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by Mike Fisher    Fri, Jan 13, 2006, 09:37 PM

      Mavs center Erick Dampier ended his workout Friday by telling potential interviewers, "I'm not talking to nobody,'' and then exiting the team practice court by climbing up the stairs.
      Up the stairs -- and down in the rotation?
      There was no official announcement Friday of a change in the starting lineup, a move that would elevate DeSagana Diop and alter the role of Dampier, a full-time starter in all but three games during his two seasons in Dallas. But a bug was put in our ear early in the day that Diop was getting work with the first team during a noontime practice. Later, our friend Derek Harper, the former Mavs great now a part of the broadcast team, whispered to us that he could "feel a change coming one of these days'' regarding Damp's role. And finally, during a group media session with Jason Terry, Harp tossed the issue out there, asking JET if he thought the team would be better off with Damp out of the starting lineup.
      Terry first answered generically ("Hey, whatever works!'') and then answered hypothetically. But as the visit continued, Terry spoke more and more as if the promotion of Diop was a reality.
      "We'll see what (Diop) does when he's in the lineup,'' Terry said.
      Dampier reads the papers. He undoubtedly noticed the Dallas Morning News items -- two of them! -- that dissed him on Friday. One was a news story by Eddie Sefko that detailed Dampier's failings in the Wednesday loss at the Knicks. That story pointed out accurately that the Mavs are "12-3 when Dampier gets at least four offensive rebounds'' adding that "Dampier being active is key to the Mavericks winning games.''
      Terry touched on that same theme Friday when he said, "When Damp plays well, when our big guys play well, we're usually undefeated.''
      Ah, but fellas, it's more complicated than that.
      Using the above logic, the Mavs lose when Damp doesn't contribute, right? Not so fast: In Dallas' 10 defeats, Dampier is averaging 6.8 rebounds and 6.5 points per game. Now, that's not world-beater stuff -- but it's just as good as what Damp does in wins AND losses, when he averages 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 points.
      He is justifiably one of the scapegoats for Wednesday's 117-115 OT loss in New York, where the Mavs allowed the Knicks 28 offensive rebounds. Coach Avery Johnson was uncomplimentary toward his friend Damp after that game, and on Friday said again, "I love my team. (But) they have to be accountable 1-through-12. We discussed it today. This goes all the way back to training camp, back to what each guy committed to do.''
      Dampier's role as whipping post may not be completely fair; underperforming while working with a $70-mil contract may not make a guy deserving of the shot Sefko took elsewhere at him in the News. The paper has an online blog, and a Sefko post made it from the blog into the printed edition Friday. It reads: "If Dirk Nowitzki is the heart of the team, Jason Terry the soul and Josh Howard the guts, Dampier is clearly the appendix. It serves no purpose and you can live without it.''
      No, we might not be in the mood to chit-chat with the media after that dig, either.
      Meanwhile, Diop has yet to establish he's truly a ready-for-prime-time player. The former Cleveland lottery pick, in his first season with the Mavs, has offered some terrific moments through 36 games. In just 17 minutes, he gives Dallas 4.5 rebounds and 2 blocks to go with 2 points per game. Nor has Keith Van Horn earned more time with his 2006 performance, though that might be part of the change at center, too. KVH is not a natural center, though. Unlike natural center Dampier, who is at best stoic, the 7-0 Diop is more active, more energetic, more playful.
      Consider this scene: End of practice. Dirk Nowitzki is leaving the floor. Still on the court -- sitting on the floor in a half-circle -- are Diop (from Senegal) and D.J. Mbenga (from the Congo) and assistant coach Paul Mokeski (from These United States). Dirk barks out, "Hey, Paul! Paul! What are you doin' over there, conducting an English class?''
      DeSagana Diop -- maybe with another reason to be upbeat -- laughed and laughed.
      Erick Dampier -- in no joking mood -- was already up the stairs and out of the gym.

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