17 blocked shots. One of his best individual efforts (13 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes) came against Howard and Dallas’ division-rival Rockets. After the last preseason game, Carlisle deemed Dalembert as the most improved player on the team.
“When he told me that, I didn’t take it personally. I needed to get into even better shape anyway,” Dalembert said, smiling. “When he did say that, that’s part of maturity. I could have taken it in a negative way, but because I think the expectation of me is so high so that they want me to be in the best best shape I can ever be. It wasn’t something really in a negative way, and I didn’t take it personally. It was challenge and I took the challenge.”
Per-minute production hasn’t been an issue with Dalembert. Even when he was on the outs in Milwaukee, he averaged 6.7 ppg and 5.9 rpg in 16.3 mpg. His biggest challenge in Dallas will likely be keeping one statistic down — fouls. He racked up four against Zach Randolph, Ed Davis and the Grizzlies (Marc Gasol didn’t even play). He got four more in both games against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers. In the latter, the preseason finale, Indiana blew open a six-point game after Dalembert sat after picking up his third foul of the third quarter and fourth of the game.
For Dallas to compete, Dalembert must stay on the floor and prevent paint defense and defensive rebounding to overwhelmingly fall on DeJuan Blair, Brandan Wright, whose return from a fractured shoulder remains uncertain, and second-year center Bernard James.
“Dalmebert is obviously a very, very important guy,” Carlisle said. “And look, until Brandan gets back, everybody’s got to be ready.”
Big tests come quickly: Al Horford on opening night, Howard on Friday, Gasol on Saturday and Pau Gasol three nights later.
Dirk Nowitzki is healthy. Ellis is on board. Yet any realistic Mavs playoff hopes swing with Dalembert.