The Revolving Door

Posted by Brian Rubaie on January 23, 2013 under Commentary, Roster Moves | 8 Comments to Read


“The only constant is change.” – Heraclitus

Derek Fisher’s departure created a void which the Mavericks unsurprisingly filled with a veteran journeyman: the 37-year-old Mike James. James played well enough to earn a second 10-day contract, but Dallas must decide by Sunday whether the player Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas labeled a “poor man’s Derek Fisher” will remain with the team for the rest of the season.

It’s unclear whether Dallas plans to retain James, but Rick Carlisle clearly trusts him at the end of games, to the point of keeping him on the floor to finish several close contests while starter Darren Collison warms the bench. Carlisle’s short leash with Collison is evident in his stated reasoning for opting to go with James down the stretch against Houston, as he told our own Bryan Gutierrez that “(Jeremy) Lin just walked right in there twice in a row on Collison. The physical size with Darren is what is tough for him. We needed a stronger guy in there.” Carlisle continued that James offers “experience, some physical strength and some toughness” before concluding simply: “I like him. I really do.” As inelegant as James’ play sometimes appears, the Mavericks are 5-1 in games where James has been on the floor.

All of that said, it would ultimately be best for the Mavericks to part ways with James, even in spite of Carlisle’s praise and the team’s recently impressive performance. While physically stronger than Collison, James is several steps slower and a much worse shooter and distributor. James’ moments of great play are outnumbered by mind-boggling inconsistency.  Collison’s play has improved dramatically of late but he needs to receive consistent and consequential minutes to continue his improvement. Carlisle’s general preference for veteran guards shouldn’t mislead him into opting to keep James.

The comparison between James and Collison over the past few games is told in part by a tale of two critical plays: James’ ill-advised heave in the overtime loss to Oklahoma City and Collison’s excellent corner three to help secure a victory late against the Orlando Magic. In the final possession of overtime, Oklahoma City made a critical adjustment by doing something they hadn’t all game: switching on the screen. James didn’t look much like a composed veteran, electing to launch an ugly, off-balanced three-point try instead of taking the slow-footed Kendrick Perkins to the basket. Dallas fans and Mark Cuban shook their heads, ESPN analyst Matt Mosley  called it “awful,” ESPN Dallas writer Jean-Jacques Taylor remarked that James “lost his mind,” and our own Kirk Henderson openly wondered why James was left in the game instead of Collison. In contrast, Collison helped to counter a long offensive drought for Dallas in a crucial game against the Orlando Magic by calmly draining a critical three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining.

Of course, a few late plays can only tell us so much. The more compelling evidence for releasing James is that Collison has vastly outperformed him in nearly every important metric available.  Player-Efficiency-Rating (PER), a measure of general efficiency and production, rates Collison at 16.4 (above the average rate of 15.0) and James at 2.9, a mark far lower than every Maverick except Eddy Curry. Effective field goal percentage, a measure which factors in the value of three-point shooting, shows Collison shooting at a 51.5% clip, while James’ 35.8% mark is quite comfortably the team’s lowest. Collison’s assist percentage is over 10% higher and his offensive rating is an eye-popping 33 points higher. James’ size hasn’t translated to an advantage in Defensive Rating, with Collison yielding four fewer points per 100 possessions than James.

Even the single area where James bests Collison — turnover percentage — is misleading. Collison’s ability to avoid turnovers has dramatically improved as of late, and Collison’s turnovers often come from aggressively attacking the basket to seek high-percentage looks or earn a double-team. These are precisely the types of plays that Dallas needs in moments like the aforementioned last overtime play against the Thunder. Mike James’ turnovers, while less frequent, are more unsightly, including an errant pass earlier in the Oklahoma City overtime that ended up somewhere in the deepest rows of the stands after traveling somewhere through the Earth’s mesophere.

James’ presence on the roster and his aforementioned usage late in games stunts Collison’s development. Unlike Fisher’s signing, it is extremely difficult to rationalize James’ roster selection as a teaching tool for Collison.  Collison would learn much more quickly and directly from committing his own errors than watching James make the same costly mistakes in pivotal moments. Additionally, Collison makes the sorts of mistakes (errant passes, occasional missed defensive rotations, etc.) that are ultimately characteristic of young players, and thus the only real cure is a forgiving margin for error and more creative solutions from the coach. Collison has dealt with Carlisle’s creativity remarkably well, responding in a much more encouraging way than most young point guards would to losing his starting role and fourth quarter minutes to two formerly unemployed veteran point guards. His emotional maturity has been impressive and, coupled with a maturing game, demands a greater role for him late in close contests.

Hard work and determination made James’ second ten-day contract well-earned but the Mavericks would be ill-advised to use a permanent roster spot to keep him. Collison is a far superior shooter and distributor and has worked to overcome his early-season turnover problems and the temptation to succumb to “hero ball.”  Collison has the skill, composure and athleticism to close for Dallas and should make the decision to amicably part ways with James an easy one for Dallas.

Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.

  • Sam Nabors

    Good article and good analysis and definitely a great argument for having Collison close out games, but you’re missing a big part of why James is here, the play of Roddy Beaubois and Dominique Jones at the back up point guard spot. Clearly Carlisle didn’t trust those guys when Fisher was brought in and he doesn’t trust those guys now considering James gets all of the back up PG minutes.

    • I r f a n _ B a i g

      I agree with Sam. Mike James is a backup PG and shouldn’t be treated as anything more. DoJo is okay and Roddy B’s time in the big D is up, but we need a strong backup PG position, and someone physical preferably.

      Unless we’re obtaining a better player by Feb 21, I think Mike James can be retained as a bench player, 15-20 minutes a night tops.

      • Brian Rubaie

        Sam and Irfan, you both make great points. Thanks for raising this discussion and getting the ball rolling!

        I agree with big parts of what has been said. Irfan is correct that the Mavs lack another point guard that rivals James’ physical strength and his proposal to limit James’ minutes/role instead of cutting him is sensible. Sam is absolutely right that Carlisle doesn’t trust Roddy or DoJo.

        That last point is why I focused so heavily on Collison v. James instead of James v. DoJo/Roddy. James is good enough (in Carlisle’s eyes) to take away Collison’s minutes. That trust inspires Carlisle to go with James at the wrong moments (to close games) and far too often writ large. In the six games since James has arrived, Collison has averaged 31.5 minutes/game. In the six games before James arrived that number was 36. Those 4.5 extra minutes of Collison are worth more to the Mavericks than what James brings to the table over DoJo and Roddy.

        I also think the player development point applies (to a lesser degree) to DoJo and Roddy. James’ roster spot not only makes it easier to bench Collison, it takes away playing time and coaching time from DoJo and Roddy. Neither has James’ size but I trust both of them more distributing the ball or slashing to the hoop than I trust James, whose physical skills can only atrophy as the additional airline miles are piled on to his 37 years of human miles over the course of a full season.

        Thanks for the comments and would love to continue to discuss. I’m excited to see what the Mavericks eventually do and if they do sign James then I hope I’m wrong about everything I wrote above!

  • Zenas

    I’d like to raise a case though. Carlisle’s decision regarding James and Collison is more about the franchise’s future plan. They believe that they can still contend this year so what they want right now is to win games. You raise the point about Collison’s growth but I just don’t see Dallas having a long-term plan for him, so why would they focus on letting Collison grow and risking loses with his inconsistent play?

    Carlisle wants a steady hand on the wheel, and Collison isn’t the type of player he needs. Mavs are bunch of old dudes and Carlisle wouldn’t want them running up and down the court because a young guard thought he can play well enough to do what he wants.

    • Brian Rubaie

      I agree with you that the team should prioritize winning games over developing Collison but I disagree that James helps the team perform more effectively; Collison outperforms him, sometimes dramatically, in several different facets of the game.

      The take-away from Collison’s development is not that Dallas should sacrifice wins to develop him, but instead that his skills, particularly his ball control/passing/consistency, are already developing rapidly, and those represent the only areas where James outperforms him. Collison does move much more quickly than James but Dallas plays well at a fast pace, recording a high offensive rating despite their age. Their initial struggles playing at a fast pace were largely due to Dirk’s recovery.

      I love this discussion! Thanks for reading and commenting, I hope to continue this discussion and/or have other good ones in the future.

      • Denz

        Collison is clearly the better player, skill-wise. As you said yourself, he’s faster which makes him better in a fast-paced offense, which by the way, he looks really good in. In a slowed half-court set, which is typical of end-games I don’t see him taking advantage of his strengths to be effective.

        Anyway, the more influential dynamic is the fact that Carlisle doesn’t seem to connect well with Collison. In my experience with coaching, you want the guy who understands what you’re trying to do. Gifted as he is, Collison seems to lack the maturity that Carlisle is looking for.

        • Brian Rubaie

          Great argument Denz! Your point about the game slowing down to half-court sets at game’s end is one a wise coach would make. I still like Collison more than James in the half-court because of Collison’s: dynamic passing, ability to adapt/improvise when the play breaks down, ability to set up plays early in the shot clock, heightened ability to roll off screens, etc. That being said, you’re certainly right to note that Collison’s speed isn’t usually as useful to close games as to start them.

          You are also right that there is just something off in the relationship between Collison and Carlisle. Collison has had to adapt to constantly changing conditions and, unsurprisingly, has let Carlisle down a few times. Collison’s reaction to all of this showed me that he’s mature and serious about improving but he does clearly lack some of the veteran resolve that James possesses.

          Very grateful for all the good comments and discussion!

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