Future at center comes into focus

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Brendan Haywood has hardly had time to unpack his suitcase in his hotel room, but he already feels at home with Dallas.

The big man's real estate search can wait. Haywood is too busy proving why he was the guy the Dallas Mavericks coveted during their trade talks with the Washington Wizards. And that was before the bone in Erick Dampier's right middle finger popped through the skin, sidelining the center for up to a month.


Brendan Haywood made a difference against Dwight Howard, who made three shots and drew five fouls in only 10 touches when guarded by anyone other than the Mavs' new center.

"Now the move is even better," Dirk Nowitzki said of the seven-player deal with the Wizards. He then raved about Haywood's performance in two starts, both of which were 10-point wins over playoff teams.

Is it too early to start the debate about whether Haywood is the best big man in Dallas' center-deprived history? Perhaps, but with apologies to James Donaldson and Dampier, it's not difficult to project that being the case if the Mavs lock up Haywood to a long-term contract this summer.

And Haywood sure sounds like a guy who plans to put down roots in Dallas.

"Dallas' style of play fits me," Haywood said after the Mavs' 95-85 road win Friday night over the Orlando Magic. "I'm free to roam on defense. On offense, I'm around the basket a lot for quick duck-ins and easy drop-offs.

"The ball movement here is so great. The difference here is that the ball actually moves and everybody gets their touches. In D.C., it wasn't always like that. We didn't always play the right way."

Haywood's presence allows the Mavs to play the way they want, even while Dampier deals with yet another ailment. Dallas' defense has a 7-foot backbone again.

It's not as if Haywood, whom Dwight Howard recently proclaimed the NBA's best defensive center, shut down Orlando's Superman. Far from it. Howard had 29 points (11-of-19 shooting) and 16 rebounds.

Haywood just made the rest of the Mavs' jobs much easier. Haywood's presence around the rim and ability to battle Howard without a whole lot of help let his teammates stay close to the Magic's plethora of perimeter shooters. Orlando, which leads the league in 3-pointers made by a wide margin, made only four of 25 attempts from behind the arc.

"When you have a guy 7-1 in there, it's going to change the geometry of the game defensively," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Guys are going to go in there and have to change their shots. They're going to see long arms up over the rim."

Haywood's importance to the Mavs couldn't have been more clear than when he picked up two fouls in the first quarter. While he watched from the bench, the Magic scored 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 6:33.

The layup line was interrupted once Haywood got back on the court, with Orlando finishing the game shooting 41.4 percent from the floor. He challenged shot after shot during the Mavs' 19-0 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters, giving them the lead for good.

With Haywood, the Mavs can play the kind of defense they did early in the season, when Dampier was healthy.

Haywood, however, is more of an offensive threat. Not that Haywood will remind folks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he has a decent jump hook and can catch and finish at the rim. He scored seven of his 15 points during the fourth quarter against the Magic.

"He has some skill," said point guard Jason Kidd, any big man's best friend. "You shouldn't just look at him as being a defender. He showed that tonight."

He also showed why he was the steal of the deal with the Wizards and a man the Mavs plan to keep in Dallas for years to come.

Haywood can go house-hunting this summer. The Mavs' search for a long-term solution at center appears to be over.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.