Mavericks on rise, but need top big man to be a contender

Put Moses Malone at center for the Dallas Mavericks, a three-year expansion franchise, and the National Basketball Association would probably have a new world champion.

Crazy talk? Maybe. Farfetched? Perhapsn Impossible? Some might say so.

But it's intriguing when people who know basketball start to think that one player the quality of Malone, could have that much effect on the Mavericks. It also shows how far Dallas has come in a short time; how sound the policies of General Manager Norman Sonju have been; and what a tremendous building job Dick Motta has done as head coach.

Unlike most expansion teams, Dallas didn't mortgage its future by going for a lot of over-age veterans when it came time to stock the roster. Instead it decided to go for kids whose futures hadn't yet been determined and try to do the rest through the NBA college draft.

What happened on the court in Dallas's first year in the league was predictable: the Mavericks won just 15 of 82 games. Worse yet, the team was unable to sign its No. 1 draft pick, forward Kiki Vandeweghe of UCLA, who said he would go back to grad school unless he could play in either New York or Los Angeles.

Eventually Dallas traded the rights to Vandeweghe plus a future first-round draft choice to the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick in both 1981 and 1985. And Dallas has made other deals involving players who were either considered marginal or lacking the necessary skills for the kind of team Motta is trying to build.

The result is that the Mavericks, who have improved to the point where they probably are going to win 35 to 40 games this season, have now stockpiled seven first-round and six second-round draft picks over the next four years.

''With a center like Malone or Robert Parish to go with the personnel we already have, Dallas would be right there with the best teams in the NBA,'' Motta told me during a stopover in Los Angeles.

''But we're probably not going to get a good enough center in the draft to make us a contender, and I doubt if we can trade for any of the big names already in the league who could improve our situation.''

Despite having the first-round picks of Atlanta and Cleveland in this year's draft, plus its own, Dallas will find Virginia's Ralph Sampson taken if it doesn't wind up with the No. 1 overall choice, which may go to Houston. Sampson and perhaps Georgetown sophomore Pat Ewing are the only college centers considered ''franchise players.''

Asked if he'd heard that Houston center Caldwell Jones was available, Motta said: ''We know about Jones, but we pyyo Knterested in him for two reasons - his age and his salary. Caldwell is a little bit older than we're looking for and maybe not quite enough of an offensive threat for us. And because we've purposely stayed away from players with the enormous salary he commands, we've been able to make money our first two years in the league, despite being an expansion franchise. In fact, we have $2 million in the bank.''

Although Dallas had a chance to improve its center situation in last year's draft by taking 6 ft. 10 in. LaSalle Thompson of Texas, the nation's leading rebounder, it went instead for forward Bill Garnett of Wyoming. Why?

''It was easy,'' Motta explained. ''The scouting reports we got on Thompson said he was not a good passer, not a good offensive player, and not a natural hustler. Actually LaSalle was never in the running with us. It was either going to be Garnett or Clark Kellogg of Ohio State.''

The way the team is structured now, Motta has two of the best forwards in the league (as a unit) in Mark Aguirre, who is among the NBA scoring leaders, and Jay Vincent, plus a rapidly improving Garnett as the No. 3 cornerman. The backcourt is also solid with Rolando Blackman'and Brad Davis, plus Kelvin Ransey , Elston Turner, and Jim Spanarkel.

While Dallas i h O/O / never going to be more than a .500 team with Pat Cummings (a converted forward) at center, Cummings is an extremely smart basketball player who works as hard as a coal miner. When it comes to hustle and putting the team first, Pat is a John Havlicek.

Meanwhile if Motta doesn't think the Mavericks can draft or trade for the right center, and if they're not willing to pay big dollars for the little improvement a player like Caldwell Jones might provide, what will they do?

''I don't know,'' said the man who won a world championship with the Washington Bullets in 1977-78 and is the fifth winningest coach in NBA history.

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