Can Shaq save the Mavericks?

Updated: July 2, 2004, 12:03 AM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider
Mark Cuban has committed $84 million in salary to a team that, like a good Internet company, looks great on paper but upon closer scrutiny appears a lot murkier.

The Big Three in Dallas have, over the past year, ballooned to the Big Ten. After Dirk Nowitzki, the rest of the team becomes a blur. Until Thursday's news out of Phoenix, Michael Finley and Steve Nash were the heart. Now Nash is gone, and new additions Antoine Walker, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels and new rookies Devin Harris and Pavel Podkolzine all want their piece, too.

The Dallas owner might have assembled the best and most eclectic roster money can buy in the NBA but, when basketball gets serious in April and May, the Mavericks suddenly look like the Cavaliers. The issue is more than just chemistry. It's the fact the Mavs live and die by the jump shot on offense, then turn around and get destroyed in the paint on defense.

Ideally, it should be the other way around. If you're going to get beat on defense, make the jump shooters do it to you. If you want a reliable offense, give someone 20 touches a night in the paint.

That's where Shaquille O'Neal comes in. Everyone on the planet knows by now that the Los Angeles Lakers center wants a trade. You also know by now that Dallas is one of the few teams in the NBA with enough talent to make a deal for O'Neal without having to trade its entire roster.

The Lakers are willing to talk, if the Mavs give up their best 7-foot jump shooter in return. The Mavs claim they're willing to talk too, but Cuban insists (though some in the Mavs' front office disagree) Nowitzki is untouchable.

If Nowitzki is untouchable, O'Neal won't be the only big guy off-limits to the Mavs this summer. In the team's desperate attempt to add some size and some heart in the paint, the Mavs soon will come to realize there isn't a team in the league willing to trade a dominant NBA center for Finley, Walker and any of the other players the Mavs will dangle in their direction.

If Cuban maintains his stance, the Mavs will be watching re-runs come April. Jump shooters win in the winter. Defense and gritty post play win in the spring.

Can the Mavericks plug their hole in the middle and still keep their team intact? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer