DALLAS -- His bosses believe Samuel Dalembert is the Mavericks' MIP.
For coach Rick Carlisle, who criticized Dalembert's conditioning after the preseason opener but has been pleased with his work since, that means most improved player.
For owner Mark Cuban, it means most important player. That's because Dalembert is the only proven traditional center on a Mavs roster that desperately needs its big man to be a strong defensive anchor.
"Actually, I think Sam is the key to our game more than anybody else," Cuban said this week on 103.3 FM ESPN. "One of the things about Tyson [Chandler] when he was here is that he only averaged 28 minutes a game because of foul trouble. Sometimes he'd get into early foul trouble and we had [Brendan] Haywood to back him up.
"Our backup center isn't as strong this year as it was last year. [Brandan] Wright is more of a forward playing center than a true center, and so Sam staying on the court and staying healthy and being aggressive and not being afraid of fouls but not getting fouls will be one of the main indicators of how we go."
For Dalembert, it's nice to be needed after bouncing in and out of the Milwaukee Bucks' rotation. He signed a two-year deal in Dallas with the second season partially guaranteed, and he's determined to prove his worth as an athletic big who does the dirty work.
"That's why I couldn't ask for a better team," Dalembert said. "They can utilize my skills and what I do best."
Since being called out by Carlisle, Dalembert has played big, averaging 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in about 22 minutes the last six preseason games. That's earned Dalembert, who has benefitted from some frank discussions with Carlisle behind the scenes, high public praise from his coach.
"He's the most improved guy on the team, without question," Carlisle said. "Everything from understanding what we're doing, putting in the extra work, his conditioning has gotten better and better. He's had a great attitude. He's really been terrific."